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Posts Tagged ‘art’

12 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O: Shel Silverstein’s Sweet Allegory for the Simple Secret of Love and the Key to Nurturing Relationships

By:

A gentle reminder that the best relationships don’t complete us but let us grow and become more fully ourselves.

The best children’s books, as Tolkien asserted and Sendak agreed, aren’t written for children; they are enjoyed by children, but they speak to our deepest longings and fears, and thus enchant humans of all ages. But the spell only works, as legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom memorably remarked, “if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.”

Few storytellers have immunized us against our adult dullness, generation after generation, more potently than Shel Silverstein, one of the many beloved authors and artists — alongside Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and dozens of others — whose genius Nordstrom cultivated under her compassionate and creatively uncompromising wing. In a letter from September of 1975, she wrote: “Shel promised me that it was in really good and almost final shape… I hope with all my heart that this is really the case.” Silverstein had gone to visit Nordstrom some weeks earlier and recited the story for her, which she found to be “very very good (in fact terrific).” “I hope he hasn’t messed it up,” she adds in the letter, “and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t.” Nordstrom’s intuition and her unflinching faith in her authors and artists was never misplaced.

In 1976, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (public library) was published — a minimalist, maximally wonderful allegory at the heart of which is the emboldening message that true love doesn’t complete us, even though at first it might appear to do that, but lets us grow and helps us become more fully ourselves. It’s a story especially poignant for those of us who have ever suffered from Savior Syndrome or Victim Syndrome and sought a partner to either fix or be fixed by, the result of which is often disastrous, always disappointing, and never salvation or true love.

Silverstein tells the tale of a lonely little wedge that dreams of finding a big circle into which it can fit, so that together they can roll and go somewhere. Various shapes come by, but none are quite right.

In these unbefitting rolling partners, one can’t help but recognize the archetypes implicated in failed friendships and romances — there are the damaged-beyond-repair (“some had too many pieces missing”), the overly complicated (“some had too many pieces, period”) the worshipper (“one put it on a pedestal and left it there”), the self-involved narcissist (“some rolled by without noticing”).

The missing piece tries to make itself more attractive, flashier — but that scares away the shy ones and leaves it ever lonelier.

At last, one comes along that fits just right, and the two roll on by blissfully.

But then, something strange starts happening — the missing piece begins to grow.

And just like in any relationship where one partner grows and the other remains static, things end in disappointment — and then they just end. The static circle moves along, looking for a piece that won’t grow.

At last, a shape comes by that looks completely different — it has no piece missing at all — and introduces itself as the Big O.

The exchange between the missing piece and the Big O is nothing short of breathstopping:

“I think you are the one I have been waiting for,” said the missing piece. “Maybe I am your missing piece.”

“But I am not missing a piece,” said the Big O. “There is no place you would fit.”

“That is too bad,” said the missing piece. “I was hoping that perhaps I could roll with you…”

“You cannot roll with me,” said the Big O, “but perhaps you can roll by yourself.”

This notion is utterly revelatory for the missing piece, doubly so when the Big O asks if it has ever tried. “But I have sharp corners,” the missing piece offers half-incredulously, half-defensively. “I am not shaped for rolling.”

But corners, the Big O assures it, can wear off — another elegant metaphor for the self-refinement necessary in our personal growth. With that, the Big O rolls off, leaving the missing piece alone once more — but, this time, with an enlivening idea to contemplate.

The missing piece goes “liftpullflopliftpullflop” forward, over and over, until its edges begin to wear off and its shape starts to change. Gradually, it begins to bounce instead of bump and then roll instead of bounce — rolling, like it always dreamt of doing with the aid of another, only all by itself.

