Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

25 JUNE, 2015

Why Dogs Have Wet Noses: An Irreverent Illustrated Reimagining of Noah’s Ark

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Forty days and forty nights of loyalty and love.

The dog is an amazing creature — a frequent muse to an entire canon of art, a whole collection of Mary Oliver verses, and some excellent metaphors for beauty and aging, and . But its nose — which is how the dog actually “sees” the world — is a particularly miraculous pinnacle of its amazingness, and now the inspiration for a most fanciful alternative mythology.

In the immensely wonderful Why Dogs Have Wet Noses (public library), Scottish poet, novelist, and children’s book author Kenneth Steven and celebrated Norwegian illustrator Øyvind Torseter — the artist behind the existential allegory The Hole and the bittersweet My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — offer an irreverent and utterly heartwarming modern reimagining of Noah’s Ark.

Steven sets the stage:

A long, long time ago, not long after the world began, it started to rain. It was the kind of rain that really soaks you, pouring down from the sky like it will never stop.

We meet Noah, a man “both watchful and wise,” who looks like a lovable aging hipster from the maker movement. He begins building an enormous lifeboat — the Ark — then sets out to recruit “as many creatures as he could remember,” emanating a kind of indiscriminate Buddhist love for all, even “slugs, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies.”

The last to board is a mutt so odd-looking that Noah can’t quite tell what kind of a dog it is, but the soft black nose assures him that it is one.

With a great big groan and a terrifying tilt, the Ark sets sail as Noah wonders whether his strange company will survive this plunge into the unknown.

Steven’s writing, to be sure, is absolutely exquisite — the kind you might find in a Henry Beston masterpiece or an Annie Dillard classic rather than a typical children’s book (but this, of course, isn’t a typical children’s book):

They sailed away. Land had long since vanished. Only sea and sky remained. The rain fell heavier and heavier, and lightning shot from the black clouds, gleaming like snakes’ tongues. But apart from the crashing sounds of rain and thunder, it was completely quiet. As though there were no other sounds left in the whole wide world.

And yet inside the Ark, it was a completely different story — creatures of all shapes, sizes, and appetites clamored day and night. In a scene familiar to parents raising multiple small children — and perhaps good training for Noah himself, whose equally hipster-looking wife grows increasingly pregnant throughout the voyage — he labors tirelessly to feed each animal its favorite food, having “no peace and not a wink of sleep.”

No sooner had the last animal had dinner and gone to sleep, then it was time for the first to have breakfast again.

And yet Noah manages to hold the floating fort for twenty days until, suddenly, disaster strikes — the Ark springs a leak. Although the hole is “no bigger than a chestnut,” water begins to gush in, spelling dread and doom.

With his now beloved dog by his side, Noah brainstorms for a plan. At last, lightning of the more welcome and metaphorical kind strikes.

Just like that, the supreme testament to the dog’s dogness — its soft black nose — plugs the hole and saves the Ark.

All other creatures rejoice as the loyal dog sits there for forty days and forty nights, keeping their lifeboat from sinking amid the seemingly endless ocean.

And then one morning, just as the dog smells an unfamiliar scent, another violent disruption rattles their nautical rhythm — the Ark hits something hard.

Land! Hills rose up through the mist and behind them there was a tiny bit of blue sky. The rain had stopped at last and a magnificent rainbow stretched across the sky.

One by one, the creatures disembark onto the long-awaited shore, marveling at the lush life covering the land. But just as Noah, the last to climb out, joins the marveling bunch, he is seized with a shocking realization: His beloved dog is still down in the belly of the boat, nose faithfully plugging the hole.

Noah rushes to the rescue.

Noah gently stoked his dog’s tummy.

“Good boy,” he whispered.

“Woof!” the dog replied, leaping up to give his master a kiss wit his wet nose.

Never again would Noah’s dog have to go to sea. But from then on, every dog in the world would have a wet nose.

And that, you see, is why dogs have wet noses.

