Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

23 JUNE, 2015

John Waters’s Spectacular RISD Commencement Address on Creative Rebellion and the Artist’s Task to Cause Constructive Chaos

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“Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”

Joining the greatest commencement addresses of all time is John Waters’s spectacular 2015 RISD graduation speech on creative rebellion and the artist’s task to cause constructive chaos — annotated highlights transcribed below, please enjoy:

On letting your life speak and finding your bliss:

Somehow I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love best for 50 years without ever having to get a real job. “But how can you be so disciplined?” friends always ask when I tell them my job is to get up every day at 6 A.M. Monday to Friday and think up insane stuff. Easy! If I didn’t work this hard for myself, I’d have to go work for somebody else.

On not fearing rejection (for creative history is strewn with testaments to the importance of tenacity in its face, from Henri Rousseau’s heartening story of success after a lifetime of rejection to Joan Didion’s extensive collection of rejection slips to the bittersweet wisdom from Janis Joplin’s final interview):

Remember, a “no” is free — ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip — all you need is one person to say “Get in!” and off you go. And then the confidence begins.

On mastering the art of observation — which is as important in science as it is in art — and finding the necessary yin-yang of observation and participation:

You must participate in the creative world you want to become part of. So what if you have talent? Then what? You have to figure out how to work your way inside. Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field.

If you’re a visual artist, go see the shows in the galleries that are frantically competing to find the one bad neighborhood left in Manhattan to open up in.

Watch every movie that gets a negative review in The New York Times and figure out what the director did wrong.

Read, read, read!

Watch people on the streets — spy, be nosy, eavesdrop.

Decades after Susan Sontag’s piercing meditation on courage and resistance, Waters makes a more playful and irreverent but no less profound case for the necessity of countercultural bravery and constructive dissent:

Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience.

These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? … Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: the insider — like I am.

On applying Blaise Pascal’s method of persuasion:

You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America — and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys… Hairspray is a Trojan horse — it snuck into Middle America and never got caught.

You can do the same thing.

On the power of humor:

Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid … to you.

On cultivating an identity that honors the expansiveness of the human spirit, one that is inclusive rather than exclusive:

Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers. Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but I don’t want my memoirs to be in the gay section near true crime at the back of the bookstore next to the bathrooms. No! I want it up front with the best-sellers. (And don’t heterosexual kids actually receive more prejudice in art schools today than the gay ones?) Things are a-changin’ — it’s a confusing time.

A sidewise wink at the absurd aberrations of political correctness:

This might be time for a trigger warning… I’ve heard [that] you’re supposed to warn students if you’re going to talk about something that challenges their values — I thought that’s why you went to college. My whole life has been a trigger warning!

On living wholeheartedly in an unfeeling universe:

There’s no such thing as karma. So many of my talented great friends are dead and so many of the fools I’ve met and loathed are still alive — it’s not fair, and it never will be.

On the single most important task of parenting, which psychologists have also confirmed:

My parents made me feel safe, and that’s why I’m up here today. That’s what you should try to do to your children, too — no matter where you get your children these days.

On the artist’s task not only to bear witness to the universe but, as James Baldwin argued half a century earlier, to poke holes in it for new light to shine through:

Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before — is there a better job description than that to aspire to? … Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully… Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living… It’s your turn to cause trouble — but this time in the real world, and this time from the inside.

For more of the finest commencement addresses of all time, see Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the overlooked secret to a happy life.

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18 JUNE, 2015

Pool: A Tender Illustrated Celebration of Quiet Curiosity and How We Find Our Kindred Spirits

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What our hunger for connection has to do with Borges’s imaginary beings.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll plunged his Alice into a fantastical world through the looking-glass, South Korean fine artist and illustrator JiHyeon Lee offers a magnificent modern counterpart in her picture-book debut, Pool (public library) — a wordless masterpiece of space, scale, and silence converging to create an underwater world of wonder just beneath the reflective surface of ordinary life.

Lee’s delicate yet immensely expressive pencil illustrations, partway between Sophie Blackall and mid-career Maurice Sendak, emanate childhood’s tender trepidations and the gentle playfulness at the heart of the story.

