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August 31, 2009

Book Report

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Folks who have been 2Blowhards readers for more than a year might remember that I have been thinking about writing a well-illustrated book dealing with painters who were bypassed by art history -- many of whom I've been featuring here. (My most recent (I think) posting about the proposed book is here.)

I was about to send a package of material (prospectus, contents, CV, a couple of sample chapters) to publishers last fall. Then the current economic crisis hit. I thought the uncertainty of the times would make publishers more leery than usual about accepting new works, so decided to hold off until things settled down.

And, by golly, things have settled down to the point where the shape of the economy over the next year or so is fairly clear. It's not a pretty sight. But it's better than things seemed last October and, as noted, it's fairly clear.

I might as well get the process started. Below are extracts from the "Subject" section of the three-page prospectus I'm still fiddling with. I hope it will give you a picture of what I'm up to in this project. Critiques and suggestions would be helpful.

There seems to be a hole in mainstream histories of painting starting at the point where Impressionism entered the scene. Such histories usually focus on the various modernist movements beginning with Impressionism and continuing through (among others) Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art and so on up to today’s newest artistic thing.

And the painters who didn’t participate in any of these schools? They are seldom worthy of mention unless they are so famous they can’t be ignored: think Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Also sometimes included might be painters such as John Singer Sargent, Joachim Sorolla and J.W. Waterhouse whose reputations have been on the rise for some time now. Perhaps the same could be said for non-modernist schools such as California plein-air painters active 1900-30.

Indeed, there are many books about individual non-modernist painters and non-modernist painters grouped by geography and, sometimes, style. But apparently no one has tried to present a general history of non-modernist painting from 1870 to the present in book form.

That is the task of this proposed book.

After a few paragraphs outlining the history of modernism and non-modenrist reaction to it, I conclude my discussion of the book's subject as follows:

The book proposed here is intended to provide coverage of many of the excellent artists who, for various reasons, failed to embrace modernism. The contexts mentioned in the preceding paragraphs form the framework for the presentation.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because there is a good chance that modernism in its various guises lacks staying power. Arguments are presented in the enclosed draft of Chapter 1. But the gist is that modernism has strayed so far from basic human experience that future generations will not easily relate to it, unlike the case of masters such as Rembrandt and Velázquez whose work can be grasped even though it was created centuries ago.

If modernism fizzles, what might replace it? It’s likely that the work of painters presented in this book will provide clues.

In the past, a number of readers offered helpful suggestions. To keep this posting from getting too long, I'll mention only Gerard Vanderleun, who blogs here. He was kind enough to meet me at a Top Pot for coffee last year and tried to clue me in regarding all those pesky details about getting published: sobering stuff.

Here are some issues I'd appreciate comments on:

  • One section of the prospectus deals with sales potential. All I could say was "This writer does not have sales information on art books. As a guess, the proposed book should sell at least as well as museum catalogs for non-Impressionist 19th century painters and movements, and might do even better if properly promoted."

    Am I wrong? What more might be said that would be realistic, yet wouldn't be a turn-off?

  • Another section dealt with the audience for the book. The best I could come up with was art buffs, especially those interested in art history. I mentioned that there might be a few sales to students taking art history classes. Are there any other target groups?

  • Vanderleun raised the topic of literary agents. The proposed book edges towards the academic side of non-fiction. How useful might an agent be for this kind of venture? Are there agents who specialize in arts-related books? And who might they be? I studied the Web site of the Association of Authors Representative and noted a few possibilities, but are there others?

I think I'll give Yale University Press a head-start before flooding the art publishing field. Yale does lots of art books, though many might be subsidized because they are exhibition catalogs. Still, YUP strikes me as being the top prospect.

Thank you very much for your help.



posted by Donald at August 31, 2009


The market section has to be stronger and more specific. Vagaries won't sell anyone. Can you at least find some other books that remain in print that cover a single arist's work who would be part of your group? Then you can write, "My book will appeal readers of books A, B, and C, who are all artists covered in my book."

The premise is a tough sell to begin with. These are all obscure, somewhat forgotten or overlooked artists. How many people besides yourself would recognize their names?

Believe me, I empathize with you. I have my enthusiasms too, like my interest in writers like Philip Wylie, but commercially, it's a non-starter.

I'd be happy to commiserate with you privately and share my experiences.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 31, 2009 8:36 PM

Donald, the year you mentioned, 1870, could well be a good starting point. It seems that, after the Franco-Prussian war, there was a period where art really hit the streets, and it was most evident in France. Less revolutionary or imperial or Bourbon posturing, less group-think. Art was heading to the masses, and much of the best art: freed-up, non-school plein air and cafe painting such as one might see in the Musee Carnavalet; wrought iron and those countless six story "immeubles", varied like snowflakes, that give Paris its look, far more than what came before or after; and the works of Maupassant, where the greatest of styles was placed at the service of short, digestible fiction for mass publication.

You can find echoes of this artistic detente right round Euro culture in that period. Even in Australia, though we refer to our Heidelberg school as "Impressionist", the aim was a relaxed realism, rather than experimentation and shock-the-bourgeois.

