Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

09 MAY, 2012

Maurice Sendak’s Unreleased Drawings and Intaglio Prints

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What an American printmaker has to do with Mozart.

After this morning’s bittersweetly funny Sendak remembrance, a trip to his more serious and obscure past: In 2003, Sendak collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner on Brundibar — a WWII children’s opera, originally written by Czech composer Hans Krása, which the duo adapted into a book illustrated by Sendak and an opera for which Sendak designed the sets and costumes. But Sendak’s fascination with the opera dated back some three decades, to the 1970s, when he began collaborating with printmaker Kenneth Tyler while working on sets and costumes for Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

As Marabeth Cohen-Tyler notes, these operas inspired him to create a wealth of sketches, drawings, and watercolors. Some of them appeared in his beloved book Nutcracker and others were printed at Tyler Graphics between 1977 and 1984, and again in 2002, employing lithography and intaglio processes. But circumstances prevented any of these editions from being published. The inventory of rare proofs, collected here as the project’s intaglio ghosts, was signed in 2002, and the prints divided three-ways between Sendak, to the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Print Collection, and to Tyler’s own personal collection. Sendak went on to hand-watercolor some of the black-and-white intaglios, including Wild Thing and Ida.

Wild thing, state

© Maurice Sendak

Wild thing, state II

© Maurice Sendak

Queen of the night

© Maurice Sendak

Study for the magic flute

© Maurice Sendak

Ida, state

© Maurice Sendak

Ida, state VI

© Maurice Sendak

Nutcracker 1984

© Maurice Sendak

Jen Bekman Printeresting

Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Print Collection

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09 MAY, 2012

Going Solo: A Brief History of Living Alone and the Enduring Social Stigma Around Singletons

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“Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.”

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle admonished:

The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.

Indeed, the ancient world held exile as the most formidable form of punishment, second only to execution, though in Greek tragedies it was often regarded as a fate worse than death. For more than two millennia, this fear and loathing of solitary life endured and permeated the fabric of society. In 1949, Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock surveyed some 250 “representative cultures” across history and geography, and concluded:

The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light.

Yet our relationship with solitary life has undergone a radical shift in the recent past. So argues NYU sociology, public policy, and media professor Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone — an ambitious exploration of what Klinenberg calls the “remarkable social experiment” that our species has embarked upon over the past half-century, juxtaposing the numbers with the enduring social stigma around singleness.

Until recently, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do whatever we can to avoid moving in with others — even, perhaps especially, our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, together alone […] [T]oday, for the first time in centuries, the majority of all American adults are single. The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.

Klinenberg paints an even more vivid picture by the numbers:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Four million lived alone, and they accounted for 9 percent of all households […] Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million — roughly one out of every seven adults — live alone.

[…]

People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type — more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, the roommate or group home.

To be sure, this trend is far from confined to the U.S. — the four countries with the highest rates of solo living are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, where up to 45% of all households contain just one person. “By investing in each other’s social welfare and affirming their bonds of mutual support,” Klinenberg argues, “the Scandinavians have freed themselves to be on their own.”

Yet the sociocultural norms and dialogue around living solo haven’t caught up with these staggering statistics. As historian David Potter has famously noted:

In our literature, any story of the complete isolation, either physical or psychological, of a man from his fellowman, such as the story of Robinson Crusoe before he found a human footprint on the beach, is regarded as essentially a horror story.

Klinenberg puts it thusly:

Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.

[…]

Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, commentators tend to present it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and a diminished public life. Our morally charged conversations tend to frame the question of why so many people now live on their own around the false and misleading choice between the romanticized ideal of Father Knows Best and the glamorous enticements of Sex and the City. In fact…the reality of this great social experiment in living alone is far more interesting — and far less isolating — than these conversations would have us believe.

Klinenberg goes on to explore the forces and factors that have sparked the transformative social experience of living alone, which has in turn changed not only the way we understand ourselves and our most intimate relationships, but also the way we structure our cities and orchestrate our economies, demonstrating that solo living affects the lives of nearly everyone in the social ecosystem. He points to four key developments driving this cult of individualism, championed by Emerson and Thoreau: (1) The wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state (“Put simply, one reason that more people live alone than ever before is that today more people can afford to do so.”); (2) the communications revolution (“For those who want to live alone, the Internet affords rich new ways to stay connected.”); (3) mass urbanization (“Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life.”); (4) increased longevity (“Because people are living longer than ever before — or, more specifically, because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.”).

Going Solo goes on to paint a richer portrait of this age of the singleton, covering a number of complementary forces — including, perhaps most interestingly, the rising status of women and their assertion of control over their own bodies (“[I]n 1950 there were more than two men for every woman on American college campuses, whereas today women make up the majority of undergraduate students as well as those who earn a bachelor’s degree.”). What emerges is a powerful set of questions about some of our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a part of society and, ultimately, what it means to be happy.

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09 MAY, 2012

Grim Colberty Tales: Maurice Sendak’s Last Video Appearance

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“I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

The world is a little dimmer this week at the news that Maurice Sendak has died at the age of 83, he who gave us such cultural treasures as Where The Wild Things Are and such hidden gems as these little-known Velveteen Rabbit illustrations. It is perhaps some kind of cosmic joke that this week also marks the release of Stephen Colbert’s first children’s book, I Am A Pole (And So Can You!), which features possibly the best book blurb of all time, by none other than Sendak himself:

The sad thing is, I like it.

In this two-part interview titled Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak, recorded in January 2012, Sendak makes his last known video appearance and banters with Colbert, lucid and wryly witty as ever, about everything from the state of children’s literature today to the free market to being gay.

COLBERT: Why do you write for children?

SENDAK: I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’ I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them, or easier for them.

COLBERT: Do you like them?

SENDAK: I like them as few and far between as I do adults — maybe a bit more, because I really don’t like adults at all.

Maurice Sendak (left) and Stephen Colbert draw a pole. Sendak's drawing, true to his signature wit, depicts a Polish woman holding a pole.

In the second part, Colbert reads from I Am A Pole (And So Can You!) and gets a drawing lesson from Sendak.

COLBERT: What does it take for a celebrity to make a successful (children’s) book, what do I gotta do?

SENDAK: You’ve started already by being an idiot. That is the very first demand.

Top photo via MSNBC

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