Brain Pickings

Democratizing Art History: 6 smARThistory Primers

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From the Byzantine empire to Rembrandt, or what web video has to do with democratizing art.

Traditionally, the study of art history has belonged to the privileged. Tuition-rich courses, overpriced textbooks, trips to museums (often across vast oceans) — they all cost a pretty penny. Nowadays, the field is gradually being democratized. During the past few years alone, MoMA has made a trove of Abstract Expressionist art available on the iPad; the Getty Museum lets users view art online in 3D with the help of Augmented Reality technology; and we can now take a virtual tour through Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or gaze at essential Renaissance paintings hanging in the famous Uffizi Galleryin Florence — all for free.

smARThistory is perhaps the most centralized effort to make art history an accessible field. Developed by MoMA Director of Digital Learning Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, Pratt Institute chair of History of Art and Design, the portal now offers 115 videos presenting unscripted conversations between art historians about the history of art. (Find them all on Vimeo right here.) The easiest way to understand the project is to experience it, so we have curated a sampler of six videos, covering iconic art from antiquity to modernity.

THE ROSETTA STONE

Rosetta Stone, c. 196 B.C.E., granite, 114.4 cm x 72.3 x 27.9 cm or 45 x 28.5 x 11 in. (British Museum, London)

The story of [the Rosetta Stone] is historically incredibly important. It allowed us for the first time to be able to read, to be able to understand, to be able to translate hieroglyphics. […] The Rosetta Stone is what helped [linguistic historians] understand that Egyptian hieroglyphics are not pictorial, they’re not pictograms but actually phonetics — so all those things that look like pictures actually represent sounds.”

ICON OF THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY

Byzantine, Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, c. 1400-1450, tempera and gold on wood, 39 cm x 31 cm (British Museum, London)

The gold is the spiritual, it’s the heaven, it’s what you’re not supposed to represent.”

APOLOLLO & DAPHNE

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25 (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

This is all about not attaining beauty, almost having the thing that you want in your hands and having it slip out at the very moment when you attain it. […] It’s a meditation on what sculpture is. Bernini, more than anyone else, makes marble seem like the wings of an angel, a cloud.”

A GIRL AT A WINDOW

Rembrandt, A Girl at a Window, 1645, 81.6 x 61 cm (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London)

To Rembrandt’s credit, he really does make you psychologically interested in her.”

METAMORPHOSIS OF NARCISSUS

Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937 (Tate Modern)

[The surrealists] called the ability of Dali to do this, to see things simultaneously as more than one thing, as a result of a psychological state, which they called ‘paranoic critical activity.’ It was based on a willfulness reading of Freud. Freud talked about the filters that kept the unconscious and the conscious mind apart. But Dali claimed that in the state of ‘paranoic critical activity’ he could actually embrace both the unconscious and the conscious simultaneously, so that his conscious mind could actually do the painting.”

ONE: NUMBER 31

Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950.

When we think of Pollock’s drip paintings, we think quite rightfully of an improvisation, like a jazz musician going off on a riff.”

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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Why Can’t We Walk Straight?

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For over 80 years, scientists have been trying to resolve a great mystery: Why can’t humans walk straight? Without a visible guidepoint like the sun or the moon or a mountain top in sight, we seem to go around in circles — quite literally. Here, NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich distills decades of inconclusive research, with the help of animator Benjamin Arthur.

There are countless experiments throughout history to test this curious quirk.

In 1920s, a young scientist asked a friend to walk across a field in a straight line, blindfolded. But here’s what the friend did:

In 1928, three men left a barn on a very foggy day and set out to walk to a point a mile away, straight ahead. Instead, this is how their journey went:

Also in 1928, a man was blindfolded, then asked to jump into a lake and swim straight to the other side. Here’s what he ended up doing:

When a man was asked to get in a car and drive straight across an empty Kansas field, he did the following:

There is, apparently, a profound inability in humans to stick to a straight line when blindfolded.” ~ Robert Krulwich

And while this particular mystery might not yet have an answer, on the subject of fascinating factoids from the folks at NPR, don’t forget the excellent All Facts Considered — an answers-laden compendium of curiosities from NPR’s endearing, librarianly librarian.

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TED Unbound: Behind the Scenes of a TED Talk

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We’re longtime lovers of TED. (To an obsessive degree, some would argue.) Last year, we took a behind-the-scenes look at the incredible energy — physical, intellectual, emotional — that goes into the making of a TED talk. Today, from executive producer Jason Wishnow and filmmakers Josh Nussbaum and Todd Banhazl comes a rare look at the riveting, nerve-wrecking world of TED’s greatest asset — the speakers — as they hone that signature blend of world-changing genius and inspired humility that makes TED TED.

The thing is not to get self-conscious. It’s just like playing the piano. If you play the piano and suddenly start looking at your fingers… the music will stop.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson

Relive some of that magic with our live coverage of TED 2010, complete with photos and exclusive soundbites, and go deeper with these 7 must-read books by TED speakers.

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Visual Life: The Sartorialist’s Creative Process

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Photographer-turned-blogger Scott Schuman, better-known as The Sartorialist, is one of the social web’s greatest success stories. In 2005, after quitting his full-time job to take care of his baby daughter, Shuman began carrying a camera around the streets of New York, documenting styles and fashions that caught his eye, then posting the images on his blog. Considered a pioneer of fashion photography in the blog medium, Schuman soon amassed an enormous, almost cultish following and eventually even published a book. A Visual Life is a poetic microdocumentary putting Schuman on the other side of the camera and chronicling his daily creative process. He calls his work a “digital park bench” — a new, digitally empowered way to people-watch across distance, geography and social divides.

It’s almost like going out there and letting yourself fall in love a little bit every day, letting yourself be seduced a little bit every day.” ~ Scott Schuman

We’re particularly taken with, and identify with, his passion-first, figure-it-out-as-you-go-along approach to his work:

My lack of knowledge in the beginning really helped and really just made me refine what little I knew to make it work.” ~ Scott Schuman

For more of Schuman’s beautiful visual cultural anthropology, we highly recommend The Sartorialist: (Bespoke Edition) — an elegant deluxe volume featuring 512 pages of Schuman’s finest work.

via texturism

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