We meet a boy standing poolside, looking reluctantly at the boisterous crowd lurching into the annual invasion of the public pool — a noisy, chaotic scene Lee communicates with great subtlety and quietude.

Perched on an uncrowded corner of the pool, the boy hesitantly contemplates the prospect of plunging.

At last, he takes the leap and dives below the superficial clamor of the crowd, where he encounters his unexpected counterpart — a little girl propelled by the same shy curiosity.

Together, they dive even deeper and the pool suddenly transmogrifies into a whimsical underwater wonderland full of strange and beautiful creatures — a magical mashup of the ocean’s most glorious real-life inhabitants, the mythological marine deities of ancient folklore, and Borges’s imaginary beings.

Suddenly, they come upon a most magnificent sight.

With a mastery of pacing time through negative space, calling to mind Marianne Dubuc’s exquisite The Lion and the Bird, Lee paints a visual gasp as the two children find themselves facing a gentle giant — a peculiar being reminiscent of our planet’s largest real creature (the subject of another spectacular picture-book), only white and furry.

They peer into its giant eye, into its enormous otherness, not with fear but with affectionate awe — a sweet and subtle reminder that, as Neil Gaiman memorably put it, “behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us.”

As the two make their way back to the surface, that watery looking-glass through which they had plunged into a modern-day Wonderland, they exit the pool from the other end, somehow transformed; the clamorous crowd, having completed this annual chore, leaves the same way it had flounced in.

And then, as they take off their goggles, they peer into each other’s naked eyes to find in the otherness an affectionate sameness of spirit peering back.

Pool is wonderful beyond words from cover to cover. Complement it with another wordless masterwork: Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown.

Thanks, Amy

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17 JUNE, 2015

Legendary Designer Charles Eames on Creativity, the Value of the Arts in Education, and His Advice to Students

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“There is always a need for anyone that can do a simple job thoroughly.”

“If you examine this furniture,” observed a 1946 profile of legendary design duo Charles and Ray Eames, “you will find sincerity, honesty, conviction, affection, imagination, and humor.” Alongside this exuberant emotional dimensionality you will also find a dimensional approach to design itself — a fusion of science, technology, art, and philosophy, evident in everything from their iconic furniture to their clever educational films to, even, the handwritten love letter with which Charles proposed to Ray. Long before the acronym STEM came into popular use in contemporary education to connote the academic quartet of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and even longer before advocates of the indelible value of the arts motioned to revise the acronym to STEAM, the Eames ethos implicitly embodied these very values. Nowhere do they come to life more vibrantly than in An Eames Anthology: Articles, Film Scripts, Interviews, Letters, Notes, and Speeches (public library) — a rigorously researched, lovingly compiled treasure by Eames scholar Daniel Ostroff in collaboration with the Eames Office.

Charles and Ray Eames

(Copyright Eames Office)

In the introduction, Ostroff notes the duo’s singular approach to design and its wider cultural ripples:

In addition to all of the “good goods” that they produced, the Eameses were prolific as educators, making many important contributions to the world of ideas.

Underlying all of their work is the principle that design should not be an act of creative self-expression but rather a process of problem solving.

Although the Eameses were — and continue to be — educators primarily by example, they occasionally addressed the question of education explicitly. In a 1957 interview for the National Art Education Association Convention, Charles (June 17, 1907–August 21, 1978) makes a passionate case for the importance of the arts in education — a sentiment of growing urgency today, when funding for the arts in public education continues to dwindle:

It would never occur to me to consider art as a subject apart from any other in the curriculum. Art education increases in value to the degree that it is related to the whole academic picture. I see art education as a kind of thing that threads its way through every facet of academic work.

When asked about what he thinks would improve the state of art education, Eames responds:

First, better teachers. This involves better teacher training, better teacher preparation, higher salaries, better professional standing resulting in greater community respect. Secondly, a genuine rapport between all areas of learning.

