Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

19 SEPTEMBER, 2011

5 Vintage Versions of Modern Social Media from Centuries Ago

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From Voltaire’s status updates to Edison’s viral videos, or what Diderot has to do with data visualization.

We’ve previously made the case that everything builds on what came before, yet our human tendency is to inflate and overestimate the novelty of our ideas. Today, we turn to five concepts from the centuries of yore remarkably similar to the central premises of five of today’s social web darlings, in the hope of illustrating that, indeed, creativity is combinatorial and innovation incremental.

TWITTER

In November of 1906, artist, anarchist and literary entrepreneur Félix Fénéon wrote 1,220 succinct three-line reports in the Paris newspaper Le Matin, serving to inform of everything from notable deaths to petty theft to naval expedition disasters. He became the one-man Twitter of early-twentieth-century Paris. In Illustrated Three-Line Novels: Félix Fénéon, artist Joanna Neborsky captures the best of these enigmatic vignettes in stunning illustrations and collages. Sometimes profound, often perplexing, and always prepossessing, these visual snapshots of historical micro-narratives offer a bizarre and beautiful glimpse of a long-gone French era and a man of rare creative genius.

Catch our full review, with many more illustrated “tweets,” here.

FACEBOOK

Long before there was Facebook, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history. Mapping the Republic of Letters is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time.

More on the project in our original piece about it here. See also Dena Goodman’s excellent and somewhat controversial The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment.

QUORA

Published in London between 1690 and 1697, The Athenian Mercury supplied answers to readers’ questions on love, literature, science, religion and a variety of utilitarian concerns and personal matters. The answers came from The Athenian Society, consisting of publisher John Dunton and three of his close friends.

The Athenian Oracle: Being an Entire Collection of All the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercuries is an exact reproduction of a book published in the early 1920s, culling the most fascinating and curious questions and answers from the gazette’s archive. You can also sample some of them on the Athenian Mercury Project online.

HT MetaFilter

YOUTUBE

If you thought drawing large audiences around silly cat videos is a phenomenon of the YouTube era, you’d be wrong. The man to whom we largely owe the very existence of YouTube — Thomas Edison, who invented the first motion picture camera and made film both a mass communication medium and a creative craft — also invented the cats-engaging-in-silly-acts viral meme…in 1894:

Edison was also no stranger to the selling power of some girl-on-girl action, as evidenced by this antique viral of boxing women:

These gems, along with others, were originally featured in our piece on Thomas Edison and the invention of movies.

TUMBLR

Thomas of Ireland authored the most famous florilegium of all time. Florilegia were compilations of excerpts from other writings, mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to better illustrate a specific topic, doctrine or idea. The word comes from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.” The florilegium is one of the earliest recorded examples of remix culture — a Medieval textual Tumblr.

I spoke about the florligeium as a metaphor for networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity in my recent Creative Mornings talk on the subject.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2011

New York and the Dawn of Cartoons: 7 Animation Pioneers

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What lovable dinosaurs have to do with chalkboard, Cab Calloway and the hypocrisies of Hollywood.

While California may have its Pixar and Dreamworks, much of the talent that gave animation its start hailed from New York. Today, we turn to the seminal work of five such pioneering animators who did New York proud, a follow-up to our recent omnibus of five early animation pioneers.

J. STUART BLACKTON

J. Stuart Blackton may be best-known for his 1900 masterpiece, The Enchanted Drawing, which earned him the credit of having pioneered animation in America. But his 1906 gem Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, while less well-known, is equally important and era-defining as the earliest surviving American animated film in the strict sense of single-exposures of drawings simulating movement — in this case, using chalkboard sketches and cut-outs.

MAX FLEISCHER

Max Fleischer, a pioneer of animated cartoons, brought us the iconic Betty Boop, Koko the Clown and Popeye characters. In 1932, Betty Boop appeared in “Minnie the Moocher,” a jazz classic by the legendary Cab Calloway.

WINSOR MCCAY

In 1911, Winsor McCay created the landmark film Little Nemo, which is often debated as the first “true” animation. Three years later, his Gertie the Dinosaur claimed its place in history as the first cartoon to feature a character with a well-definted, lovable personality.

OTTO MESSMER

Otto Messmer is best-known as the creator of the Felix the Cat cartoons and comic strips, produced by Pat Sullivan studio. In this 1923 episode, Felix goes to Hollywood, where he encounters celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Will Hays. Underpinning the cartoon are Messmer’s subtle stabs at Hollywood’s corrupt morals and many hypocrisies.

WALTER LANTZ

Most of us know animator, director, producer and cartoonist Walter Lantz as the creator of Woody Woodpecker. In 1926, some 15 years before Woody, Lantz produced Tail of the Monkey, blending live-action film with cartoon animation.

EARL HURD

Besides inventing the process of cel animation in the early 1910s, Earl Hurd created the once influential and now sadly nearly-forgotten Bobby Bumps animated shorts. Sample them with this treat from 1916: Bobby Bumps and the Stork.

PAUL TERRY

Between 1915 and 1955, Paul Terry produced some 1,300 cartoons, many under his popular Terrytoons studio. Among them was the 1923 gem A Cat’s Life — which, some might say, got a head start on the viral cat videos meme by some 80 years.

For more on the marvel and promise of the dawn of animation, see the excellent Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons.

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15 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Edward Gorey’s Never-Before-Seen Letters and Illustrated Envelopes

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What a housefly has to do with Tim Burton and everything that makes snail mail great.

It’s no secret I’m an enormous fan of Edward Gorey’s, mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Between September 1968 and October 1969, Gorey set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer and, over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.

Today, Neumeyer is opening the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art.

In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer

Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.

There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

From the intellectual banter to the magnificent illustrations, Floating Worlds, which comes from the lovely Pomegranate, is as much a powerful personal memoir of an unusual friendship as it is a priceless cultural treasure containing the spirit and legacy of one of the twentieth-century’s most unique, influential and prolific creators.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

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