Why Dogs Have Wet Noses comes from Brooklyn-based independent children’s book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, makers of such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Complement this particular gem with Torseter’s philosophical take on a different hole and another magnificent tale of the sea by way of an illustrated love letter to the blue whale, then revisit the far less fanciful actual science of the dog’s amazing nose.

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24 JUNE, 2015

The John Lennon Sketchbook: A Weird and Wonderful Vintage Animated Film About the Beloved Beatle’s Life, Music, and Philosophy

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Quips and prophecies in vibrant color.

In 1986, seventeen years after Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s animated conversation about love and six years after the beloved Beatle’s assassination, Ono commissioned independent animator John Canemaker to create a short animated film based on Lennon’s drawings, music, and interviews. Given her penchant for the intersection of art and philosophy, Lennon’s own quirky illustrations, and the odd fact that the couple’s love began in visual poetry long before they met, it was the perfect medium for commemoration.

Titled The John Lennon Sketchbook, the befittingly weird and wonderful film — a vibrant testament to our long cultural history of anthropomorphizing animals to illuminate the human experience — begins with Lennon’s iconic “Imagine,” features Ono’s song “The King of the Zoo,” and weaves in chillingly prophetic conversations from the limited-edition 1980 LP Heart Play: Unfinished Dialogue, the first interview album of Lennon and Ono’s interviews after the breakup of The Beatles and the second posthumously released Lennon record.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are great examples of fantastic nonviolents who died violently. I can never work that out — we’re pacifists, but I’m not sure what it means when you’re such a pacifist that you get shot. I can never understand that.

Exactly twenty years later, Canemaker received an Academy Award for his animated short film The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation.

Complement with The Beatles’ final photo shoot and a teenage boy’s marvelous animated conversation with Lennon, then revisit his semi-sensical illustrated verses.

HT Open Culture

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23 JUNE, 2015

Beloved Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Importance of Believing in Each Other and How Art Fortifies Our Mutual Dignity

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“We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man… We must believe, without fear, in people.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their prescient 1970 conversation on race, “because we are still each other’s only hope.” It is in such troubled times as ours — times of shootings, beatings, and the only kind of violence there is: the senseless kind — that we most need to heed Baldwin, to be reminded of who we can be to each other, of the tender and tenacious common humanity that undergirds all surface otherness.

Count on legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the past century, a man of immense insight into the creative impulse, deep capacity for gratitude, and complex emotional life — to do the reminding.

A decade before the assassination of JFK prompted Bernstein to write his unforgettable speech on the only true antidote to violence, he penned a beautiful and elevating short essay for NPR’s This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the same altogether magnificent compendium that gave us Thomas Mann on time and features other ennobling reflections from beloved luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

Leonard Bernstein by Jack Mitchell

Bernstein writes:

I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for the truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one human being who meets with injustice can render invalid the entire system which has dispensed it.

A century after Thoreau wrote that there is “no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor,” Bernstein kisses awake our capacity for self-transcendence, from which our capacity to change the world springs:

I believe that man’s noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: He can be divinely wrong. I believe in man’s right to be wrong. Out of this right he has built, laboriously and lovingly, something we reverently call democracy. He has done it the hard way and continues to do it the hard way — by reason, by choosing, by error and rectification, by the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C. Man cannot have dignity without loving the dignity of his fellow.

I believe in the potential of people. I cannot rest passively with those who give up in the name of “human nature.” Human nature is only animal nature if it is obliged to remain static. Without growth, without metamorphosis, there is no godhead. If we believe that man can never achieve a society without wars, then we are condemned to wars forever. This is the easy way. But the laborious, loving way, the way of dignity and divinity, presupposes a belief in people and in their capacity to change, grow, communicate, and love.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neruda’s exquisite metaphor for why we make art, Bernstein considers the power of art as a medium of love that confers dignity upon existence — our own and each other’s:

I believe in man’s unconscious mind, the deep spring from which comes his power to communicate and to love. For me, all art is a combination of these powers; for if love is the way we have of communicating personally in the deepest way, then what art can do is to extend this communication, magnify it, and carry it to vastly greater numbers of people. Therefore art is valid for the warmth and love it carries within it, even if it be the lightest entertainment, or the bitterest satire, or the most shattering tragedy.

