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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pre-Revolutionary Russian Art and Culture
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I finally got around to buying a book I've had my eye on for several months. "Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life & Culture" by John E. Bowlt It was published by The Vendome Press which is responsible for a similar book about Vienna that I had reservatons about, and another, "The Society Portrait," that I realy liked. I finally decided to buy it because it was richly illustrated and covered a period of art that interests me greatly: the transition to modernism. For example, below is an image of a painting shown in the book, and it's by an artist I wasn't aware of. "Pool" by Viktor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905) - 1902 Tempera on canvas. Alternate English title: "The Reservoir." I'm about halfway through reading the book's text and thus far my reaction is mixed. It's useful when it focuses on paintings, sculptures and architectural examples. For example, I found it helpful to read the suggestion that the dominant school of painting during that period was Symbolism. I haven't made up my mind that Bowlt's assessment is correct; I need to do some research of my own before I accept it. The idea is definitely food for thought even though I wonder if the writer might have stacked the deck by including a possibly disproportionate number of works by Mikhail Vrubel, a Symbolist to the hilt, who I wrote about here. He also mentions that Russian arts lagged behind trends and fads of countries farther west, a reasonable assumption. And valid (for some artists, anyway) is his contention that what might be termed the weight and pervasiveness of historical Russian culture affected how those westerly fashions were manifested by Russian hands. My problem with Bowlt is that he falls into what I consider the trap of trying too hard to link artists and works of art to contemporaneous events and phenomena. Of course an artist is influenced by the world around him. But it's likely that he's also influenced by past art if he has at all studied his craft. Then there's the matter of the artist's temperament and personality, hugely important for his creations. Here, from the the first page (99) of the chapter "The Shock of the New" is the sort of writing that annoys me: The consequent and fundamental dichotomy between the vestiges of a patriarchal social order and the semaphores of a new modus vivendi, between country and town, stasis and action, aristocracy and democracy, released an energy and dynamism which, in turn, guided many of the explorations and discoveries of the Russian Silver Age. Aside perhaps from the bits about aristocracy and the specific mention of Russia, this sentence might have been applied to almost any Western society at virtually any time between 1750 and 1950. Which means it is useless. I should mention that I might never have purchased the book if I hadn't visited Russia. I have walked the streets of St. Petersburg and, to my... posted by Donald at October 17, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments

Friday, October 16, 2009

Replacing California
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recently wrote that California's time as national lodestar might have passed. If that assessment is correct, then what areas might replace California as America's goto place (figuratively and maybe even literally)? Perhaps there's no single replacement area. As observers such as Terry Teachout have been noting, culture in the USA is becoming increasingly decentralized. (It's possible that American culture was never as centralized as it might have retrospectively seemed. For example, during the first third or so of the 20th century there were many "regional" novelists (Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Booth Tarkington and so forth), artists (Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton) and even radio networks (Yankee network, Don Lee network). This is an interesting topic we might revisit another time.) On the other hand, there are parts of the country that consistently tend to rate highly as places to live. One might think that such areas eventually would attract a "critical mass" of cultural and intellectual talent to create cultural vanguard locales. Examples that come to my mind are the Seattle and Portland areas on the west coast along with the Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Austin, Texas areas elsewhere. But I could be wrong. Any other suggestions? Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 16, 2009 | perma-link | (9) comments

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Back to the Salt Mine
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I retired three years ago. Washed my hands of it all. Focused on new activities. And now they want me back. It seems that because of drastic changes in the way the Census Bureau deals with measurements of population characteristics for smaller political units (switching from items on the census schedule to a large, continuous survey), organizations making population estimates are having to reconsider their methodologies. For some reason, the folks down the road in Olympia think I might be able to help. So I thought I'd give it a whirl. It's not a full-time gig; I'll be putting in a couple of months of consulting effort scattered between now and the end of May. It'll mean playing road warrior and occupying a cubicle when I'm on duty, but I don't think blogging here will be seriously affected. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 15, 2009 | perma-link | (1) comments