And here comes Silverstein’s tenderest, most invigorating magic — when the missing piece becomes its well-rounded self, the Big O emerges, silently and without explanation. In the final scene, the two are seen rolling side by side, calling to mind Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s contribution to history’s greatest definitions of love: “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is immeasurably wonderful in a way to which neither text nor pixel does any justice. Complement it with Wednesday, another minimalist and wholly wordless allegory for friendship, and Norton Juster’s vintage masterwork of poetic geometry, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, then treat yourself to this animated adaptation of Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and his touching duet with Johnny Cash.

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10 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Nature and Nurture of Genius: The Sweet Illustrated Story of How Henri Matisse’s Childhood Shaped His Creative Legacy

By:

A heartening testament to the nourishing power of parental love in the cultivation of greatness.

At 8PM on the last day of 1869, a little boy named Henri entered the world in a gray textile-mill town in the north of France, in a rundown two-room cottage with a leaky roof. He didn’t have much materially, but he was blessed with perhaps the greatest gift a child could have — an unconditionally loving, relentlessly supportive mother. Like many creative icons whose destinies were shaped by the unflinching encouragement of loved ones, little Henri became the great Henri Matisse thanks to his mother’s staunch support, which began with an unusual ignition spark: At the age of twenty, Henri was hospitalized for appendicitis and his mother brought him a set of art supplies with which to occupy his recovery. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands,” Matisse recounted, “I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.” And that thing flowed from love, too — it was Matisse’s mother who encouraged her son, like E.E. Cummings encouraged all aspiring artists, to disregard the formal rules of art and instead paint from the heart. “My mother loved everything I did,” he asserted. Decades later, thanks to Gertrude Stein’s patronage, which catalyzed his career and sparked his friendship with Picasso, the world too would come to love what Matisse did.

In The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse (public library), writer Patricia MacLachlan and illustrator Hadley Hooper tell the heartening story of young Henri’s childhood and how it shaped his artistic path long before he began painting — how his mother, in an attempt to brighten the drab and sunless days, put bright red rugs on the floors and painted colorful plates to hang on the walls, letting little Henri mix the paints; how his father gave him pigeons, whose iridescent plumage the boy observed with endless fascination; how the beautiful silks woven by the townspeople beguiled him with their bright patterns.

With a gentle sidewise gleam, the story offers a nuanced answer to the eternal nature-versus-nurture question of whether genius is born or made. Embedded in it is a wonderful testament to the idea that attentive presence rather than praise is the key to great parenting, especially when it comes to nurturing young talent. (Indeed, such maternal presence is what legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom provided for many of the young authors and artists — including, most notably, Maurice Sendak — whom she nurtured over the course of her reign as the twentieth century’s greatest patron saint of children’s books.)

For a delightful touch of empathy via a twist of perspective, MacLachlan places the reader in little Henri’s shoes:

If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray

And the days were cold

And you wanted color and light

And sun,

And your mother, to brighten your days,

Painted plates to hang on the walls

With pictures of meadows and trees,

Rivers and birds,

And she let you mix the colors of paint…

… And you raised Pigeons

Watching their sharp eyes
And red feet,

And their colors that changed with the light
As they moved…

… Would it be a surprise that you became
A fine painter who painted
Light
and
Movement

And the iridescence of birds?

Beneath the biographical particulars of the story itself is MacLachlan’s larger inquiry into the enduring question of whether artists draw what they see or what they feel and remember — Matisse’s life, she writes in the afterword, attests to the fact that the two are inextricably entwined: “He painted his feelings and he painted his childhood.”

Hooper’s illustrations are themselves a masterwork of artistry, scholarship, and creative ingenuity. She spent considerable time studying Matisse’s sensibility and colors in reproductions of his drawings, cutouts, and paintings, then researched textile patterns from the era of his childhood and even used Google Maps to picture the actual streets that he walked as a little boy. The result is not imitation but dimensional celebration. Hooper reflects on the unusual and inventive technique she chose:

I decided to try relief printing, which forced me to simplify my shapes and allowed me to focus on the color and composition. I cut the characters and backgrounds out of stiff foam and cardboard, inked them up, made prints, and scanned the results into Photoshop. The approach felt right.

