Brain Pickings

Oblique Strategies: Brian Eno’s Prompts for Overcoming Creative Block, Inspired by John Cage

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“If a thing can be said, it can be said simply.”

“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences,” ambient music pioneer Brian Eno wrote in his diary. It is precisely this ethos that explains Eno’s medium-blind, experience-centric creative impulse underpinning the visual arts career that he undertook in the 1960s, which developed in tandem with his growth as a musician. That is precisely what Christopher Scoates, director of the University Art Museum at California State University, explores with unprecedented depth and dimension in Brian Eno: Visual Music (public library) — a magnificent monograph spanning more than four decades of Eno’s music projects and museum and gallery installations, contextualized amidst a wealth of exhibition notes, sketchbook pages, and other never-before-revealed archival materials.

Brian Eno lecturing at the MoMA, 1990.

In a 2005 interview for the British Arts Council, Eno came to compare his work to that of John Cage:

John Cage … made a choice at a certain point: he chose not to interfere with the music content anymore. But the approach I have chosen was different from his. I don’t reject interference; I choose to interfere and guide. . . . The music systems designed by Cage are choice-free, he doesn’t filter what comes out of his mind; people have to accept them passively. But my approach is, although I don’t interfere with the completion of a system, if the end result is not good, I’ll ditch it and do something else. This is a fundamental difference between Cage and me. If you consider yourself to be an experimental musician, you’ll have to accept that some of your experiments will fail. Though the failed works might be interesting too, they are not works that you would choose to share with other people or publish.

Indeed, one of Eno’s most interesting projects is a mid-1970s collaboration with the German composer Peter Schmidt, who had just finished a set of 64 drawings based on the I Ching — the same ancient Chinese text that so inspired Cage. Eno and Schmidt created a series of art instructions — an underappreciated art genre unto itself — titled Oblique Strategies. The project consisted of a set of 115 white cards with simple black text in a deck subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. Though a conceptual art project, the cards were essentially a practical tool for generating ideas, breaking through creative block, and breaking free of stale thought patterns.

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno even employed the cards while producing David Bowie’s iconic 1977 album Heroes, using Oblique Strategies on the song “Sense of Doubt.”

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno first confronted this interweaving of music and visual art in his formal arts education, amidst the groundswell of the avant-garde and the Fluxus movement with its bold proclamation that “anything can be art and anyone can do it.” He empathically embraced this inclusive model of creativity in defiance to the specializations and constraints of the traditional art world, asserting:

Art schools manage to balance themselves on the fence between telling you what to do step by step, and leaving you free to do what you want. Their orientation is basically towards the production of specialists, and towards the provision of ambitions, of goals, and identities. The assumption of the correct identity — painter, sculptor — fattens you up for the market. The identity becomes a straightjacket; it becomes progressively more dangerous to step outside of it.

In the foreword, legendary British artist, theorist, and cybernetics pioneer Roy Ascott, who was once Eno’s teacher, attempts to map where Eno belongs in the ecosystem of art:

Any attempt to locate Brian Eno’s work within an historical framework calls for a triple triangulation, whose trig points in the English tradition would seem to be Turner/Elgar/Blake; in Europe, Matisse/Satie/ Bergson, and in the United States Rothko/La Monte Young/Rorty. This triple triangulation will quickly be seen as insufficient, however, since those based on Asian and Middle Eastern cultures will also be required. Soon it would become apparent that a precise or consistent location cannot be determined, except by the abandonment of triangulation in favor of a dynamic network model. Here we would need to adopt second-order cybernetics, the recognition that attempting to measure cultural location is relative, viewer dependent, unstable, shifting, and open-ended. This conclusion reminds me that Brian was the first of my students to understand that cybernetics is philosophy, and that philosophy is cybernetics.

However, this approach to an understanding of Eno’s art would in itself fail to recognize his aesthetic of surrender and meditation, in which respect he seems to adopt a kind of Duchampian indifference, flowing from a process of removal of the Self from reflection, toward a quiet celebration of uneventfulness.