The elites have been trying to close ranks ever since. Hence "Modernism". Hence the deliberate elevation of Van Gogh, and cultivation of the artist-as-alienated-sicko thesis. Curiously, it is the cultural left that has had most difficulty understanding that we have indeed entered the Age of the Masses. That is a very large and very uncomfortable fact for us all; and it makes Modernism, for all its merits, a reactionary force.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 31, 2009 8:38 PM

One thing that would give sales a boost is if college art history classes added the book as required reading. I don't know how this could be brought about - perhaps some means of promoting it at professional conferences?

Posted by: Peter on August 31, 2009 11:08 PM

Donald, you are perfectly situated to do some research with one of the major academic publishers of art books, none other than the U Dub. I'd find someone who seems knowledgable and take them for a looooooong lunch.

Art is about money. That's the beginning and the end.

However, these artists and their work is highly engaging. The other "underfoot" source you've got is a major producer of art prints for popular markets -- not the Pollock/Picasso folks, and not quite the cowboy or military print market. You might easily draw them into some kind of arrangement. I can't remember their name this evening -- right there in Kirkland, near the central business hub.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: mary scriver on August 31, 2009 11:47 PM

You would be better served to classify some of these artists into categories that would appeal to people in that field today

Portrait artists
Classical Realism (Salon painters)
Golden Age Illustrators
Landscape painters

Etc. There is strong interest art-wise in those fields today. You could advertise to groups like ARC and Plein air painting associations.

Abrams is another really good art book publisher. Maybe Watson-Guptill, but I don't know how viable they are. Abrams still puts out a lot of titles.

Good luck Donald, and thanks for all your great posts on this subject!

Posted by: BTM on September 1, 2009 9:18 AM

I live in California. I love the state and couple times I have tried to find a comprehensive art history book of artists and artistic movements from the past until more contemporary times. Nothing... Probably, the hardest part would be selection of contemporary art. To find and separate gems in the sea of contemporary art junk, someone needs hundreds of hours of difficult research, ability to judge timeless art vs fashionable trends etc. I still hold hopes that one day some brave soul will undertake the task of California Art in the past and present.

Posted by: Mike Muchecki on September 1, 2009 12:04 PM

A good intro to CA art from WWII to 1970:

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2009 12:46 PM

Thanks, I may try the book, I trust your judgment that is why I enjoy your blog. I hope Mr Plagens is down to earth in his choices. I have this problem of trusting "critic's eye," where the game of words overwhelms visual presence of the art object and it is hard reconcile, for me, what I read and what I see at the same time. Good art critic or historian approaches i.e. painting directly for what visually it is, not artist's intentions, art theories etc.
Anyway, thanks for suggestion.

Posted by: Mike Muchecki on September 1, 2009 2:30 PM

Your idea is truly cutting edge. I would only add that there are many ateliers (such as Grand Central Academy of Art) that may be looking for such a book, especially if they should start an art history component to their program.

Posted by: cstj on September 1, 2009 2:32 PM

"the excellent artists who, for various reasons, failed to embrace modernism."

I would write "did not embrace modernism". That was a choice, not a failure. I'd also drop "for various reasons".

Or you might write:

....coverage of the great modern-era artists who were not modernists.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 1, 2009 11:19 PM

Actually, the more important point made by Gould in The Mismeasure of Man is that there is no evidence that "intelligence" is a quantity or concept that can be measured.

Since this was Gould's more important point, I'm not surprised that The American Conservative decided to sidestep it.

Posted by: Marik on September 2, 2009 1:08 AM

Marik, if that was Gould's major point, then Mismeasure had no major point. Gould simply ignored all the interlocking evidence that intelligence can be measured (or distorted it in a consciously misleading manner).

Gould's meretricious work of agit-prop has been doing damage for more than thirty years now. It's astonishing to me that such a piece of deceitful manipulative ideologically driven BS (in the technical sense of "BS" - H. Frank) is still being quoted approvingly as having anything to contribute to discussions of IQ.

Wait! What am I saying? Of course it has something to contribute! The ability to shape the discussion in an utterly misleading way! What could I have been thinking?


The AC article didn't need to sidestep Mismeasure, any more than an Olympic athlete needs to "sidestep" Triumph of the Will.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 2, 2009 1:05 PM

> no evidence that "intelligence" is a quantity or concept that can be measured

One can turn almost anything into a philosophical morass. There is nothing notable about the fact that one can do the same with intelligence/IQ. Being an obscurantist is not something to be proud of.

You get clean, resolvable questions when you objectify and measure. Does IQ correlate with

1. economic performance (job performance)?
2. military performance?
3. scientific achievement?
4. artistic achievement?
5. how smart people seem to randomly selected observers?

The answer is yes, to all five.

Those five aspects are the main reasons to be interested in intelligence/IQ. No doubt, other aspects of intelligence exist, but in sum such aspects are less interesting than 1 thru 5 above.

Posted by: blue anonymous on September 2, 2009 4:14 PM

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