Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

29 AUGUST, 2012

The Forms of Things Unknown: A Timeless 1963 Meditation on the Role of the Creative Arts in Society

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“Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.”

In 1963, English anarchist, poet, and culture critic Herbert Read penned The Forms of Things Unknown: An Essay on the Impact of the Technological Revolution on the Creative Arts (public library; public domain), exploring the role of art in society, both in relation to science and philosophy and as a singular expression of the human creative spirit, and offering a meditation on wonder and the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

Read begins with a historical lament:

A distinction which runs through the whole development of human thought has become blurred during the past two hundred years. Implicit in all ancient philosophy, acknowledged by medieval scholastics and the natural philosophers of the Renaissance, and even by Locke and Newton, is a difference of kind, if not of value, between wisdom and understanding. By wisdom was meant an intuitive apprehension of truth, and the attitude involved was receptive or contemplative. Intellectus was the name given to this faculty in the Middle Ages. Understanding, on the other hand, was always a practical or constructive activity, and ratio was its name — the power by means of which we perceive, know, remember and judge sensible phenomena. Philosophy was conceived as an endeavour to perfect this constructive power of the mind as an aid to wisdom. To clarify perception, excluding all distortions due to emotion and prejudice; to analyse statements so that our knowledge is consistent; to establish facts, so that our memory is consolidated; to bring the inquiring will into harmony with the intuitive intellect, so that our judgment is true and constant — such have been the aims of all who called themselves philosophers.

Read echoes Abraham Flexner’s fantastic insights on the usefulness of “useless” knowledge:

We may admit, with the logical scientist, that it is an illusion to assume that the human mind can have any direct access to truth — truth in Plato’s sense of a pre-established harmony waiting for our intuitive understanding. But what we must not admit is that knowledge is only knowledge when it is based on those elements of perception that can be reduced to measurements and verified in a laboratory — so-called functional knowledge. Science functions within the limits of its sign-system — that is to say, it must confine itself to the cognitive content of its particular kind of language; but beyond this scientific sign-system, quite apart from it, is the symbolic system of art, which is also a particular kind of language with a cognitive content.

On the logic of art:

I can think of no criteria of truth in science that do not apply with equal force to art. Art has its language of symbols whilst science has a language of signs, but a symbolic language also has its strict system of rules, based on convention. The creative imagination has a logic no less strict than the logic of scientific reasoning, and the same ideal of clarity is held by both activities. Further, there is no sense in which verifiability is a necessary constituent of scientific method in which it is not also a necessary constituent of artistic creation. Great works of art do not survive through the centuries as expressions of desire or as valuations of behaviour. They state such universal truths as the artist is capable of creating; they search for no certainty and express no ideal. They are constructions, concretely physical. Emotions may be inserted into them: they may be clothed in appearances of good and evil, of tragedy and joy; but these expressive functions are not the verifiable content of the work of art. What is verifiable is a perceptible form which communicates a notion of being, a man-made piece of reality.

Some of Read’s points, however, fall short of a necessary understanding of how art and science complement one another: He considers the sense of wonder an exclusive property of art and philosophy, one nearly destroyed by “intellectualism,” but we’ve heard such great scientific minds as Richard Feynman (“The purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more.”) and Robert Sapolsky (We will never have our flames extinguished by knowledge. The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.) eloquently claim it as the heart of science:

Philosophy, according to Plato, is based on wonder. ‘The sense of wonder,’ he said, ‘is the mark of the philosopher.’ ‘It is through wonder,’ explained Aristotle, ‘that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and the sun, about the stars and the origin of the universe.’ We are all perhaps ready to admit the historical independence of philosophy, but what we forget is that philosophy must be continually renewed by this sense of wonder, and that wonder itself is what I would call a liminal awareness — that is to say, sensation stretched to its physical limits. The arts are the exercises by means of which we stretch the intelligence to these limits, and at these limits renew the sense of wonder.

If this sense of wonder is not renewed we get a mental cancer which might be called conceptualism or intellectualism.

(For a related meditation, see Milton Glaser on the arts and the capacity for astonishment.)