But Eno’s greatest accomplishment — and what makes his visual art so singular yet so widely resonant and important — is arguably his exploration of identity. Amidst a cultural landscape where the creative self is necessarily divided, Eno has consistently conquered a wide array of creative and intellectual fields while at the same time mastering the art of integration. Ascott puts it beautifully:

We cannot grasp the ambient identity of Eno’s artwork without also recognizing the ambient identity of the artist himself. This demands knowing not only where to place him in the spectrum of roles across philosophy, visual arts, performance, music, social and cultural commentary, and activism, but in terms of personae, or as we say now, avatars. . . . Throughout his career, not only has Eno explored identity, he has provided the context, employing light, sound, space, and color, in which each participant can playfully and passionately share in the breaching of the boundaries of the Self.

'77 Million Paintings,' Sydney Opera House, 2009

Brian Eno: Visual Music is beautiful and compelling in its entirety. Complement it with the psychology of getting unstuck and some of today’s most celebrated writers, artists, and designers on how to break through your creative block.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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Debunking the Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What It Actually Takes to Reach Genius-Level Excellence

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How top-down attention, feedback loops, and daydreaming play into the science of success.

The question of what it takes to excel — to reach genius-level acumen at a chosen endeavor — has occupied psychologists for decades and philosophers for centuries. Groundbreaking research has pointed to “grit” as a better predictor of success than IQ, while psychologists have admonished against the dangers of slipping into autopilot in the quest for skill improvement. In recent years, one of the most persistent pop-psychology claims has been the myth of the “10,000-hour rule” — the idea that this is the amount of time one must invest in practice in order to reach meaningful success in any field. But in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (public library), celebrated psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, best-known for his influential 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, debunks the 10,000-hour mythology to reveal the more complex truth beneath the popular rule of thumb:

The “10,000-hour rule” — that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field — has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops. The problem: it’s only half true. If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.

No less an expert than Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the 10,000-hour rule of thumb, told me, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

“You have to tweak the system by pushing,” he adds, “allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from Mark Twain's 'Advice to Little Girls.' Click image for details.

The secret to continued improvement, it turns out, isn’t the amount of time invested but the quality of that time. It sounds simple and obvious enough, and yet so much of both our formal education and the informal ways in which we go about pursuing success in skill-based fields is built around the premise of sheer time investment. Instead, the factor Ericsson and other psychologists have identified as the main predictor of success is deliberate practice — persistent training to which you give your full concentration rather than just your time, often guided by a skilled expert, coach, or mentor. It’s a qualitative difference in how you pay attention, not a quantitative measure of clocking in the hours. Goleman writes:

Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient. How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference. For instance, in his much-cited study of violinists — the one that showed the top tier had practiced more than 10,000 hours — Ericsson found the experts did so with full concentration on improving a particular aspect of their performance that a master teacher identified.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Ruth Krauss's 'Open House for Butterflies.' Click image for details.

Goleman identifies a second necessary element: a feedback loop that allows you to spot errors as they occur and correct them, much like ballet dancers use mirrors during practice. He writes:

Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks.

The feedback matters and the concentration does, too — not just the hours.

Additionally, the optimal kind of attention requires top-down focus. While daydreaming may have its creative benefits, in the context of deliberate practice it only dilutes the efficiency of the process. Goleman writes:

Daydreaming defeats practice; those of us who browse TV while working out will never reach the top ranks. Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing.

At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point you don’t need to think about it — you can do the routine well enough on automatic.

Illustration from 'Little Boy Brown' by André François. Click image for details.

But this is where the amateurs and the experts diverge — too much automation, and you hit the “OK plateau,” ceasing to grow and stalling at proficiency level. If you’re going for genius, you need to continually shift away from autopilot and back into active, corrective attention:

Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training — whether in skiing or driving — people get to that “good-enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be negligible.

The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach. Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.

Illustration from 'The Shrinking of Treehorn' by Edward Gorey. Click image for details.

But even with the question of quality resolved, there’s still that of quantity: Just how much “deliberate practice” is enough? Focused attention, like willpower, is like a muscle and gets fatigued with exertion:

Ericsson finds world-class champions — whether weight-lifters, pianists, or a dog-sled team — tend to limit arduous practice to about four hours a day. Rest and restoring physical and mental energy get built into the training regimen. They seek to push themselves and their bodies to the max, but not so much that their focus gets diminished in the practice session. Optimal practice maintains optimal concentration.

