Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

08 OCTOBER, 2014

A Minimalist, Maximally Imaginative Geometric Allegory for the Essence of Friendship and Creativity

By:

What a circle and a square can teach us about empathy, collaboration, and the origin of great ideas.

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library | IndieBound), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Complement Wednesday with other Enchanted Lion treasures, including The Lion and the Bird, Fox’s Garden, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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07 OCTOBER, 2014

Pen & Ink: An Illustrated Collection of Unusual, Deeply Human Stories Behind People’s Tattoos

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Stories that “speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely.”

We wear the stories of our lives — sometimes through our clothes, sometimes even more deeply, through the innermost physical membrane that separates self from world. More than mere acts of creative self-mutilation, tattoos have long served a number of unusual purposes, from celebrating science to asserting the power structures of Russia’s prison system to offering a lens on the psychology of regret.

In Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them (public library), based on their popular Tumblr of the same title, illustrator and visual storyteller Wendy MacNaughton — she of extraordinary sensitivity to the human experience — and editor Isaac Fitzgerald catalog the wild, wicked, wonderfully human stories behind people’s tattoos.

From a librarian’s Sendak-like depiction of a Norwegian folktale her grandfather used to tell her, to a writer who gets a tattoo for each novel he writes, to a journalist who immortalized the first tenet of the Karen revolution for Burma’s independence, the stories — sometimes poetic, sometimes political, always deeply personal — brim with the uncontainable, layered humanity that is MacNaughton’s true medium.

The people’s titles are as interesting as the stories themselves — amalgamations of the many selves we each contain and spend our lives trying to reconcile, the stuff of Whitman’s multitudes — from a “pedicab operator and journalist” to an “actress / director / BDSM educator” to “cartoonist and bouncer.”

The inimitable Cheryl Strayed — who knows a great deal about the tiny beautiful things of which life is made and whose own inked piece of personal history is among the stories — writes in the introduction:

As long as I live I’ll never tire of people-watching. On city buses and park benches. In small-town cafes and crowded elevators. At concerts and swimming pools. To people-watch is to glimpse the mysterious and the banal, the public face and the private gesture, the strangest other and the most familiar self. It’s to wonder how and why and what and who and hardly ever find out.

This book is the answer to those questions. It’s an intimate collection of portraits and stories behind the images we carry on our flesh in the form of tattoos.

[…]

Each of the stories is like being let in on sixty-three secrets by sixty-three strangers who passed you on the street or sat across from you on the train. They’re raw and real and funny and sweet. They speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely. Together, they do the work of great literature — gathering a force so true they ultimately tell a story that includes all.

Chris Colin, writer

For writer Chris Colin, the tattoo serves as a sort of personal cartography of time, as well as a reminder of how transient our selves are:

I got this tattoo because I suspected one day I would think it would be stupid. I wanted to mark time, or mark the me that thought it was a good idea. Seventeen years later. I hardly remember it’s there. But when I do, it reminds me that whatever I think now I probably won’t think later.

Yuri Allison, student

For student Yuri Allison, it’s a symbolic reminder of her own inability to remember, a meta-monument to memory, that vital yet enormously flawed human faculty:

I have an episodic memory disorder. I don’t have any long-term memory. My childhood is completely blank, as is my schooling until high school. Technically I can’t recall anything that’s beyond three years in the past. I find it very difficult to talk about, simply because I still can’t wrap my head around the idea myself, so when someone talks to me about a memory we are supposed to share I simply smile and say that I don’t remember. Just like my memories, lip tattoos are known to fade with time.

Roxane Gay, writer and professor

For writer, educator, and “bad feminist” Roxane Gay, it is a deliberate editing of what Paul Valéry called “the three-body problem”:

I hardly remember not hating my body. I got most of my seven arm tattoos when I was nineteen. I wanted to be able to look at my body and see something I didn’t loathe, that was part of my body by choosing entirely. Really, that’s all I ever wanted.

Morgan English, research director

For research director Morgan English, the tattoo is a depiction of “a series of childhood moments” strung together to capture her grandmother’s singular spirit in an abstract way:

My grandma died in a freak accident in May of last year. She was healthy as an ox — traveling the world with her boyfriend well into her 80s — then she broke her foot, which created a blood clot that traveled to her brain. Three days later, she was gone.

The respect and admiration I have for her is difficult to articulate. here was a woman who endured two depressions (post-WWI Weimar Germany, from which she escaped to the U.S. in 1929, just before our stock market crashed) followed by a series of traumatic events (incestuous rape, a violent husband, the suicide of her only son). You’d think these things would break a person, or at least harden them, but she only grew more focused. She once told me, “Fix your eyes on the solution, it’s the only way things get solved! Just keep moving and you’ll become the woman you’ve always wanted to be.”

Thao Nguyen, musician

The hardships, joys, and complexities of family are a running theme. Thao Nguyen, one of my favorite musicians, writes:

I moved across the country from my family, not to be far away, but with no concern for being close.