The Iridescence of Birds is absolutely wonderful, in a way to which the screen does a great injustice. Complement it with other excellent picture-book biographies of luminaries, including those of Jane Goodall, Henri Rousseau, Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian.

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09 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A): E.E. Cummings on What It Really Means to Be an Artist and His Little-Known Line Drawings

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“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.”

“You’re an artist when you say you are,” Amanda Palmer offered in her emboldening reflection on the creative life. “And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.” Nearly a century earlier, Sherwood Anderson advised his aspiring-artist son: “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.” But one of the greatest meditations on what art is and isn’t, on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, comes from E.E. Cummings, whose lesser-known prose enchants very differently and yet by the same mechanism that his celebrated poetry does — by inviting the reader to “pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.”

A concentrated burst of such delight and recognition is delivered in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — a most unusual and satisfying compendium Cummings himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays.” Many of the pieces had been previously published under clever pseudonyms (for instance, “An Ex-Millionaire’s Rules for Success in Life” by a C.E. Niltse, “Success Editor” at Vanity Fair), and a few had appeared anonymously in various magazines. It was originally published as a limited edition in 1958, when Cummings was sixty-four, and reissued three years after his death to include a number of the author’s previously unseen line drawings — a fine addition to the canon of great authors with lesser-known talents in other fields, including Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly studies, J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age etchings, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors.

With his usual mischievous charisma and elegant acrobatics oscillating between wit and wisdom, Cummings writes in the preface to the original edition:

Taken ensemble, the forty-nine astonish and cheer and enlighten their progenitor. He’s astonished that, as nearly as anyone can make out, I wrote them. He’s cheered because, while re-reading them, I’ve encountered a great deal of liveliness and nothing dead. Last but not least; he’s enlightened via the realization that, whereas times can merely change, an individual may grow.

One of the finest pieces in the collection — an exquisite wellspring of such lively growth — is a satirical yet remarkably profound essay titled “The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A),” originally published in Vanity Fair in 1927 under Cummings’s own name. (A name the capitalization of which has itself been the subject of much misunderstanding.)

'THE DOG IN THE MANGER ... Aesop knew ...'

Cummings begins by a humorous taxonomy of the three types of artists:

First we have the ultrasuccessful artist, comprising two equally insincere groups: “commercial artists,” who concoct almost priceless pictures for advertising purposes, and “fashionable portrait painters,” who receive incredible sums for making unbeautifully rich women look richly beautiful. Very few people, of course, can attain the heights of commercial and fashionable art. Next we have the thousands upon thousands of “academicians” — patient, plodding, platitudinous persons, whose loftiest aim is to do something which “looks just like” something else and who are quite content so long as this undangerous privilege is vouchsafed them. Finally there exists a species, properly designated as the Artist (with capital A) which differs radically from the ultrasuccessful type and the academic type. On the one hand, your Artist has nothing to do with success, his ultimate function being neither to perpetuate the jeweled neck of Mrs. O. Howe Thingumbob nor yet to assassinate dandruff. On the other hand he bears no likeness to the tranquil academician — for your Artist is not tranquil; he is in agony.

'THE FIRST ROBIN ... if the punishment fitted the crime ...'

Cummings considers the source of the Artist’s disquiet:

Most people merely accept this agony of the Artist, as they accept evolution. The rest move their minds to the extent of supposing that anybody with Art school training, plus “temperament” — or a flair for agony — may become an Artist. In other words, the Artist is thought to be an unsublimated academician; a noncommercial, anti-fashionable painter who, instead of taking things easily, suffers from a tendency to set the world on fire and an extreme sensibility to injustice. Can this be true? If not, what makes an Artist and in what does an Artist’s agony consist?