Exhorting us to believe “in one another, in our ability to grow and change, in our mutual dignity,” Bernstein echoes John Steinbeck’s memorable assertion that “the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world” and adds:

We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.

Complement the wholly wonderful This I Believe with Bernstein on motivation, his beautiful letter of gratitude to his mentor, and his electrifying tribute to JFK, then revisit Viktor Frankl on why it pays to believe in each other.

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23 JUNE, 2015

John Waters’s Spectacular RISD Commencement Address on Creative Rebellion and the Artist’s Task to Cause Constructive Chaos

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“Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”

Joining the greatest commencement addresses of all time is John Waters’s spectacular 2015 RISD graduation speech on creative rebellion and the artist’s task to cause constructive chaos — annotated highlights transcribed below, please enjoy:

On letting your life speak and finding your bliss:

Somehow I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love best for 50 years without ever having to get a real job. “But how can you be so disciplined?” friends always ask when I tell them my job is to get up every day at 6 A.M. Monday to Friday and think up insane stuff. Easy! If I didn’t work this hard for myself, I’d have to go work for somebody else.

On not fearing rejection (for creative history is strewn with testaments to the importance of tenacity in its face, from Henri Rousseau’s heartening story of success after a lifetime of rejection to Joan Didion’s extensive collection of rejection slips to the bittersweet wisdom from Janis Joplin’s final interview):

Remember, a “no” is free — ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip — all you need is one person to say “Get in!” and off you go. And then the confidence begins.

On mastering the art of observation — which is as important in science as it is in art — and finding the necessary yin-yang of observation and participation:

You must participate in the creative world you want to become part of. So what if you have talent? Then what? You have to figure out how to work your way inside. Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field.

If you’re a visual artist, go see the shows in the galleries that are frantically competing to find the one bad neighborhood left in Manhattan to open up in.

Watch every movie that gets a negative review in The New York Times and figure out what the director did wrong.

Read, read, read!

Watch people on the streets — spy, be nosy, eavesdrop.

Decades after Susan Sontag’s piercing meditation on courage and resistance, Waters makes a more playful and irreverent but no less profound case for the necessity of countercultural bravery and constructive dissent:

Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience.

These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? … Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: the insider — like I am.

On applying Blaise Pascal’s method of persuasion:

You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America — and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys… Hairspray is a Trojan horse — it snuck into Middle America and never got caught.

You can do the same thing.

On the power of humor:

Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid … to you.

On cultivating an identity that honors the expansiveness of the human spirit, one that is inclusive rather than exclusive:

Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers. Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but I don’t want my memoirs to be in the gay section near true crime at the back of the bookstore next to the bathrooms. No! I want it up front with the best-sellers. (And don’t heterosexual kids actually receive more prejudice in art schools today than the gay ones?) Things are a-changin’ — it’s a confusing time.

A sidewise wink at the absurd aberrations of political correctness:

This might be time for a trigger warning… I’ve heard [that] you’re supposed to warn students if you’re going to talk about something that challenges their values — I thought that’s why you went to college. My whole life has been a trigger warning!

On living wholeheartedly in an unfeeling universe:

There’s no such thing as karma. So many of my talented great friends are dead and so many of the fools I’ve met and loathed are still alive — it’s not fair, and it never will be.

On the single most important task of parenting, which psychologists have also confirmed:

My parents made me feel safe, and that’s why I’m up here today. That’s what you should try to do to your children, too — no matter where you get your children these days.

On the artist’s task not only to bear witness to the universe but, as James Baldwin argued half a century earlier, to poke holes in it for new light to shine through:

Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before — is there a better job description than that to aspire to? … Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully… Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living… It’s your turn to cause trouble — but this time in the real world, and this time from the inside.

For more of the finest commencement addresses of all time, see Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the overlooked secret to a happy life

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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