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« Politics | Main | Fact for the Day »

September 02, 2008

Book Draft Snippet

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm still chipping away on that proposal for a book about non-Modenist painting since 1900. I have two sample chapters drafted and am working on a chapter that is intended to set the stage before dealing with the art I wish to highlight. I'm finding that this is akin to writing the state-of-things chapter of a Masters thesis or Ph.D. dissertation. Slow, nasty work; it's rather like trying to pull chickens' teeth.

At any rate, it finally seems to be shaping up so I'd thought I'd toss out a paragraph for you to ponder. No guarantee that it'll even be in the draft I mail to publishers; and if it's panned, I'll probably jerk it.

In preceding paragraphs I suggest that paintings with staying power are likely to be connected to life experiences common across centuries. I continue with ...

Now, I expect some readers to recoil in shock and accuse me of implying that for art to “last,” it must appeal to the lowest common denominator of emotion and taste. I made no such implication, but raise the matter of popularity at this point because it is one of those issues that is constantly present, yet seldom in the forefront of discussions about art. To condemn something for being popular is a form of elitism stemming from the belief that the very best art is a rare thing. So far, so good, regarding the art itself; excellent examples of anything are rare by definition because if they were not excellent they would be good, average or not good -- most things being near average. Where elitism goes wrong is when some elitists think that the same thing holds with regard to art appreciation and that it is they who know best and the other 90 percent or whatever share of the population does not and probably cannot properly appreciate art and whose preferences in art should be dismissed as naïve or even boorish. While it is true that some people put more effort in appreciating art than others, it does not follow that the heavy appreciators necessarily have the best taste; it is possible that they have gotten themselves so wrapped up in theories and wanting to be part of an “in-group” that the art they are supposedly appreciating becomes a secondary matter.

I hope to launch the proposal after I get back from a trip to Boston, Québec, etc. Let me thank vanderleun for some thought-provoking tips regarding the publishing industry. But if I screw this up, it it'll be my fault, not his.



posted by Donald at September 2, 2008



The book's proposed content is so enticing that I'm thinking you could skip most of the arguments. By referring to the elites and in-groups, are you, to some extent, drawing battle-lines? On a private level, I'm a sarcastic Mick, but, having written publicity for small businesses, I've learnt to be punchy without punching anybody in particular. My own approach would be to avoid abstractions, get hold of a couple of the art-works the book is about, hold them in very sharp focus, and move outward from there. References to mainstream modernism would be kept droll and infrequent, lest the book be seen as largely reactive.

What I'm saying is: tell a story. Even if I was selling a bar of soap, I'd tell a story and populate it with characters...and probably do little else. (Perhaps you've already done that in the chapters previous to the quoted text.)

Of course, I know little of publishing and don't expect you to take my opinion too seriously. The reason I've intruded here is that, like other regular readers, I'm in awe of your genuine critical faculty, your knack for surprise...and your calm defiance. Just can't wait to see this project going forward!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 2, 2008 8:49 PM

I'm with Robert Townshend. There are enough jabs about Modernism and elitism here that I'm ready to start offering point by point rebuttals. Either you're writing a book highlighting non-Modernist painters you love and believe in or you're going to offer an attack on Modernism. Since I very much like the proposal of a book highlighting non-Modernist painting and think it would provide a useful and interesting addition to the books on XX C. painting, I hope you head in that direction. If you want to offer an argument against Modernism this does not seem like you're off to the best start.

Posted by: Chris White on September 2, 2008 10:06 PM

I want to read this book, that's for sure. I'll also pitch in to a fund to distribute copies of this book free to all U.S. art school students.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 3, 2008 1:33 AM

Yes, Donald, this is such a worthwhile project, and you are SO the right guy to do it.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 3, 2008 2:08 AM

All -- The (current) plan is to compare what leading Modernists were painting in various periods (1900-20, 1920-45, 1945-60, etc.) and present some works by other artists who in some cases ignored and in other cases bought into the modernist agenda to varying degrees. This works especially well for 1920-45 when Modernism was becoming the "way to go" while at the same time, Modernists and kinda-maybe-wannabes weren't quite sure what they were doing.

So to set the stage, I think I need to make a plausible case that Modernism might lack staying power. I don't say it's bad; I assert that it's either hard to relate to, too era-dependent or some of each.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 3, 2008 9:31 AM

Since you're more or less asking the question: what gives paintings, specifically realist paintings, staying power? my answer would be, in a word, drama.

The first great realist, Giotto, had it in spades. Masaccio's Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. God's finger transmitting life to Adam in Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling. The drama of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro. Skipping two hundred years, Goya's 2nd of May. In American painting, Hopper's Nighthawks.

There are a whole slew of painters whose work is not particularly dramatic: Raphael, Velazquez for the mostpart, Corot. They tend to be painter's painters.

But the work that really grips most laymen, that is in the most literal sense memorable, is dramatic.

Posted by: ricpic on September 3, 2008 10:13 AM

So Donald, am I to understand that you'll be comparing non-Modernist art that has survived to the work of the Modernists of the era who haven't passed the test of time, but who might have been the going thing in their day? I'm assuming this because those Mods whose rep is still stellar to nova-ish--Picasso, those kind of guys--are the Mods with staying power?

Posted by: PatrickH on September 3, 2008 10:22 AM

Patrick -- I'm suggesting that modernist painting in general, because of its inherent qualities has a lesser likelihood of long-term survival than certain other forms. I do point to a few examples. Peter Blume's Imperial City was a surrealized political work that lacks staying power because it is too topical -- the subject being Mussolini, who is fading into history. I also note Picasso's Guernica which is loaded with personal symbolism and an obscure event (that he didn't really portray) that will likely mystify most viewers a century from now. Compare these to a Rembrandt portrait -- the artistry is so good that the identity of the subject does not matter. We can relate to Rembrandt's human beings. Will future generations relate to Picasso's cartoons?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 3, 2008 10:49 AM

I agree with the first two comments. Tell a compelling story with lots of illustrations. Let the story make your point about elitism. Show, don't tell. Get the abstract argument with the elitists in your head out of there and focus on your own gut impressions of paintings.

Also, I strongly suggest you check out Peter Scheldahl's new book "Seeing Past the Gorgons", which takes on some of these same themes. Here's a review from the Nation, check it out:

Posted by: MQ on September 5, 2008 12:59 PM

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