The agony, Cummings argues, has to do with the path one takes to becoming a capital-A Artist. Half a century before Teresita Fernandez’s spectacular commencement address on what it really means to be an artist, Cummings jeers at the misleading cultural narratives about that path:

You may have always secretly admired poor Uncle Henry who, after suddenly threatening to become an Artist with a capital A, inadvertently drank himself to death with a small d instead… Or both you and I may have previously decided to become everything except Artists, without actually having become anything whatever. Briefly, a person may decide to become an Artist for innumerable reasons of great psychological importance; but what interests us is the consequences, not the causes, of our decisions to become Artists.

'THE HELPING HAND ... nobody is exempt ...'

The obvious decision for those who decide to become Artists, Cummings notes as he sets up his wry critique of standard education, is to go to Art school:

Must not people learn Art, just as people learn electricity or plumbing or anything else, for that matter? Of course, Art is different from electricity and plumbing, in that anybody can become an electrician or a plumber, whereas only people with temperament may become Artists. Nevertheless, there are some things which even people with temperament must know before they become Artists and these are the secrets which are revealed at Art school (how to paint a landscape correctly, how to make a face look like someone, what colors to mix with other colors, which way to sharpen pencils, etc.). Only when a person with temperament has thoroughly mastered all this invaluable information can be begin to create his own hook. If you and I didn’t absorb these fundamentals, reader, we could never become Artists, no matter how temperamental we were.

'THE SWAN AND LEDA ... protect your dear ones ...'

But the travesty of the system, Cummings points out, is that at Art school the future capital-A artist ends up at the mercy of the “academician” who learned from the “fashionable portrait painter.” The future Artist is being taught technique by “the renowned Mr. Z, who was formerly a pupil of the great Y,” who in turn “studied at various times under X, W and V and only came into the full possession of his own great powers shortly before his untimely death.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Pete Seeger’s assertion that all artists are “links in a chain,” Cummings concludes:

We are not really studying with Mr. Z at all. We are really studying through Mr. Z.

'THE GARDEN OF EDEN ... before the dawn of history ...'

He then turns to the prevalent notion, perhaps best captured by Anaïs Nin and tightly woven into the mythology of genius, that temperamental excess is essential for creativity:

If you and I didn’t have temperament, we should now become ordinary humdrum academicians. But, being temperamental, we scorn all forms of academic guidance and throw ourselves on the world, eager to suffer — eager to become, through agony, Artists with capital A.

He considers the particular problem of the American artist:

Our next problem is to find the necessary agony. Where is it, gentle reader?

Your answer: the agony lies in the fact that we stand no chance of being appreciated… Not only is there a complete absence of taste anent the domestic product, but once an Artist is found guilty of being a native of the richest country on earth he must choose between spiritual prostitution and physical starvation. What monstrous injustice!

'THE SPINSTER'S DILEMMA ... but a parrot did ...'

Cummings goes on to illustrate the pretentious and posturing of reducing art to objects and forgetting that it is primarily a contagious experience:

Let me show you a painting which cost the purchaser a mere trifle and which is the work (or better, play) of some illiterate peasant who never dreamed of value and perspective. How would you category this bit of anonymity? Is it beautiful? You do not hesitate: yes. Is it Art? You reply: it is primitive, instinctive, or uncivilized Art. Being “uncivilized,” the Art of this nameless painter is immeasurably inferior to the civilized Art of painters like ourselves, is it not? You object: primitive Art cannot be judged by the same standards as civilized Art. But tell me, how can you, having graduated from an Art school, feel anything but scorn for such a childish daub? Once more you object: this primitive design has an intrinsic rhythm, a life of its own, it is therefore Art.