Hollywood Teeth: The Early Days
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the things I notice when looking at pre-1930 or thereabouts photos of movie actresses, chorus girls and others in the show biz beauty trade is that their teeth are normal. Not perfect, in other words. Here are some pictures I tracked down on the Web. They aren't the best examples, but will have to do for now. Gallery Marion Davies Nowadays best known for being William Randolph Hearst's squeeze, Davies was a fine comedic actress according to some observers. But we're interested in teeth. Hers don't present a solid-looking front (most apparent in the lower photo), and there seem to be some alignment irregularities (top photo). Vilma Banky Banky shows slight splaying along with some irregularity. Later photos of these actresses suggest that cosmetic dental work was done, a Hollywood studio practice common by the 1930s. Some other images I came across on Google were publicity photos where the teeth seemed to be retouched to look whiter and more regular. Apparently, once the studio system was firmly in place and stars were keys to business success, the companies strove to enhance or protect their investments. This "research" of mine was made more difficult because most publicity photo poses from the 20s stressed glamour, and glamour normally requires closed lips, not a flashy smile. Or possibly the mouths were closed because the teeth were substandard. In any case, toothy pictures were hard to find, especially where the teeth weren't up to par. Toothy smiles are largely absent from portrait and other paintings before the age of publicity. Again, in some cases, this fortuitously eliminated the need to show bad or even normal teeth. A case in point is Napoleon's Empress Josephine who is known to have had unattractive teeth (though I've never read exactly what her problems were). Full disclosure: I never had orthodontia, so my top front teeth are splayed (think David Letterman or 1960s British comic actor Terry-Thomas). Most of my other teeth aren't impressive either. Too bad I never worked for MGM. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 15, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Car Mag Hot Car Covers
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I see this almost all the time at news stands: General-interest car magazines with expensive, hot cars on their covers. The current (November 2009) covers of those magazines are: Motor Trend -- Corvette; Road & Track -- Lamborghini; Car and Driver -- Corvette and Ford Shelby GT500; and Automobile -- the forthcoming $200-300K McLaren. Conclusion: Magazine editors almost certainly do it because sales data indicate that issues featuring photos of high-performance automobiles on the cover make for higher news stand sales than issues whose covers feature lesser cars. Follow-up question: Why do car magazine covers with those high-performance autos have such appeal when most readers of such magazines cannot in their wildest dreams afford to buy such cars? I can't readily speak for myself on this crucial matter because I tend to subscribe to car mags rather than buying them at the news stand. Cover subjects aren't normally a factor for me. On the other hand, when I started buying (and later subscribing to) car magazines as a teenager, I couldn't afford to buy a new car of any kind. To a degree this parallels the question posed above regarding ends and means. But my motive for buying those magazines was that I was simply a car fan and wanted to stay current with the automotive scene. I still do, but with much less intensity. My lack of intensity has reached the point where those fancy, expensive cars featured on covers barely interest me at all. What interest I have has to be with styling and design matters and not whether the car can accelerate from 0 to 60 in less than four seconds, can take a corner while maintaining a lateral force exceeding one gravity or costs more than $250,000. That said, what other reasons are there for buying a car magazine at a news stand when its cover features a flashy car? One possible motivation is to be au courant regarding cars to maintain credibility with other guys once a bull session starts; same thing applies with regard to baseball, football and other sports. Another motivation is aspirational; some day fame and fortune could strike, so be prepared! One more might have to do with what might be called "realistic fantasizing" -- yearning for what one knows full well is unobtainable. It can be easy to snicker, but all of the above reasons represent normal aspects of human psychology. I might have written something similar about women who buy magazines about movie stars or royalty. Or men purchasing issues of Playboy to ogle centerfold pictures of women they have no realistic chance of possessing. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at October 14, 2009 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Paul Bingham on Alternative Airplay
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Today's guest post is by long-time reader Paul Bingham, who highlights an ignored corner of the music scene. * * * * * "Music hasn’t been this cool since the ‘70s," is the constant refrain one hears from SWPL [Stuff White People Like] who weren’t actually around then. Of course they’re not talking about what one hears on the radio. It’s the Indie Artists writing and performing what Gram Parsons called "Cosmic American Music." Musicians who are heroin thin, with a thrift store chic; children of ‘90s, raised on rap, punk and grunge who cried when Kurt Cobain’s brains went A.W.O.L. The materialism of the ‘80s and ‘90s was as much of a creative outlet for them, as extreme poverty was for their idols. Children of single parents, who lived through broken homes and those insensate, educational facilities, known as public schools, found that was possible to live relatively well in a psychological squalor which would be the creative fuel for their works. "Alternative" means unlimited by genre. Recently, The Fine Print, an album by, the Drive by Truckers, which describes itself as a "collection of oddities and rarities," outsold pop-country starlet Taylor Swift’s latest release. Anomalous, because the Drive by Truckers are not a country band. Their work runs the gamut from their debut cowpunk album, Gangstabilly, to their epic double-album Southern Rock Opera, a chronicle of the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, to serving consecutively as the backing band for soul legends Bettey Lavette and Booker T. But despite a heavy touring schedule, best-selling albums, and 4-star reviews from Rolling Stone, the Truckers, have never charted a successful single, or received any significant airplay. Money not merit is what gets songs in rotation. Radio stations, owned by conglamorates, play music to sell advertising. Of course record labels are interested in ‘what the public wants.’ The identity of this public is anyone’s guess, but fortunately, the record companies know exactly what it doesn’t want—spontaneity and originality. Producers have any number of tricks in their bag to make any artist sound “commercially viable.” An album can "sound derivative" or it can ‘display influences.’ Beauty, after all, is the eye of the beholder. Commercial viability means that an artist’s works must fit both a genre, and a demographic. A developed, polished sound, in the language of L.A. producers means that the music has been sufficiently tamed. To compensate for the loss of creative control, newly prominent artists are allowed to make pronouncements on politics and society from a brand new bully-pulpit. This, and the money usually makes it worth their while. For those artists who won’t compromise, and can’t sell records, with their faces, there’s Americana, a broad genre encompassing everything from the punk rock sensibilities of Jeff Tweedey and Ryan Adams, to Justin Townes Earle, whose recent "folk-pop" album, Midnight at the Movies, runs the gamut of what one might hear on the radio, in 1965. Hank Williams III often plays three sets... posted by Donald at October 13, 2009 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, October 12, 2009

