To better understand the genius and his creation — which he calls “the most revolutionary advance in technology since the invention of the wheel” — Fry traces Gutenberg’s footsteps and sets out to build a Medieval printing press from scratch, acquainting himself — awkwardly, amusingly, illuminatingly — with the tools and technologies of the 15th century. Enjoy:
We’re so used to living with printed matter every day of our lives — from the cereal package in the morning to the book at bedtime — that it might perhaps be rather hard to imagine what the world was like before printing.
How an architect’s private rivalry resulted in one of New York City’s most iconic public images.
The story of New York’s iconic Chrysler Building is the story of one of history’s greatest, most ruthless architectural rivalries — one ultimately resolved when the building’s famous spear was surreptitiously erected to claim victory on October 16, 1929. This excerpt from the PBS documentary New York tells the riveting tale of the epic one-upmanship that precipitated the now-legendary structure:
In the spring of 1929, the race into the skies reached fever pitch when the automobile magnate Walter Chrysler unveiled plans for a massive new skyscraper on the corner of 42nd street and Lexington Avenue, with instruction to the architect, William van Alen, to make it the tallest in the world. Van Alen had scarcely broken ground when his one-time partner and now bitter enemy, H. Craig Severance, set to work on a rival structure eighty block to the south, for the Bank of Manhattan Company on Wall Street, and the race was on. Month after month, the two builders vied for preeminence, each altering his plans again and again in mid-construction to stay ahead of the other. On clear days, workers in each of the two tall towers could track the progress of their rivals four miles away.
On October 16, 1929, the 185-foot-long spire, assembled in secret in the building’s tower, emerged from its chrome cocoon and was bolted triumphantly into place. The gleaming silvery spike raised the Chrysler Building’s overall height to 1,048 feet, 121 feet taller than its downtown rival.
Gender roles, the elusive promises of advertising, and what oil painting has to do with the publicity machine.
Forty years ago this year, BBC premiered a series of four 30-minute films written and anchored by art critic and author John Berger. Soon adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing (public library) went on to become a landmark postmodernist critique of Western cultural aesthetics, exploring not only how visual culture came to dominate society but also how ideologies are created and transmitted via images — a subject of pressing timeliness in that golden age of photography.
In the third episode of the series, Berger looks at oil painting and its formative role in the creation of consumer culture, showing that paintings are, before anything else, objects to be bought and sold, and admonishing that “we should be somewhat wary of a love of art”:
Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself. There are several reasons why these images use the language of oil painting.
Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have. It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.
The final installment in the series explores the world of advertising and its perpetual promise of an even-elusive alternative way of life, depicted through a language of words and images that never cease to seduce us.
This series began by considering the tradition of the European oil painting. It has ended by us looking at publicity images today. Because I believe that, in many respects, these images continue that tradition. I’ve been critical of many things in that tradition, of our culture, of some of the values which it celebrates, and I’ve illustrated my arguments by using the modern means of reproduction. But, finally, what I’ve show and what I’ve said, like everything else that is shown or said through these means of reproduction, must be judged against your own experience.
But one of Berger’s most memorable and lasting contributions is the discussion of how media culture shapes gender politics and woman as object. Though the series was produced four decades ago — shortly after the Good Girls Revolt, a time of tectonic shifts for women’s rights — and much has changed since, it remains a priceless piece of cultural anthropology, as well as a stark reminder of how deep-seated some of our cultural conditioning is, and how much more is still to change if we are to transcend those burdensome bequests:
To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
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