And therein lies Cummings’s most serious — solemn, even — point: That what we learn about art through formulaic instruction takes us further away from what Jeanette Winterson aptly termed “the paradox of active surrender” which art asks of us in order to work us over with its transformative power. In a passage that could well be the Modernist’s manifesto, Cummings considers what ordains that hypothetical peasant’s painting capital-A Art:

It is Art because it is alive. It proves that, if you and I are to create at all, we must create with today and let all the Art schools and Medicis in the universe go hang themselves with yesterday’s rope. It teaches us that we have made a profound error in trying to learn Art, since whatever Art stands for is whatever cannot be learned. Indeed, the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself; and the agony of the Artist, far from being the result of the world’s failure to discover and appreciate him, arises from his own personal struggle to discover, to appreciate and finally to express himself.

'THE FRIEND IN NEED ... a boon to travelers ...'

This condition — which the wise and wonderful Ann Truitt would come to capture perfectly two decades later in considering the difference being doing art and being an artist, asserting that “artists have no choice but to express their lives” — is the sole requirement of being a capital-A Artist. With an eye toward a far more luminous and liberating definition of success, Cummings urges:

Look into yourself, reader, for you must find Art there, if at all… Art is not something which may or may not be acquired, it is something which you are not or which you are. If a thorough search of yourself fails to reveal the presence of this something, you may be perfectly sure that no amount of striving, academic or otherwise, can bring it into your life. But if you are this something — then, gentle reader, no amount of discrimination and misapprehension can possibly prevent you from becoming an Artist. To be sure, you will not encounter “success,” but you will experience what is a thousand times sweeter than “success.” You will know that when all’s said and done (and the very biggest Butter Baron has bought the very last and least Velasquez) “to become an Artist” means nothing: whereas to become alive, or one’s self, means everything.

Or, as Sherwood Anderson wrote three decades earlier his magnificent letter of life-advice to his son, “The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you may live.”

'THE DEATH OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN ... even prominent people ...'

E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised is, sadly, out of print — but it’s well worth the hunt. Complement it with Susan Cheever’s spectacular biography of Cummings and the unusual story of the fairy tales he wrote for his only daughter, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe’s exquisite letter on success and what it means to be an artist and some of today’s most prominent artists contemplating this slippery subject.

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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05 FEBRUARY, 2015

The People’s Platform: An Essential Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Cultural Commons in the Age of Commerce

By:

“We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant.”

C.S. Lewis memorably wrote that art and philosophy — in other words, the substance of what we call human culture — have no survival value but, rather, give value to survival. The kind of value he had in mind, of course, was spiritual. And yet half a century later, we’ve stifled our way into a system that assesses art and philosophy and human culture for their economic value as market commodities — they’ve been reduced to that depressingly derogatory term for cultural material: content.

One chilly autumn afternoon a few years ago, I sat on a park bench in Brooklyn with writer, activist, documentary filmmaker, and kindred cautious idealist Astra Taylor to talk about how and why we got here, and what we can do to save the ennobling thought-things that give value to human survival. Ours was one of many conversations Taylor had in the process of researching and writing her magnificent and enormously important manifesto for the survival of our cultural commons, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (public library) — a look at what the internet has promised us, how it has failed us in delivering on those promises, and what we can do to shed its burdens and carry its blessings forward.

Illustration from Theodor Nelson's pioneering 1974 book 'Computer Lib | Dream Machines' found in '100 Ideas that Changed the Web.' Click image for more.

Taylor writes:

As a consequence of the Internet, it is assumed that traditional gatekeepers will crumble and middlemen will wither. The new orthodoxy envisions the Web as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing audience and influence away from the big and giving to the small. Networked technologies will put professionals and amateurs on an even playing field, or even give the latter an advantage. Artists and writers will thrive without institutional backing, able to reach their audiences directly. A golden age of sharing and collaboration will be ushered in, modeled on Wikipedia and open source software.

In many wonderful ways this is the world we have been waiting for. [But] in some crucial respects the standard assumptions about the Internet’s inevitable effects have misled us.