I was a taciturn family friend. Not a sister. Not a daughter. But no matter the distance, a part of me was always certain I would come back to be an aunt.

One week after my nephew, Sullivan, was born, I had his name on my wrist. There’s plenty of space for any of his siblings who might follow.

It’s been almost two years now and I go home to visit when I can, not just to pass through. I listen, I ask questions, I commit my family to memory, how they lighten up, how they grimace. I hate the time I wasted, and I fear the rate of everyone’s disappearance. Now when I leave, the distance between us is not nearly as expansive. Often it is no more than my eyes to my arm. Should I forget that I belong to people, I have Sullivan to remind me.

Caroline Paul, writer

Writer Caroline Paul — incidentally, MacNaughton’s partner and co-author of the excellent Lost Cat, one of the best books of 2013 — inks a kinship of ideals:

My brother had a secret life for twenty years as a member of the Animal Liberation Front. He was finally caught and sentenced to four years for burning down a horse slaughterhouse. I got this tattoo for him, while he was in prison. It’s my only tattoo.

It says “My heroes rescue animals.”

Mac McClelland, journalist

Journalist Mac McClelland, author of For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War, immortalizes the dermis-deep commitment to a different kind of rights cause:

The first tenet of the Karen revolution for independence from the Burmese junta is “For us to surrender is out of the question.” Little kids wear T-shirts emblazoned with it; adults bring it up, drunk and patriotic at parties. After I came home from living with Karen refugees on the Thai/Burma border in 2006, and before I wrote a book of the same title, I got the first tenet and the fourth — “We must decide our own political destiny” — tattooed on each side of my rib cage so I wouldn’t ever forget what some people were fighting for.

Mona Eltahawy, writer and public speaker

An undercurrent of political and humanitarian commitment runs throughout the book. Writer and public speaker Mona Eltahawy shares the harrowing story of her inked indignation:

I lost something the night the Egyptian riot police beat me and sexually assaulted me. I was detained for six hours at the Interior Ministry and another six by military intelligence, where I was interrogated while I was blindfolded. During my time at the Interior Ministry I’d been able to surreptitiously use an activist’s smart phone to tweet “Beaten, arrested, Interior Ministry.” About a minute later the phone’s battery died. I won’t allow myself to imagine what could have happened if I hadn’t been able to send out that tweet. After I was finally released, I found out that within fifteen minutes of the tweet #freemona was rending globally, Al Jazeera and The Guardian reported my detention, and the state department tweeted me back to tell me they were on the case. I knew I was lucky. If it wasn’t for my name, my fame, my tweet, my double citizenship, and so many other privileges I might be dead.

Sekhmet. The goddess of retribution and sex. The head of a lioness. Tits and hips. The key of life in one hand, the staff of power in the other. That paradoxical — or perhaps they’re two sides of one coin — mix of pain and pleasure. Retribution and sex. I’d never wanted a tattoo before, but as sadness washed away and my anger and the Vicodin wore off, it became important to both celebrate my survival and make a mark on my body of my own choosing.

Michelle Crouch, public radio intern

But what makes the book so immeasurably wonderful is its perfectly balanced dance across the spectrum of human experience, where the dark and the luminous are given equal share. Public radio intern Michelle Crouch shares one of the sweetest stories, inspired by artist Steven Powers’s graffiti love letters to the city:

I used to ride the Market-Frankford line [in Philadelphia] all the way west to get to work. After 46th Street the train runs on an elevated track and as I rode to this job I hated, colorful murals began popping up at eye level. They said things like “YOUR EVERAFTER IS ALL I’M AFTER” and “HOLD TIGHT” and “WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS.” They cheered me up. Once, on my day off, I walked from 46th to 63rd Street on a sort of pilgrimage and met the artist who greeted me from a crane as he painted the letters “W-A-N-T” on a brick wall. When I heard he was designing a series of tattoos based on the love letter murals, I decided to get one. A guy I’d just started dating accompanied me to the tattoo shop. I picked out “WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS.” The words remind me to be generous. I try to live them every day.

Now I have a job I like and I’m married to that boy I had just started dating. Marriage strikes me as being a lot like the tattoo — another way of making generosity permanent.

Pen & Ink is absolutely delightful from cover to cover. Supplement it with the project’s ongoing online incarnation, then treat yourself to MacNaughton’s spectacular Meanwhile and her Brain Pickings artist series contributions.

Images courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton / Bloomsbury

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03 OCTOBER, 2014

The Creative Experience: Legendary Choreographer Merce Cunningham on Motion as Metaphor

By:

“A good teacher keeps out of the way.”

Despite what today’s plethora of books on creativity might indicate, it wasn’t until the second half the twentieth century — with the notable exception of Graham Wallace’s famous 1926 model for the four stages of ideation — that psychology turned to creativity as a formal area of study, bringing to millennia of mystical ideas about genius the rational probing mechanisms of science. In 1970, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to bridge these two approaches and to debunk the false divide between intuition and intellect. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 cultural icons working in the arts and sciences and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library).

