Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

08 MARCH, 2012

Austin Kleon on 10 Things Every Creative Person Should Remember But We Often Forget

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What T.S. Eliot has to do with genetics and the optimal investment theory for your intellectual life.

Much has been said about the secrets of creativity and where good ideas come from, but most of that wisdom can be lost on young minds just dipping their toes in the vast and tumultuous ocean of self-initiated creation. Some time ago, artist and writer Austin Kleon — one of my favorite thinkers, a keen observer of and participant in the creative economy of the digital age — was invited to give a talk to students, the backbone for which was a list of 10 things he wished he’d heard as a young creator:

So widely did the talk resonate that Kleon decided to deepen and enrich its message in Steal Like an Artist — an intelligent and articulate manifesto for the era of combinatorial creativity and remix culture that’s part 344 Questions, part Everything is a Remix, part The Gift, at once borrowed and entirely original.

(This piece of truth is available as a print from 20×200, one of the best places for affordable art.)

The book opens with a timeless T.S. Eliot endorsement of remix culture:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Kleon goes on to delineate the qualities you’ll need to cultivate for the creative life — things like kindness, curiosity, “productive procrastination,” “a willingness to look stupid” — demonstrating that “creativity” isn’t some abstract phenomenon bestowed upon the fortunate few but, rather, a deliberate mindset and pragmatic ethos we can architect for ourselves. As he puts it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”

Kleon writes in the introduction:

It’s one of my theories that when people give advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.

This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.

These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.

These ideas are for everyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)

On doing what you love, Kleon urges:

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.

On engineering creative and intellectual stimulation:

There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income.

I think the same thing is true of idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.

And on that note, immersing yourself in Steal Like an Artist is as fine an investment in the life of your mind as you can hope to make.

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08 MARCH, 2012

Comic Books as the Grimms’ Fairy Tales of Pop Culture

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On making out the shape of our society through its gods of good and evil.

Comic books can be a medium for serious nonfiction and a canvas for creativity in album art, but they are their own medium with a singular visual vocabulary honed by generations of pioneering artists. In this excerpt from Masters of Comic Book Art (quaintly, only available on VHS), speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison introduces ten of the world’s greatest comic book artists, beginning with the great Jack Kirby.

(He also mentions in passing a curious factoid: there are only five forms of art considered natively American — the banjo, jazz, musical comedy, the mystery story, and comic books.)

Comic books were the training ground for me in terms of ethics, in terms of the things I learned about courage, good and evil, what heroism was, right and wrong. Comic books are the Grimms’ fairy tales of the popular culture — they’re done by serious people who care about the work they do, even as Van Gogh and Magritte and everyone else did.” ~ Harlan Ellison

It’s also fascinating to hear Kirby peel the curtain on the train of curiosity behind his iconic DC Comics series New Gods:

…I began to ask myself… Everybody else has their own gods — what are ours? What is the shape of our society and the form of myth and legend? Who are our gods? Who are our evil gods, and who are our goods ones?”

For a great primer on the making and milestones of the beloved visual storytelling medium, see the 2005 book Masters of American Comics.

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07 MARCH, 2012

How Iconic Album Cover Illustrator R. Crumb Brought Comics to Music

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What Janis Joplin has to do with rediscovering yesteryear’s forgotten masters.

Alex Steinweiss may be the father of the modern album cover, but Robert Crumb is its favorite weird uncle. Though best-known as a pioneer of the underground comix movement, the subversive artist had long been fascinated with the music of the 1920s and 1930s — jazz, big band, swing, blues, cajun — so when, in 1968, Janis Joplin asked him to design the cover for her album Cheap Thrills, it was the beginning of R. Crumb’s prolific second career illustrating hundreds of covers for artists emerging and legendary. In fact, Crumb’s covers for yesteryear’s forgotten masters were so influential in and of themselves that they spurred the rediscovery of many of these old records in the 1960s and 1970s.

R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection captures Crumb’s quirky, beautiful work and his enduring legacy in 450 vibrant four-color, black-and-white, and monocolor illustrations that exude his love of music and his love of art in equal measure. Accompanying his unmistakeable record covers are also posters, calling cards, advertisements, and stand-alone portraits of icons like James Brown, Frank Zappa, Gus Cannon, George Jones, Woody Guthrie, and more.

In this narrated short, Crumb, who eventually learned to play the uke, banjo, and mandolin himself, talks about the convergence of his two passions:

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07 MARCH, 2012

Ralph Ellison on Fiction as a Voice for Injustice, a Chariot of Hope, and a Lens on the Human Experience

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“Fiction … can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

“Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by,” beloved writer Ralph Ellison (March 1, 1913–April 16, 1994) famously said.

In 1953, upon receiving the National Book Award for Invisible Man — the only novel he published in his lifetime — Ellison captured the heart of fiction in his remarkable acceptance speech, included in the immensely rewarding The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (public library).

Forty-year-old Ellison — a lover of language, a connoisseur of symbolism, and astute observer of humanity — writes:

If I were asked in all seriousness just what I considered to be the chief significance of Invisible Man as a fiction, I would reply: Its experimental attitude and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.

When I examined the rather rigid concepts of reality which informed a number of the works which impressed me and to which I owed a great deal, I was forced to conclude that for me and for so many hundreds of thousands of Americans, reality was simply far more mysterious and uncertain, and at the same time more exciting, and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness, more promising.

To see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led after so many triumphs to the final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization. A prose which would make use of the richness of our speech, the idiomatic expression, and the rhetorical flourishes from past periods which are still alive among us. Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

Complement Ellison’s Collected Essays with the author on race and the power of the writer in society. For more on the distinction between truth and fiction, see this omnibus of insight by some of modernity’s greatest writers.

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