The argument regarding the internet’s impact, Taylor notes, has become bereft of nuance and has settled into one of two camps from which soundbites are fired at the other — techno-skeptics, in the tradition of Alvin Toffler, admonish us that we’ve become a herd of “skimmers, staying in the shallows of incessant stimulation,” while techno-optimists assure us that we’re “evolving into expert synthesizers and multitaskers, smarter than ever before.” Such polarization — like all polarization — seems rather impoverishing. Much of it pits technology against humanism which, as Krista Tippett has elegantly asserted of science and spirituality, ask wholly different questions rather than providing different answers to the same question. Indeed, Taylor targets this with exquisite precision:

These questions are important, but the way they are framed tends to make technology too central, granting agency to tools while sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded.

Newsgirls deliver newspapers in 1910. Public domain photograph by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

She notes that “new media” is quite a misnomer, for it implies both a counterpoint to and a supplanting of “old media” — and yet this is hardly the case. I, too, have often marveled at how much of Old Media’s legacy we’ve simply replicated and transposed onto new platforms — take, for instance, a newspaper editor’s remarkably prescient 1923 lament about commerce taking over cultural responsibility in journalism, or E.B. White’s 1975 admonition about the evils of corporate sponsorship in public media. Taylor agrees:

Many of the problems that plagued our media system before the Internet was widely adopted have carried over into the digital domain — consolidation, centralization, and commercialism — and will continue to shape it. Networked technologies do not resolve the contradictions between art and commerce, but rather make commercialism less visible and more pervasive… The pressure to be quick, to appeal to the broadest possible public, to be sensational, to seek easy celebrity, to be attractive to corporate sponsors—these forces multiply online where every click can be measured, every piece of data mined, every view marketed against. Originality and depth eat away at profits online, where faster fortunes are made by aggregating work done by others, attracting eyeballs and ad revenue as a result.

And yet her point is “not trying to deny the transformative nature of the Internet, but rather to recognize that we’ve lived with it long enough to ask tough questions” — questions that call on us to respond not with cynicism and resignation but with mobilized hope and lucid idealism as we peer forward into a more promising future for what proto-internet pioneer Vannevar Bush so poetically termed “the common record.” Taylor writes:

The truth is subtler: technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it. Only then can we make good on the unprecedented opportunity the Internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality. If we want the Internet to truly be a people’s platform, we will have to work to make it so.

Paul Otlet's Mundaneum, an early-twentieth-century analog internet human-powered by a primarily female staff who answered queries by hand. Click image for more.

For one thing, Taylor admonishes that the artists, writers, and other craftspeople of culture are being shortchanged by the machinery of commercial interest and corporate power. She writes:

Wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume, and connect.

[…]

Cultural products are increasingly valuable only insofar as they serve as a kind of “signal generator” from which data can be mined. The real profits flow not to the people who fill the platforms where audiences congregate and communicate — the content creators — but to those who own them.

[…]

During this crucial moment of cultural and economic restructuring, artists themselves have been curiously absent from a conversation dominated by executives, academics, and entrepreneurs.

Some artists, of course, are raising their heads and challenging the this-is-how-it-should-be-done-because-this-is-how-it-has-always-been-done paradigm of culture’s relationship with commerce. And yet, pointing to another realm where we’ve lost our sense of nuance, Taylor argues that in our fetishism of openness at all costs — that is, at no cost — we’ve forgotten the actual, physical, inescapably tangible costs of creating what we designate by the ethereal term “culture.” In the final chapter, aptly titled “Drawing a Line,” she writes:

When we talk about the cultural commons, it should be self-evident that production is a precondition of access. An article needs to be researched and written before it can be read; a canvas must be painted before it can be shown. Yet we live in a society oddly reluctant to recognize that this is the case. Dominant economic theories emphasize exchange: the value of a good has nothing to do with how it was made but, instead, the price it can command in the marketplace.