Two years later, he revisits the responsibility of art education and educators in his correspondence with Richard Hoptner, a poet
and sculptor who taught industrial arts in Philadelphia’s public schools and who had written to Eames lamenting the insufficient understanding of the importance of design in secondary school. Eames responds in a letter from September of 1959:

I have a strong feeling that in the secondary school the role of the Fine Arts Department, and the Industrial Arts Department, is not to produce painters or designers, but rather to act in the role of a conscience with discipline to counteract the general tendencies to specialize, point up, develop, and capitalize the relationships of the various disciplines, and to be the constant watchdog of quality at all levels.

Addressing Hopster’s specific concern about “the incubation of self-propelled copycats,” Eames echoes the notion that all creative work builds on what came before and extols the larger significance of mastering the problem-solving process as the true conduit of creativity:

Much can be said for and against copycatting, but one thing certain — it is not bad to become familiar with the circumstances surrounding the creation of good things in the past — recent and distant.

[…]

Creative inventiveness I would put quite low on my list of ambitions for the student. I would be more than happy if he only ended up being able to distinguish the prime or basic objectives of a problem from the superficial or apparent objectives. If he knows the real objective and a few possible landmarks, then inventiveness will take care of itself, and he need never hear the word “creativity.”

Charles in his studio at the Eames House

(Photograph by Monique Jacot copyright Vitra AG)

But concerned as he was with the responsibilities of the education system in nurturing the creative spirit, Eames was even more invested in the responsibilities of students. Under the heading “Advice to students,” his notes for a 1949 talk at UCLA read:

Make a list of books
Develop a curiosity
Look at things as though for the first time Think of things in relation to each other
Always think of the next larger thing
Avoid the “pat” answer — the formula
Avoid the preconceived idea
Study well objects made past recent and ancient but never without the technological
and social conditions responsible
Prepare yourself to search out the true need — physical, psychological
Prepare yourself to intelligently fill that need
The art is not something you apply to your work
The art is the way you do your work, a result of your attitude toward it

Design is a full time job
It is the way you look at politics, funny papers, listen to music, raise children
Art is not a thing in a vacuum —
  No personal signature
  Economy of material
  Avoid the contrived

Apprentice system and why it is impractical for them
No office wants to add another prima donna to its staff
No office is looking for a great creative genius
No office — or at least very few — can train employees from scratch

There is always a need for anyone that can do a simple job thoroughly

There are things you can do to prepare yourself — to be desirable
  orderly work habits
  ability to bring any job to a conclusion
  drawing feasibility
  lettering
  a presentation that “reads” well
  willingness to do outside work and study on a problem…

Primitive spear is not the work of an individual nor is a good tool or utensil.

To be a good designer you must be a good engineer in every sense: curious, inquisitive.

I am interested in course because I have great faith in the engineer, but to those who are serious (avoid putting on art hat) Boulder Dam all’s great not due engineer
By the nature of his problems the engineer has high percentage of known factors relatively little left to intuition
(the chemical engineer asking if he should call in Sulphur)

Charles and Ray in the Eames House living room, 1960

(Photograph by Monique Jacot copyright Vitra AG)

Twelve years later, he set down his advice to students in a less fragmentary form when the mother of an aspiring furniture designer wrote to Eames hoping for some words of wisdom to her son. Responding to this stranger — the very act bespeaking Eames’s enormous generosity of spirit — he writes in a letter from March of 1961:

Dear Mrs. Tornheim:

I wish I could answer your questions by suggesting a design school so perfect that it would take care of everything. It is not as simple as that, but here are a few suggestions. If he is really interested in design, there is no particular need in rushing into specialized design education. Looking, reading, drawing, and drawing, and drawing, and working in the summer if he can.

There are certain things, however, that he can only get in school. Physics is perhaps on the top of the list, then mathematics — especially the geometries. English literature and composition, then at least one foreign language — French, German, or Russian. If he does take any art courses, they should be in history and appreciation. He can paint if he wants to, but there is no point in wasting good school time doing it. Parallel to this education, he can develop the tools of his craft if he wants to. After this education, he can go to a design school and learn something about the specialties.