In the rest of Focus, Goleman goes on to explore how concepts like attention-chunking, emotional empathy, and system blindness influence the pursuit of excellence. Complement it with how grit predicts achievement and the science of the “winner effect.”

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The Futurist Cookbook: 11 Rules for a Perfect Meal and an Anti-Pasta Manifesto circa 1932

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Optimism at the table, or why the dark void of the soul can’t be stuffed with spaghetti.

Given my voracious appetite for unusual cookbooks — especially ones at the intersection of food and the arts, including little-known gems from the likes of Andy Warhol, Liberace, Lewis Carroll, and Alice B. Toklas — I was delighted to discover The Futurist Cookbook (public library; AbeBooks) by Italian poet and editor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, originally published in 1932 and reprinted in 1989, translated into English by Suzanne Brill.

At the time of its release, the cookbook became somewhat of a sensation, thanks to Marinetti’s shrewdness as a publicist. But while major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune proclaimed it a bold manifesto to revitalize culture by revolutionizing how people ate, what the media missed at first was that the cookbook was arguably the greatest artistic prank of the twentieth century — it wasn’t a populist effort to upgrade mass cuisine but, rather, a highbrow quest to raise the nation’s, perhaps the world’s, collective artistic consciousness.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

In the introduction to the 1989 edition, British journalist, historian and travel writer Lesley Chamberlain calls it “a provocative work of art disguised as easy-to-read cookbook” and writes:

The Futurist Cookbook was a serious joke, revolutionary in the first instance because it overturned with ribald laughter everything “food” and “cookbooks” held sacred: the family table, great “recipes,” established notions of goodness and taste.

Marinetti fighting a duel with the journalist Carlo Chiminelli in Rome, April 30, 1924. He was wounded.

What made Futurist “cooking” so revolutionary was that it drew on food as a raw material for art and cultural commentary reflecting the Futurist idea that human experience is empowered and liberated by the presence of art in everyday life, that osmosis of arte-vita. Marinetti himself framed the premise of the cookbook in his introduction to the original 1932 edition:

The Futurist culinary revolution … has the lofty, noble and universally expedient aim of changing radically the eating habits of our race, strengthening it, dynamizing it and spiritualizing it with brand-new food combinations in which experiment, intelligence and imagination will economically take the place of quantity, banality, repetition and expense.

This Futurist cooking of ours, tuned to high speeds like the motor of a hydroplane, will seem to some trembling traditionalists both mad and dangerous: but its ultimate aim is to create a harmony between man’s palate and his life today and tomorrow.

[…]

It is not by chance this work is published during a world economic crisis, which has clearly inspired a dangerous depressing panic, though its future direction remains unclear. We propose as an antidote to this panic a Futurist way of cooking, that is: optimism at the table.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

Indeed, Marinetti saw food as the ultimate promise of optimism — a gateway to sensual freedom, imbued with the carefree lightness of a children’s party and the intellectual enthusiasm of a literary salon. He believed that “men think, dream and act according to what they eat and drink.” But nowhere did his culinary and cultural dogmatism shine more blazingly than in his contempt for pastasciutta, better-known simply as pasta — the traditional Italian staple beloved the world over. He preceded the modern low-carb craze by more than seven decades, outroaring even its most zealous contemporary adherents with the fanaticism of his convictions. Pasta, he asserted, made people heavy in both body and spirit, turned them sour and pessimistic, and robbed them of the creative impulse. The riddance from pasta wasn’t merely a matter of individual salvation — Marinetti even made it a matter of patriotism, arguing that the abolition of pasta would liberate Italy from the despotism of expensive foreign grain and instead boost the domestic rice industry.

He resolves in the cookbook:

Futurist cooking will be free of the old obsessions with volume and weight and will have as one of its principles the abolition of pastasciutta. Pastasciutta, however agreeable to the palate, is a passéist food because it makes people heavy, brutish, deludes them into thinking it is nutritious, makes them skeptical, slow, pessimistic.