Still, Read adds beautifully to some of history’s most memorable definitions of art and of science:

Art is the composition of perceptual experience into meaningful or significant patterns, and all knowledge and intelligence is a reading or interpretation of such patterns. A myth is a reading of ritualistic patterns, and from myth arises all religion and philosophy. Magic is a reading of animistic symbols, and from magic arises all knowledge of the external world, all science.

He then makes a case for creativity as a kind of social glue:

To be able to break down the barrier of space between self and other, yet at the same time to be able to maintain it, this seems to be the paradox of creativity.

[…]

A society in which every man would be an artist of some sort would necessarily be a society united in concrete creative enterprises: in a single creative enterprise, because in such a society the arts are unified.

Further:

Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.

[…]

A culture is a creation of time, of a time in which the icons made by the artist so work on the imagination of man that they precipitate ideas, communicate feelings, establish human bonds.

Read speaks to the contemplative value of the arts in the face of “the absurdity of existence”:

It is difficult to conceive a humanism that is not a literary and retrospective humanism, litterae humaniores, and by definition culture implies calm, withdrawal from distractions, leisure, contemplation. A work of art is something we can contemplate, and we contemplate it not to escape from ourselves, nor to escape from the world in the contemplation … of an autonomous or independent world, but to be reconciled with ourselves and with the absurdity of existence. The greatest works of art, as I have already said, have always been images or myths of reconciliation.

[…]

The great artist is not the one who unites mankind on a basis of feeling — that is a recipe for the rabble-rouser — but the one who by transcending personal feelings discovers symbols for the universal archetypes of the psyche. These are no doubt residues of the emotional experiences of the human race, forged into shape and significance by mankind’s sufferings and longings for peace of mind and immortality.

He concludes with a sentiment about culture, shared by other creators — including Brian Eno, who argues culture is created as “we confer value on things” and it is “the act of conferring that makes things valuable,” and Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom “culture is developed from within”:

One dogma is implicit in all I have said. A culture must rise spontaneously from the collective unconscious through the fiery hands of our lame Vulcans. Culture is a created work, not an idea. It is the patient accumulation of many works, and responsible for each work is a Vulcan, beating the constituent metals on his anvil. The instinct that guides his hand is a sure one, the movement not consciously calculated, but responsive to intimations that are beneath all sensations, primordial.

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08 AUGUST, 2012

Twilight Zone Creator Rod Serling on Where Good Ideas Come From

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“Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized.”

The questions of where good ideas come from, what inspiration is made of, why some people are more creative than others, and how we can optimize ourselves for creativity are perhaps as enduring as the act of creation itself.

In this short clip from the vintage TV special Writing for Television, Rod Serling, creator of the cult-classic The Twilight Zone, manages to articulate the combinatorial nature of creativity, as well as Arthur Koestler’s seminal theory of “bisociation,” in a mere sixty-four seconds:

Ideas come from the Earth. They come from every human experience that you’ve either witnessed or have heard about, translated into your brain in your own sense of dialogue, in your own language form. Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized. Ideas are probably in the air, like little tiny items of ozone.

Half a century later, David Lynch answered the same question.

Complement with pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions of creativity.

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23 JULY, 2012

Cultural History Gem: Saul Bass’s Original Pitch for the Bell Systems Logo Redesign, 1969

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The greatest graphic designer of all time traces the evolution of consumer culture via the telephone.

For many of us, Saul Bass endures as the greatest graphic designer of all time and an unmatched master of the film title sequence. But Bass was also a keen branding savant, who helped shape the identities of clients as diverse as Continental Airlines, The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Minolta, Quaker Oats, Kleenex, and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

In 1969, Bass was tasked with reimagining the visual identity of the American Bell Telephone Company, commonly referred to as “Ma Bell,” in an effort to modernize the old-timey bell-and-circle logo by eliminating its datedness but preserving its comforting familiarity. This rare footage captures the full half-hour of Bass and his team’s original pitch to Bell, which envisioned an entire ecosystem of identity well beyond the logo — signage, print, outdoor, and even executive cufflinks. The pitch could well have been masterminded by Don Draper, itself a fascinating and layered piece of cultural history covering the evolution of consumerism through the story of the telephone and the larger context of changing social expectations.

We’re fighting a war. Making a peace. Integrating. Segregating. Getting richer. Getting poorer. It’s quite a time to be alive.