And when we try to break with the market to talk about gift economies, bestowing as opposed to buying, we still focus on the way things circulate rather than how they are created. More often than not, those who speak enthusiastically about the cultural commons stay safely inside what Karl Marx called “the noisy sphere” of consumption, “where everything takes place … in full view of everyone,” instead of descending into “the hidden abode of production,” which in fact shapes our world even if we choose to look the other way.

This means we are telling only half the story.

For a glimpse of the other half, for instance, consider the fact that by this point — nearly nine years into it — just keeping Brain Pickings functionally running costs me more than my rent each month. How much it costs to produce a single Radiolab episode or to merely keep Wikipedia’s servers going or to care for the millions of books preserved by The New York Public Library, I can only imagine — which is why I and many others donate to these creators and stewards of culture regularly. On top of these purely technical costs, of course, is the human labor — the time, thought, and love of bringing something to life — something meant to exist not because it is marketable but because it matters.

Embroidered map of the infant Internet in 1983 by Debbie Millman (courtesy of the artist)

Taylor captures this ecosystem of costs that create value beautifully:

A material reality supports the digital commons in all its facets: hardware, infrastructure, and content.

[…]

Creativity and commerce have a complex relationship and, in many ways, a necessary one. Nonetheless, a market in creative goods is different from creative marketing, and the latter is growing at the expense of the former. The mercantile climate has moved to the center; what was once an attribute has become a dominant feature.

Half a century after E.F. Schumacher exhorted us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Taylor argues that the root cause of disturbing the vital balance between the two by drowning culture in commerce is the rise of ad-supported media. She considers the corner into which we’ve squeezed ourselves by relinquishing creative integrity for commercial profit:

The technology is still in its infancy, but we should pause to reflect on the profound nature of this transformation. Right now there are artists who agonize over whether to license their work for commercial purposes, and yet we have a situation where our very likeness is used to hawk doughnuts or shoes or whatever it may be without explicit permission being granted first. There are people going deeply into debt so they can work as journalists and truth tellers, but “sponsored content” is what they are told will pay the bills.

She worries that these changes will permeate the very fabric of what we believe is possible, and slowly warp our social standards:

Why worry about selling out when you are already an ad and have been your whole life? Why fret over the ethics of promoting yourself when you are already being used to promote something else? Under the “open” model, where the distinction between commercial and noncommercial has melted away, everything is for sale. When there is no distinction between inner and outer, our bonds with family and friends, our private desires and curiosities, all become commodities. We are sold out in advance, branded whether we want to be or not.

[…]

While it may look like we are getting something for nothing, advertising-financed culture is not free. We pay environmentally, we pay with our self-esteem, and we pay with our attention, privacy, and knowledge.

And yet all is not lost — far from it. While Taylor’s critique is not of the soft, compliment-sandwich kind, it is also inherently a beacon of hope rather than despair. She offers a number of strategies for fortifying our cultural commons and possible directions for expanding the horizon of the possible and living up to our potential as a species capable of honorable and ennobling deeds:

One positive step may be something deceptively simple: an effort to raise consciousness about something we could call sustainable culture. “Culture” and “cultivate” share the same root, after all: “Coulter,” a cognate of “culture,” means the blade of a plowshare. It is not a reach to align the production and consumption of culture with the growing appreciation of skilled workmanship and artisanal goods, of community food systems and ethical economies. The aims of this movement may be extended and adapted to describe cultural production and exchange, online and off.

[…]

We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant. The notion of sustainable culture forces us to recognize that the digital has not rendered all previously existing institutions obsolete. It also challenges us to figure out how to improve them.

In the remainder of The People’s Platform, which is at once immensely important and full of Taylor’s deeply enjoyable prose, she goes on to examine how we can outgrow the limiting models we’ve inherited and find more ambitious new ways of making our world more beautiful, intelligent, and full of meaning. Complement it with this history of 100 ideas that changed the web, then revisit Belgian idealist Paul Otlet’s early-twentieth-century vision for a democratic “internet” and dear old E.B. White on the role and responsibility of the writer.

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