Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

05 FEBRUARY, 2014

William S. Burroughs on Creativity

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“The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.”

“What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t,” cultural critic and Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus observed in his fantastic 2013 commencement address. But he wasn’t the first to recognize art’s capacity for opening our eyes by blinding us, for expanding our understanding of the world by illuminating our ignorance.

In this short clip from the altogether excellent 1991 documentary Commissioner of Sewers, William S. Burroughs, born 100 years ago today, articulates the same sentiment and adds to history’s greatest definitions of art as he considers the value of creative pioneers, from Galileo to Cézanne to Joyce, in propelling human culture forward:

The word “should” should never arise — there is no such concept as “should” with regard to art. . . .

One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don’t know they know. . . . Once the breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness. But there is always a reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first breakthrough. . . . So the artist, then, expands awareness. And once the breakthrough is made, this becomes part of the general awareness.

(Burroughs wasn’t the first to articulate this notion, either. Forty years earlier, Bertrand Russell famously advised, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”)

Burroughs revisits the subject of creativity towards the end of his life in Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (public library) — which also gave us his daily routine and his deep love for his feline companions — in a diary entry from January of 1997:

An artist must be open to the muse. The greater the artist, the more he is open to “cosmic currents.” He has to behave as he does. If he has “the courage to be an artist,” he is committed to behave as the mood possesses him. . . .

The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.

Pair with Patti Smith’s account of Burroughs’s advice to the young and his cameo in the love letters of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

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07 JANUARY, 2014

The Secret Life of the Radio

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From Marconi to the microwave, by way of revolutionary technology, legal battles, and magical materials.

“When correctly harnessed, radio can be as emotional, as funny and as satisfying as the best motion pictures or television shows,” Ira Glass has said. Indeed, the radio is a medium imbued with equal parts nostalgia and timeless mesmerism — there is something singular, something especially enchanting about how its invisible waves entrance us with their sounds and stories. But how, exactly, does the radio work, and how did it come to be? That’s precisely what Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod explore in this delightful vintage episode of the TV series The Secret Life Of Machines, written by Hunkin:

Pair with this animated 1937 guide to how radio works, this illustrated guide to making great radio starring Ira Glass, and these gorgeous vintage covers for Radio Times magazine.

For some fantastic post-wave modern radio, treat yourself to Design Matters by Debbie Millman, 99% Invisible by Roman Mars, and Radiolab by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

Thanks, Alex

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30 DECEMBER, 2013

Dream of Life: The Ultimate Documentary on the Iconic Artist Patti Smith

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“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line — you have your own interior world, and it’s not neat.”

Patti Smith (born December 30, 1946) is celebrated as the “godmother of punk rock,” but besides being a magnificent musician, she is also a phenomenal poet, artist, rebel, and modern philosopher — a mind so diversely interesting and a heart so boundless in creative curiosity that she stands as a rare kind of modern muse to generation after generation of contemporary creators. Hardly anywhere does Smith’s singular spirit shine in more kaleidoscopic dimension than in Steven Sebring’s 2007 documentary Dream of Life, named after Smith’s 1988 album of the same title. The film, a decade in the making and narrated by Smith herself, offers an intimate portrait of one of the most important artists of the last century, in which she discusses everything from art and music to love and grief to politics to how creativity works. It’s available below in two parts — please enjoy:

My mission is to communicate, to wake people up, to give them my energy and accept theirs.

The film was eventually adapted into the coffee-table photo book Patti Smith: Dream of Life (public library), a treasure in its own right.

Complement with Patti Smith’s advice to the young, her tribute to Virginia Woolf, her lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, and her stirring poems mourning her soulmate.

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