Business has its particular problems — young people refusing good jobs; investors are more influenced by publicity than performance; customers complaining about the finest products produced anywhere in the world….Many of us here today remember when it was quite different. The pursuit of happiness had ground to a halt. Survival was the goal — just to have a job, but to have a job with security: That was the prize in 1933. How long a product lasted was more important than how well it looked. Wall Street had forgotten blue sky and was now talking blue chip. Down-to-earth, safe — that was the place to be.

[…]

How a thing looks today is as important as how well it works. As never before, people are influenced by what they see.

In 1983, after the breakup of Bell Systems, Bass also designed the famous AT&T “globe” logo, which AT&T didn’t update until 2005. (And, many have said, never should have.)

For a glimpse of how logo design has changed since the age of Bass, see this fantastic recent PBS Off Book micro-documentary, featuring Brain Pickings favorites Kelli Anderson and Steven Heller, complete with a Curator’s Code mention:

[A logo] is informed and reinforced by the things we see every day, and it’s important to acknowledge that entire invisible vocabulary.” ~ Kelli Anderson

For the ultimate Bass gold, don’t miss the indispensable Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design, one of the best art and design books of 2011 and quite possibly among the best of all time.

Open Culture

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18 JULY, 2012

Alligators All Around: A Maurice Sendak Alphabet Book from 1962

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Juggling jellybeans, keeping kangaroos, and other shockingly spoiled yackety-yacking.

As a lover of alphabet books and of all things Maurice Sendak, I was delighted to get my hands on an original 1962 edition of Sendak’s Alligators All Around: An Alphabet — a charming, tiny gem that tells the non-narrative story of an alligator family who go about their daily business as young readers explore the progression of the alphabet.

Even with so few words and such simple illustrations, Sendak’s signature wit and subtle irreverence shine with their familiar light.

Note that although the illustrations in the them are no less delightful, the copies currently on Amazon are, alas, regular-sized reprints from 1991 — but some public libraries still carry the wonderfully diminutive original.

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17 JULY, 2012

A Vintage Love Letter to NYC’s Heat as the Ultimate Class Equalizer

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How the extremities of the thermometer bridge the most insurmountable of social barriers.

As New York enters a record-breaking heat wave this week, I was reminded of a wonderful passage from Manhattan ’45 (public library), titled thusly because it sounds “partly like a kind of gun; and partly like champagne,” by the Welsh historian and prolific travel writer Jan Morris* — easily the most beautifully written love letter to New York City since E. B. White’s iconic Here Is New York, one of my all-time favorite texts. Morris paints a portrait of the city as it was on June 25, 1945 — the day 14,000 American servicemen and women, the first contingent returning from the victory over Nazi Germany, sailed into New York aboard the British liner Queen Mary — reconstructed in 1987, when the book was originally published. In this excerpt from the closing of Chapter 4, “On Class,” Morris captures the remarkable unifying force of New York City heat, something to quietly celebrate as we brush up against sweaty strangers on the subway and exchange wistfully knowing nods.

[W]hen a heat wave left the whole city gasping and sweating, a powerful fellowship blunted the edge of the common misery, bridging the most insuperable linguistic barriers, or the most unclimbable social barricades, if only with a wink or a grimace.

Morris goes on to extend this amalgamation of difference into fellowship, driven by the forces of the city’s circumstance, to the very fabric of citizenship:

And anyway citizenship of this city in itself made for a bond beyond class. To be a citizen of Manhattan was an achievement in itself — it had taken guts and enterprise, if not on your own part, at least on your forebears’. The pressures of the place, its competition, its pace, its hazards, even the fun of it, demanded special qualities of its people, and gave them a particular affinity for one another. They were all an elite!

*Morris herself is very much a character worthy of New York City’s colorful spirit. Born as James Morris in 1926, the father of five children and a WWII vet, she had gender reassignment surgery in 1972 after eight years of medical transition. She had to travel to Morocco to have the procedure performed, since British doctors wouldn’t agree to do it unless Morris divorced the children’s mother, Elizabeth Tuckniss, which she refused to do. The two eventually divorced, but remained close and were legally reunited in a civil partnership in 2008, when Morris was 82. You can hear Morris in conversation with NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber.

Thanks, Chel

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