Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

08 MARCH, 2012

Creating a “Fourth Culture” of Knowledge: Jonah Lehrer on Why Science and Art Need Each Other

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From Gertrude Stein to Karl Popper, or how to architect “negative capability” and live with mystery.

One of my favorite books of all time is Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which tells the story of how a handful of iconic creators each discovered an essential truth about the mind long before modern science was able to label and pinpoint it — for instance, George Eliot detected neuroplasticity, Gertrude Stein uncovered the deep structure of language, Cézanne fathomed how vision works, and Proust demonstrated the imperfections of memory. I was recently reminded of this powerful passage, in which Lehrer makes a case for the extraordinary importance of the cross-pollination of disciplines, the essence of Brain Pickings’ founding philosophy, particularly of art and science — a convergence Lehrer calls a “fourth culture” that empowers us to “freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience.”

We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery. Only the artist can explore the ineffable without offering us an answer, for sometimes there is no answer. John Keats called this romantic impulse ‘negative capability.’ He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had ‘the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art.

But before we can get a fourth culture, our two existing cultures must modify their habits. First of all, the humanities must sincerely engage with the sciences. Henry James defined the writer as someone on whom nothing is lost; artists must heed his call and not ignore science’s inspiring descriptions of reality. Every humanist should read Nature.

At the same time, the sciences must recognize that their truths are not the only truths. No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge. That simple idea will be the starting premise of any fourth culture. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, wrote, ‘It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.”

Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, comes out later this month.

HT Wired

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08 MARCH, 2012

Comic Books as the Grimms’ Fairy Tales of Pop Culture

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On making out the shape of our society through its gods of good and evil.

Comic books can be a medium for serious nonfiction and a canvas for creativity in album art, but they are their own medium with a singular visual vocabulary honed by generations of pioneering artists. In this excerpt from Masters of Comic Book Art (quaintly, only available on VHS), speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison introduces ten of the world’s greatest comic book artists, beginning with the great Jack Kirby.

(He also mentions in passing a curious factoid: there are only five forms of art considered natively American — the banjo, jazz, musical comedy, the mystery story, and comic books.)

Comic books were the training ground for me in terms of ethics, in terms of the things I learned about courage, good and evil, what heroism was, right and wrong. Comic books are the Grimms’ fairy tales of the popular culture — they’re done by serious people who care about the work they do, even as Van Gogh and Magritte and everyone else did.” ~ Harlan Ellison

It’s also fascinating to hear Kirby peel the curtain on the train of curiosity behind his iconic DC Comics series New Gods:

…I began to ask myself… Everybody else has their own gods — what are ours? What is the shape of our society and the form of myth and legend? Who are our gods? Who are our evil gods, and who are our goods ones?”

For a great primer on the making and milestones of the beloved visual storytelling medium, see the 2005 book Masters of American Comics.

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07 MARCH, 2012

How Iconic Album Cover Illustrator R. Crumb Brought Comics to Music

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What Janis Joplin has to do with rediscovering yesteryear’s forgotten masters.

Alex Steinweiss may be the father of the modern album cover, but Robert Crumb is its favorite weird uncle. Though best-known as a pioneer of the underground comix movement, the subversive artist had long been fascinated with the music of the 1920s and 1930s — jazz, big band, swing, blues, cajun — so when, in 1968, Janis Joplin asked him to design the cover for her album Cheap Thrills, it was the beginning of R. Crumb’s prolific second career illustrating hundreds of covers for artists emerging and legendary. In fact, Crumb’s covers for yesteryear’s forgotten masters were so influential in and of themselves that they spurred the rediscovery of many of these old records in the 1960s and 1970s.

R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection captures Crumb’s quirky, beautiful work and his enduring legacy in 450 vibrant four-color, black-and-white, and monocolor illustrations that exude his love of music and his love of art in equal measure. Accompanying his unmistakeable record covers are also posters, calling cards, advertisements, and stand-alone portraits of icons like James Brown, Frank Zappa, Gus Cannon, George Jones, Woody Guthrie, and more.

In this narrated short, Crumb, who eventually learned to play the uke, banjo, and mandolin himself, talks about the convergence of his two passions:

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