Brain Pickings

William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible

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What charcoal has to do with democracy, equality and the cultural necessity for absurdity.

South African artist William Kentridge is known for his unique animation technique and the subtle yet powerful political undercurrents of his work. Most famous for using only charcoal and a hint of blue or red pastel to create mesmerizing near-expressionist animations, his artwork comments on the apartheid not through the tired visual metaphors for black oppression and white extravagance but, rather, through complex and philosophical reflections on the duality of man.

This month, PBS’s ART:21 premiered William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible — a fascinating documentary about the artist’s creative process, offering a rare glimpse of the genius behind the charcoal drawings, animations, video installations, shadow plays, video installations, mechanical puppets, sculptures, operas, tapestries and live performance pieces that have made him one of today’s most exciting and diverse contemporary artists.

The film is available in 10 parts on the PBS website and features exclusive interviews with Kentridge in his studio, discussing the techniques and philosophy behind his work, his personal history as a white South African of Jewish descent, and his experiments with machines that use the mechanism of vision as a metaphor for our agency to make sense of the world.

[Absurdity] is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world. Why should we be interested in a clearly impossible story? Because, as Gogol says, in fact the impossible is what happens all the time.” ~ William Kentridge

Watch the full episode. See more ART:21.

Also available is a fantastic free 32-page educators’ guide, discussing Kentridge’s work in a broader cultural and political context.

For more on William Kentridge and his astounding work, we highly recommend William Kentridge: Trace. Prints from The Museum of Modern Art, the gorgeous companion book to MoMA’s recent Five Themes exhibition on Kentridge.

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Dancing Under The Gallows: The Story of Alice, the World’s Oldest Holocaust Survivor

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Dancing Under The Gallows is the moving story of Alice Herz-Sommer who, at 106, is the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor.

Alice, an accomplished pianist and an extraordinarily optimistic spirit, has been taking refuge in her music for the past seven decades.

I love people. I love everyone. I love people — I love to speak with them, I’m interested in the life of other people.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

In 1942, Alice was a prominent concert pianist living in Prague. Just as she turned 39, she was deported to a Nazi a special concentration camp designed as a purgatory for artists, where tortured prisoners were permitted — if not forced — to paint, perform and make music as part of the Nazi’s effort to deceive the rest of the world by showing how “well” Jewish people were being treated.

When Alice plays the masters of classical music, she brings to the piano a style the world has long forgotten, emanating a deep nostalgia for a culture long gone.

Beethoven. He is a…miracle! His music is not only melody. What is inside… what is inside, how it’s filled. It’s full, it’s intensive.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

To support the project, you can pre-order a copy of the DVD and show some love on Facebook.

Thanks, Michal!

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PICKED: Influencers

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Influencers is a 13-minute documentary about the sociology of tastemaking and what it means to be an “influencer,” exploring how trends in music, fashion and entertainment propagate across culture.

Though a bit too heavily doused in the buzzword-speak you’d find in trend analysts’ and agency planners’ decks, the film is nonetheless a solid effort by creators Davis Johnson and Paul Rojanathara.

‘Influencers’ belongs to the new generation of short films, webdocs, which combine the documentary style and the online experience.”

Despite the clear marketing prism through which the point of view is bent, Influencers does serve up a fascinating anthology of perspectives on, to use another buzzword, the groundswell of trends and creativity.

If you can get past the truisms and borderline fluff, the film offers a good dose of inspiration through a handful of case studies, stitched together with meticulous art direction, beautiful cinematography and a wonderfully curated soundtrack.

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5 Essential Books and Talks on the Psychology of Choice

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The psychology of spaghetti sauce and why too many jams make you lose your appetite.

Why are you reading this? How did you decide to click the link, load the page and stay? How do we decide to do anything at all and, out of the myriad choices we face each day, what makes one option more preferable over another? This is one of the most fundamental questions of the social sciences, from consumer psychology to economic theory to behavioral science.

Today, at the risk of meta-irony, we look at not one but five fantastic books and talks that explore the subject. Take your pick(s) — if you can, that is.

BARRY SCHWARTZ THE PARADOX OF CHOICE

Barry Schwartz studies the relationship between economics and psychology. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, he debunks one of the great myths of modern civilization: That abundance makes us happier and greater choice equals greater good. Through solid behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, Schwartz makes a compelling case that abundance exhausts the human psyche, sprouts unreasonable expectations and ultimately makes us feel unfulfilled. Alongside the research, he offers simple yet effective strategies for curbing the disappointment consumerism has set us up for and living lives that feel more complete.

MALCOLM GLADWELL BLINK

We may have had our public disagreements with the king of pop psychology, but Malcolm Gladwell does have a penchant for synthesizing diverse research, connecting the dots, and distilling the gist for the laymen of the land. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he does just that, translating research on snap judgements into captivating storytelling about our “adaptive unconscious” — the always-on mental system the processes danger and reacts to new information. From assessing a stranger’s trustworthiness to choosing a mate during speed-dating to orchestrating military maneuvers, the book explores the deeper science of what’s commonly known as “first impressions,” kindling a new level of awareness of our own behavior and that of others.

JONAH LEHRER HOW WE DECIDE

Among other things, Jonah Lehrer writes the excellent Frontal Cortex blog for Wired, one of our favorites. He is the Malcolm Gladwell of science writing — only with better hair and more meticulous fact-checking — distilling for the common man the complexities and fascinations of university labs and obscure research papers. In his latest book, How We Decide, Lehrer explores how the unexpected discoveries of neuroscience can help us make better everyday decisions.

Amazon has a nice Q&A with Lehrer on the book page, in which he addresses everything from neuroscience to how he handles the cereal aisle.

DAN ARIELY PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has dedicated his career to expoloring the curious ways in which people make choices through odd, unorthodox and often amusing experiments. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions is a densely insightful yet entertaining read, recounting Ariely’s ingenious experiments in how irrational impulses drive our economic behavior and substantiating them with additional evidence for what we all suspect but don’t want to hear: We’re emotional beings swayed by the winds of irrationality even as we attempt to make the most logical and rational of chocies. Intelligent and accessible, the book will change the way you think of yourself and the world around you.

The book’s sequel, The Upside of Irrationality, is also a fascinating read and highly recommended.

SHEENA IYENGAR THE ART OF CHOOSING

Columbia Business School social psychologist Sheena Iyengar. The Art of Choosing begins with the story of a man who survived stranded in the middle of the ocean for 76 days because he chose to live, just as Iyengar herself has chosen not to let her blindness prevent her from being a fierce researcher and acclaimed academic. This fascinating piece of pop-psychology offers a fascinating journey into the web of consumerism, woven out of our biological need for choice and control, drawing on everything from the pensées of Albert Camus to The Matrix.

In this compelling BigThink interview, Iyengar reveals how she came to study choice and how her own biological limits affect the way she makes choices.

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