Brain Pickings

Spitting in the Face of Creativity?

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Lessons in plagiarism from Polish magazine Przekrój.

I adore the work of Israeli illustrator Noma Bar, whose clever and thought-provoking negative space illustrations and minimalist portraits of cultural icons you might recall. Last week, reader Michal Korsun alerted me to something that angers and saddens me in equal parts — Przekrój, Poland’s oldest weekly news magazine, plagiarized Bar’s brilliant portrait of Hitler, on the cover no less.

I passed the image on to Bar’s representation and quickly heard back from the artist himself, who confirmed that it was indeed a case of plagiarism — Daniel Horowitz, the illustrator who created the image (and who has since removed it from his portfolio site), neither sought permission for a derivative graphic nor acknowledged the very clear “inspiration” for the cover. Besides the very cut-and-dry fact that it’s illegal to steal, creatively or otherwise, what’s most heartbreaking about this is that it takes a clever visual metaphor Bar spent time and thought on, adds no value or commentary, and instead just subtracts from the creative merit of the original work — to sell a magazine, remember.

In Noma’s own words:

‘Take a sad song and make it better’…. In this case, [Horowitz] didn’t make it better. The balance, detail and tension in the face — all lost. I would be a bit more encouraged if I felt that I learned something new about Hitlers face — unfortunately, I didn’t. It’s an obvious trace of photo and a random barcode.”

While I’m a vocal proponent of remix culture, it’s important to understand the line between remix and rip-off. The law still struggles with this distinction and, in many cases, draws the line in such a way that it discourages remix. But as far as I’m concerned — and some of the thought-leaders in this space tend to agree — it comes down to a rather simple litmus test: If a derivative work changes the original in a creatively meaningful way, or offers cultural commentary or critique on it, then it’s a new original work of its own creative merit; if it merely parrots or mimics the original while adding no context or commentary, then it’s a rip-off.

That a publication of Przekrój’s stature and legacy is unable or unwilling to make that distinction is a disgrace to both journalism and creative culture.

UPDATE 9/5/2011 10:23PM: Daniel Horowitz has gotten in touch with me to give his side of the story. Here’s what he had to say, published here with his permission — be your own judge:

Just got back to [Brooklyn] from my trip to Europe and I am quite interested to read the many remarks including your own on the subject of plagiarism and the resemblance of my illustration to that of Noma Bars. A much more interesting article would be how two artists arrived at the same conceptual solution independently, which is in fact what is the case, altogether much less sensational than ‘Spitting in the Face of Creativity’.

With my reputation at stake and working for many of the same international clients as Bar does, why on earth would I care to jeopardize my position by plagiarizing anyone’s work, especially in a such an open way. You also accused me that I had the illustration up on my site and then took it down. I make visual metaphors daily for a living, hundreds and thousands over the course of a career, and in this case I apparently wasn’t the first to think of replacing Hitler’s mustache with a barcode.

I was more surprised than anyone when Mr. Bar’s illustration was brought to my attention, and the similarity is more a comment on the fact that we think and solve visual problems alike than anything more.

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Sentics: Emotional Healing Through Music and Touch

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A sensory antidote to addiction and depression, or what artificial intelligence has to do with poetry.

In the late 1960s, as advances in neuroscience technology were making the brain knowable in entirely new ways and illuminating it as an input device, Austrian-born scientist and inventor Manfred Clynes became interested in its capacities as an output device. He began experimenting with the basic expressive time forms of the central nervous system, which he called “sentic forms,” and argued they were universal — something he proved by deriving sounds from people’s emotional expressions through touch and gesture, then playing these sounds to people of different cultures, who were able to correctly identify the original emotions the sounds were expressed.

Based on these findings, Clynes developed an application in which subjects used touch to express a sequence of emotions — neutrality, anger, hate, grief, love, sexual desire, joy, and reverence — through finger pressure. The 25-minute sequences, called sentic cycles, were based on a precise mathematical formula and resulted in subjects reporting calmness, energy, an alleviation of depression, and even a loosening of the grip of tobacco and alcohol addictions. Clynes used his research as evidence that that it was possible to counter a negative emotional state by inducing a rather rapid shift into a positive one, particularly showing that music was most powerful mechanism for inducing love, joy, and reverence.

How remarkable it would be if one could experience and express the spectrum of emotions embodied in music originating from oneself—without the crutch of a composer’s intercession, without being driven by the composer; and to do so moreover whenever we wish, not when circumstance may call them forth. This, indeed, has become possible through the development of sentic cycles.” ~ Manfred Clynes

In 1972, Clynes began distilling his theory into a book that took him four years to write. In 1976, he published Sentics: The Touch of the Emotions, in which he outlined his findings of emotional perception and response at the intersection of music, art and mathematics. (Also featured are a number of Clynes’ poems, some of which artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky quoted in his seminal 1986 book, The Society of Mind.) Blending clinical research, theory and philosophy, the book laid the foundations of the sentics field, insights from which have since seeped into everything from psychotherapy to addiction rehabilitation to education.

Changes in respiration and heart rate during a sentic cycle. Respiration accelerates during anger and hate. During grief the respiration has a gasping character with rest periods at the expiratory end of the cycle. Respiration slows during love, and speeds up markedly for sex. (Inspiration is downward in the figure.) During reverence there is a marked slowing down of respiration with resting phases at the inspiratory phases of the cycle (paralleling those

Perhaps the most important application and effect of sentic cycles lies in their ability to influence the urges and driving forces of the personality. The sense of calmness and satisfaction of being, as such, or the sensation of being emotionally drained, which occasionally replaces this, noticeably alters the dynamics of drives. One may observe the replacement of the neurotic anxious drive— the rigid drive toward self-imposed goals—by a creative drive coupled with joy in its exercise. This displacement of a drive whose satisfaction lies in a distant goal (which cannot be achieved in the present) by a creative drive whose exercise provides a continuous flow satisfaction coupled with joy) is a remarkable aspect of sentic cycles. It appears that needs for smoking and perhaps even drugs may be seriously altered through the use of sentic cycles.” ~ Manfred Clynes

A big thanks to reader Jeff Beddow for flagging Sentics in his comment on this recent piece about 7 essential books on music, emotion and the brain.

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Doyald Young: The Self-Made Typography Icon in His Own Words

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From high school dropout to design legend, or what the Oxford English Dictionary has to do with iconic logos.

Last fall, mere months before iconic typeface and logotype designer Doyald Young passed away, Lynda.com produced a wonderful short documentary about him, in which Young tells his incredible rags-to-proverbial-riches story and reveals the principles behind his timeless, unique letterforms and logos. Besides being a design legend, he was also an epitome of the intellectual ideal of curiosity as powerful tool of creative growth.

I did not finish high school, I didn’t even complete the tenth grade, and throughout my whole life, I’ve read extensively — it’s how I’ve educated myself.”

I think the reason that I have been attracted to lettering and typography is because, in one sense, so little of it has changed — the letters that we look at today are the same letters that we looked at 500 years ago. And I sort of like the stability of it and I think it all goes back to the fact that my dad moved us around all the time, my whole childhood was in a state of flux. So I look for stability, and typography gives me that stability.”

Nearly two decades after its original publication, Young’s Logotypes & Letterforms: Handlettered Logotypes and Typographic Considerations remains a timeless classic and a fine addition to the 10 essential books on typography — a big thanks to reader Donald Lais for the great call.

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