WSJ Reviews Industrial Design Books
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I entered college as an Industrial Design major (later switching to Commercial Art), but don't follow the field especially closely. Its exciting days of legitimacy-seeking and eventual acceptance are long past. Even so, I was interested when I spied "The Shape of Things to Come," a book review article by David A. Price in the 9 October edition of The Wall Street Journal (a link is here). Price covers three books dealing with industrial design and product innovation. The first is by Tim Brown (the CEO of the IDEO firm) with the title "Change by Design". Among Price's comments are: Mr. Brown also argues for companies to become more designer-like by increasing their use of prototypes to test ideas. Prototypes, even quick-and-dirty ones, shed light on how a concept will meet real-world needs. He recounts IDEO going so far as to mock-up an entire hotel lobby and guest suite to help Marriott ponder the needs of extended-stay business travelers. Mr. Brown argues even more emphatically for the close observation of users in their natural habitats. Traditional market-research tools—focus groups, surveys -- rarely produce breakthrough findings, he claims. IDEO and others follow users around -- making video recordings of them as they go about their routines, recording conversations with them—to build an understanding of what they really need. Hate to mention it, but these practices are nearly as old as the industrial design hills. I happen to be re-reading industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss' classic book "Designing for People" (first published in 1955) and he deals with these very topics of prototyping and field research in chapters three and four. The second book reviewed is by Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog design (yes, that's "frog design" -- all lower case) whose book is "A Fine Line". The frog design firm is perhaps best known for its work for Apple and its design perfectionist leader Steve Jobs. Price dismisses much of the book as self-promotion, but allows that: Eventually, though, Mr. Esslinger sets out some provocative ideas. He thinks electronics products like mobile phones, cameras and medical sensors should have modular, open architectures -- like the cards that plug into desktop personal computers -- allowing customers to pick the sub-assemblies they need. Agreed, that is an interesting idea. My cell phone and digital camera each have scads of features I'll never use, a factor in complicating their operation. The third review deals with Roberto Verganti's "Design-Driven Innovation" . Roberto Verganti holds that product development should be grounded not in the data of survey-takers or the observations of anthropologists but in the judgment of executives. "We have experienced years of hype about user-centered design," he says. But breakthrough innovations, in Mr. Verganti's view, do not represent what customers knew they wanted. Rather, the most profitable innovations are those that create a radically new meaning for a product. ... Mr. Verganti suggests that companies form relationships with "interpreters" -- individuals and organizations looking at settings similar to the one... posted by Donald at October 12, 2009 | perma-link | (0) comments