There are a thousand different ways to prepare oneself for a career in design. This may or may not be the one best suited to your son, but I hope it is of some little help.

Charles Eames

An Eames Anthology is a trove of timeless treasures in its entirety, exploring the influential duo’s trailblazing ideas on design, the deeper philosophies behind their iconic chairs, and the countless everyday credos, articulated in their letters and interviews and public talks, which converged in the making of their enduring genius. Complement it with Charles Eames’s most memorable aphorisms and this rare vintage Q&A the legendary designer, then revisit Werner Herzog’s advice to aspiring filmmakers and Cheryl Strayed’s advice to aspiring writers.

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16 JUNE, 2015

Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

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“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation — what is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:

A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar…

One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up — she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book.

And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.

And I said, “Why? Why would you risk death — for a story?”

And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto — they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind

We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial — the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.

Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it — that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape — escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.

Remarking on how Helen’s story changed him, he adds:

Stories should change you — good stories should change you.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

On how Douglas Adams predicted ebooks in the early 1990s and in the same prophetic breath made a confident case for the perseverance of physical books (which I too, being no Adams but as staunch a believer in the tenacity of the printed page, contemplated on a recent episode of WNYC’s Note to Self):

Douglas Adams … understood media, understood change. He essentially described the first ebooks long before most commuter trains were filled with people reading on them. And he also perceived why, even though most commuter trains are a hundred percent people with ebooks, there will always be physical books and a healthy market for physical books — because, Douglas told me, “books are sharks.”

[…]

There were sharks back when there were dinosaurs… And now, there are sharks. And the reason that there are still sharks — hundreds of millions of years after the first sharks turned up — is that nothing has turned up that is better at being a shark than a shark is.

Ebooks are absolutely fantastic at being several books and a newspaper; they’re really good portable bookshelves, that’s why they’re great on trains. But books are much better at being books…

I can guarantee that copy of the first Sandman omnibus still works.

But stories aren’t books — books are just one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. And, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

On how books, as much as they connect us to our all humanity, connect us to all humanity:

As individuals, we are cut off from humanity; as individuals, we are naked — we do not even know which plants will kill us. Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble; with it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats, and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet.

Gaiman tells the story of how, in 1984, the Department of Energy hired the Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok to devise a method of warning future generations not to mine or drill at repositories of nuclear waste, which have a half-life of 10,000 years — a method that would transmit information for at least as long:

Tom Sebeok concluded you couldn’t actually create a story that would last 10,000 years; you could only create a story that would last for three generations — for ourselves, for our children, and for their children.

But what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

On how the internet is changing storytelling:

A lot more writing is happening because of the internet, and I think that bit is great — I just love the fact that more people are writing.

I think the biggest problem that we have … is that we have gone from a scarcity-based information economy to a glut information economy. In the old days, finding the thing that you needed was like finding the flower in the desert — you’d have to go out into the desert and find the flower. And now, it’s like finding the flower in the jungle — or worse, finding the flower in the flower gardens.

[…]

The task becomes finding the good stuff, for whatever your definition of “good stuff” is — and your definition of “good stuff” might be some horribly specialized form of Harry Potter slash.

On humanity’s long history of thinking with animals and why so many lasting stories feature animal characters:

Animals in fiction … are your first attempt to put your head into the “other” and to experience the other, the idea of another…

The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes … but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.

[…]

One of the things that fiction can give us is just the realization that behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us. And, perhaps, looking out through animal eyes, there’s somebody like us; looking out through alien eyes, there’s somebody like us.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

On his ultimate point about the symbiotic relationship between human beings and stories, both compliant with the same evolutionary laws of life:

You can just view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use to breed. Really, it’s the stories that are the life-form — they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going. But they need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive. Maybe stories really are like viruses… Functionally, they are symbiotic — they give and give back…

The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing that we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person… Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.

Complement with Gaiman on why scary stories appeal to us, his reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, his superb commencement address on the creative life, his advice to aspiring writers, and his eight rules of writing, then join me in supporting the Long Now Foundation’s vital and vitalizing work.

Donating = Loving

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