Among the luminaries interviewed was choreographer and modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919–July 26, 2009), recipient of the National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur “genius” — a legend in his own right, as well as half of one of history’s greatest creative power couples, alongside the love of his life, the visionary composer John Cage.

Merce Cunningham by Annie Leibovitz (Merce Cunningham Trust)

While Cunningham’s creative medium is dance, it quickly becomes clear that he sees movement as a metaphor — for life, for the creative process, for the human condition:

In my choreographic work, the basis for the dances is movement, that is the human body moving in time-space… It is essentially a process of watching and working with people who use movement as a force of life, not as something to be explained by reference, or used as illustration, but as something, if not necessarily grave, certainly constant in life. What is fascinating and interesting in movement, is, though we are all two-legged creatures, we all move differently, in accordance with our physical proportions as well as our temperaments. It is this that interests me. Not the sameness of one person to another but the difference…

Furthering this notion of movement as a separate, singular language, Cunningham makes a counterintuitive assertion yet one that bespeaks the very sensibility that rendered him one of the greatest creative innovators of the twentieth century:

The dance is not performed to the music. For the dances that we present, the music is composed and performed as a separate identity in itself. It happens to take place at the same time as the dance. The two co-exist, as sight and sound do, in our daily lives. And with that, the dance is not dependent on the music.

[…]

To push this a little further, the dancers on several occasions have not actually heard the music until the first performance; that is, until the audience hears it.

He illustrates this idea with a rather comical yet surprisingly profound exercise:

One of the better things to do on plane trips across the country is to watch [legendary American football quarterback] Joe Namath on the professional football reruns, and plug the sound into the music channel. It makes an absorbing dance.

Noting that he thinks of choreography as Cage thinks of music — as “structure in time” — Cunningham extracts from movement a beautiful metaphor for the secret of human excellence:

I think in movement terms. Human beings move on two legs across the floor, across the earth. We don’t do very much on the ground. We don’t have that kind of power in us. And we can’t go as fast as most four-footed animals do. Our action is here on our two legs. That’s what our life is about. When one thinks about falling, dying, or a loss of consciousness, this is a condition that is out of the normal range of human momentum. With jumping, although we all try to do it, we are again caught, because we can’t stay up there very long. So it becomes virtuoso. You know, when someone jumps high and stays long enough for it to register, it becomes a virtuoso feat.

Merce Cunningham performs in his 'Antic Meet,' 1958. (Photograph: Richard Rutledge / Merce Cunningham Trust)

In a rather Buddhist-like aside — and his other half, as we know, was a wholehearted practitioner of Zen — Cunningham adds:

Falling is one of the ways of moving.

[…]

The human body moves in limited ways, very few actually. There are certain physical things it can’t do that another animal might be able to do. But within the body’s limitations, I wanted to be able to accept all the possibilities.

In reflecting on his work as a teacher, Cunningham champions the idea that we find ourselves by getting productively lost:

My hope is that in working the way I do, I can place the dancer (and this is involved in my student work too), in a situation where he is dependent upon himself. He has to be what he is. He has as few guides or rules as need be given. He finds his way. It’s concerned with his discovery. I think a good teacher keeps out of the way. That’s why, in the classwork, although there are certain exercises which are repeated every day, they are not exact repetitions. They are varied slightly and radically. Each time the dancer has to look again. The resourcefulness and resiliency of a person are brought into play. Not just of a body, but of a whole person.

Later in the interview, Cunningham recounts his own upbringing and one can’t help but trace the origin of this philosophy to his own formative years — to the idea that, like a good teacher, a good parent “gets out of the way” and that sometimes, even when active encouragement isn’t present, the mere absence of discouragement is enough to let genius take its course:

My family was never against my wanting to be in the theater. My father was a lawyer, and my mother enjoyed traveling. But they had no particular awareness of the arts. They didn’t stop me from tap-dancing when I was an adolescent. My father said, “If you want to do it, fine. All you have to do is work at it.” There was no personal objection. It is curious perhaps, since my two brothers followed him, one being a lawyer, the other, a judge.

But perhaps his most poignant point goes to the heart of creativity — the notion that we are the combinatorial product of everything we ever read, saw, heard, and otherwise experienced, which William Faulkner elegantly articulated and which accounts for the perilous psychology of “cryptomnesia.” Beyond the influence of Cage and “his ideas about the possibilities of sound and time,” which Cunningham readily acknowledges, he speaks to the impossibility of tracing, or even registering, the myriad external ideas that leave an impression on us and shape our own:

Influences are difficult to pinpoint since there are probably many of them. There are many things in one’s life that serve to influence one’s ideas and one’s actions to them.

The Creative Experience is an excellent read its entirety. Sample it further with composer Aaron Copland on emotion vs. intelligence and the trap of public opinion, then revisit this soul-stretching take on John Cage and the inner life of artists.

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