Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

28 JUNE, 2012

7 Lessons on the Creative Life from the U.S. Forest Service

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Simple rules to follow when you’re lost in the woods, literally and creatively.

“A clear head will find itself,” begins the 1946 U.S. Forest Service safety flyer “What To Do When Lost In The Woods,” a manual made for hikers and campers whose suggestions might also be heeded by creative types who have lost their way.

The practical advice in this pamphlet was found in a Colorado cabin by Jen Christiansen, art director of information graphics at Scientific American, who tweeted about it. Soon, artist Austin Kleon ( ) noticed that many of the suggestions of the Forest Service might also serve as good lessons for creators, so he tracked down the full PDF of the pamphlet at the Oregon State Library.

A 1946 flyer from U.S. Forest Service, 'What To Do When Lost In The Woods.'

After previously pondered wisdom on originality, the role of intuition, the science of creativity, the origin of good ideas, and the power of purpose, the U.S. Forest Service shows us that the art of saving your life — much like the art of being lost and found — can begin in the woods or in the heart, wherever you are.

Its lessons, distilled:

  1. Finding oneself is the test of man.
  2. Merely being out of sight of others in a strange forest gives a man the creeps — a natural feeling but a dangerous one. Never yield to it.
  3. Stop, sit down, and try to figure out where you are. Use your head, not your legs.
  4. Build a fire in a safe place.
  5. Don’t wander about.
  6. Don’t yell, don’t run, don’t worry, and above all, don’t quit.
  7. A thinking man is never lost for long. He knows that…he must remain where he is or push on to some definite objective, but not to the point of exhaustion…that someone will be looking for him, and strength in that knowledge makes hardships easier.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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22 JUNE, 2012

What Is Art? Favorite Famous Definitions, from Antiquity to Today

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“Art is not a thing — it is a way.”

After the recent omnibus of definitions of science by some of history’s greatest minds and definitions of philosophy by some of today’s most prominent philosophers, why not turn to an arguably even more nebulous domain of humanity? Gathered here are some of my favorite definitions of art, from antiquity to today.

Henry James in his short story The Middle Years:

We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

Leo Tolstoy, in his essay “What Is Art?”:

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.

Frank Lloyd Wright, writing in 1957, as cited in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, Nature, and the Human Spirit: A Collection of Quotations:

Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, one of 5 essential books on fear and the creative process:

To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.

Charles Eames, cited in the fantastic 100 Quotes by Charles Eames:

Art resides in the quality of doing; process is not magic.

Elbert Hubbard in a 1908 volume of Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers:

Art is not a thing — it is a way.

Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.

Thomas Merton in No Man Is An Island:

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Francis Ford Coppola in a recent interview:

An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.

André Gide in Poétique:

Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.

Friedrich Nietzsche, made famous all over again by Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing:

We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.

Michelangelo Pistoletto in Art’s Responsibility:

Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums — they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level.

Federico Fellini in a December 1965 piece in The Atlantic, not currently online:

All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.

Hugh MacLeod in Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity:

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.

The Greek philosopher Aristophanes, writing in the 4th century B.C.:

Let each man exercise the art he knows.

And, lastly, my own take in a recent piece I wrote for the National Endowment for the Arts:

This is the power of art: The power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness.

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21 JUNE, 2012

Sartre on Why “Being-in-the-World-Ness” is the Key to the Imagination

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On the figure-ground relationship between the real and the irreal.

Though French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre remains best-known for shaping much of 20th-century sociology, political ideology, and critical theory, some of his most interesting work deals with the imagination. In The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (public library), originally published in 1940, he examines the concepts of nothingness and freedom to argue that, contrary to popular conceptions of imagining as a kind of internal perception, the two stand in stark contrast — perception is incomplete (you only see one side of a chair, the rest obscured from that point of view) whereas the imaginary is complete (when you imagine a chair, it arrives whole, known from all directions). What enables the imagination is consciousness and the totality of our experience — everything we know, everything we’ve seen and heard and read, everything we’ve accumulated in the course of being fully awake to the world. The imagination, in other words, is a combinatorial phenomenon — something artists, designers, writers, and scientists understand.

This particular excerpt crystallizes this “being-in-the-world-ness” as the necessary condition for the imagination:

I will call the different immediate modes of apprehension of the real as a world ‘situations’. We can then say that the essential condition for a consciousness to imagine is that it be ‘situated in the world’ or more briefly that it ‘be-in-the-world’. It is the situation-in-the-world, grasped as a concrete and individual reality of consciousness, that is the motivation for the constitution of any irreal object whatever and the nature of that irreal object is circumscribed by this motivation. Thus the situation of consciousness must appear not as a pure and abstract condition of possibility for all of the imaginary, but as the concrete and precise motivation for the appearance of a certain particular imaginary.

From this point of view, we can finally grasp the connection of the irreal to the real. First of all, even if no image is produced at the moment, every apprehension of the real as a world tends of its own accord to end up with the production of irreal objects since it is always, in a sense, free nihilation of the world and this always from a particular point of view. So, if consciousness is free, the noematic correlate of its freedom should be the world that carries in itself its possibility of negation, at each moment and from each point of view, by means of an image, even while the image must as yet be constituted by a particular intention of consciousness. But, reciprocally, an image, being a negation of the world from a particular point of view, can appear only on the ground of the world and in connection with that ground. Of course, the appearance of the image requires that the particular perceptions be diluted in the syncretic wholeness world and that this whole withdraws. But it is precisely the withdrawal of the whole that constitutes it as ground, that ground on which the irreal form must stand out. So although, by means of the production of the irreal, consciousness can momentarily appear delivered from its ‘being-in-the-world’, on the contrary this ‘being-in-the-world’ is the necessary condition of imagination.

For a fine complement to , see this 1957 meditation on the role of intuition and the imagination in scientific discovery and creativity.

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