[…]

[Pasta] is completely hostile to the vivacious spirit and passionate, generous, intuitive soul of the Neapolitans. If these people have been heroic fighters, inspired artists, awe-inspiring orators, shrewd lawyers, tenacious farmers it was in spite of their voluminous daily plate of pasta. When they eat it they develop that typical ironic and sentimental skepticism which can often cut short their enthusiasm.

Any pastascuittist who honestly examines his conscience at the moment he ingurgitates his biquotidian pyramid of pasta will find within the gloomy satisfaction of stopping up a black hole. This voracious hole is an incurable sadness of his. He may delude himself, but nothing can fill it. Only a Futurist meal can lift his spirits.

He then outlines the eleven requirements for the ideal Futurist meal:

One perfect meal requires:

  1. Originality and harmony in the table setting (crystal, china, décor) extending to the flavors and colors of the foods.
  2. Absolute originality in the food.
  3. The invention of appetizing food sculptures, whose original harmony of form and color feeds the eyes and excites the imagination before it tempts the lips.
  4. The abolition of the knife and fork for eating food sculptures, which can give prelabial tactile pleasure.
  5. The use of the art of perfumes to enhance tasting.

    Every dish must be preceded by a perfume which will be driven from the table with the help of electric fans.

  6. The use of music limited to the intervals between courses so as not to distract the sensitivity of the tongue and palate but to help annul the last taste enjoyed by re-establishing gustatory virginity.
  7. The abolition of speech-making and politics at the table.
  8. The use in prescribed doses of poetry and music as surprise ingredients to accentuate the flavors of a given dish with their sensual intensity.
  9. The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and other they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination.
  10. The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés which contain ten, twenty flavors to be tasted in a few seconds. In Futurist cooking these canapés have by analogy the same amplifying function that images have in literature. A given taste of something can sum up an entire area of life, the history of an amorous passion or an entire voyage to the Far East.
  11. A battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen: ozonizers to give liquids and foods the perfume of ozone, ultra-violet ray lamps (since many foods when irradiated with ultra-violet rays acquire active properties, become more assimilable, preventing rickets in young children,etc.), electrolyzers to decompose juices and extracts, etc. in such a way as to obtain from a known product a new product with new properties, colloidal mills to pulverize flours, dried fruits, drugs, etc.; atmospheric and vacuum stills, centrifugal autoclaves, dialyzers. The use of these appliances will have to be scientific, avoiding the typical error of cooking foods under steam pressure, which provokes the destruction of active substances (vitamins, etc.) because of the high temperatures. Chemical indicators will take into account the acidity and alkalinity of these sauces and serve to correct possible errors: too little salt, too much vinegar, too much pepper or too much sugar.

Marinetti proceeds to offer several dozen colorfully titled, highly performative Futurist recipes compliant with these criteria. Her are a few favorites:

IMMORTAL TROUT

Stuff some trout with chopped nuts and fry them in olive oil. Then wrap the trout in very thin slices of calves’ liver.

HUNTING IN HEAVEN

Slowly cook a hare in sparkling wine mixed with cocoa powder until the liquid is absorbed. Then immerse it for a minute in plenty of lemon juice. Serve it in a copious green sauce based on spinach and juniper, and decorate with those silver hundred and thousands which recall huntsmen’s shot.

DATES IN MOONLIGHT

30–40 very mature and sugary dates, 500 grams Roman ricotta. Stone the dates and mash them well (all the better if you can pass them through a sieve). Mix the pulp thus obtained with the ricotta until you have a smooth poltiglia [mush]. Refrigerate for a few hours and serve chilled.

AEROFOOD

The diner is served from the right with a plate containing some black olives, fennel hearts and kumquats. From the left he is served with a rectangle made of sandpaper, silk and velvet. The foods must be carried directly to the mouth with the right hand while the left hand lightly and repeatedly strokes the tactile rectangle. In the meantime the waiters spray the napes of the diners’ necks with a conprofumo [perfume] of carnations while from the kitchen comes contemporaneously a violent conrumore [music] of an aeroplane motor and some dismusica [music] by Bach.

The Futurist Cookbook is a kooky treat in its entirety. Complement it with The Artists’ & Writers Cookbook, then spice it up a notch with Mimi Sheraton’s The Seducer’s Cookbook.

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