Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

22 MAY, 2012

Advice on Living the Creative Life from Neil Gaiman

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“Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.”

On the heels of last week’s timeless commencement addresses by icons like David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, and Ray Bradbury comes this fantastic speech by Neil Gaiman, addressing the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. (Which happens to be the technical birthplace of Brain Pickings as we know it today — it’s there that I took my first web design night class in the early 1800s and transformed what began as a tiny email newsletter into a tiny website.) Gaiman himself never graduated from college — in fact, he never even enrolled in college — yet he earned his place in literary culture as one of the most celebrated and prolific writers working today. Here, he imparts several pieces of life-wisdom on young people beginning a career in the arts, summarized below.

  1. Say “no” to projects that take you further from rather than closer to your own creative goals, however flattering or lucrative. (Hugh MacLeod put it beautifully: “The most important thing a creative per­son can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.”)
  2. Approach your creative labor with joy, or else it becomes work. (As Ray Bradbury said, “Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it.”)
  3. I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work — which meant that life did not feel like work.

  4. Embrace your fear of failure. Make peace with the impostor syndrome that comes with success. Don’t be afraid of being wrong.
  5. When things get tough, make good art.
  6. Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong — and in life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways in which life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.

  7. Make your art, tell your story, find your voice — even if you begin by copying others.
  8. You can get work because of the story you tell about yourself, even if it means embellishing, but you keep working because you’re good.
  9. Enjoy your work and your small victories; don’t get swept up into the next thing before being fully present with the joys of this one.
  10. This is an era in which the creative landscape is in constant flux. The rules are being broken down, the gatekeepers are being replaced and displaced. Now is the time to make up your own rules.

Gaiman sums it all up thusly:

Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.

Open Culture; top image by Kimberly Butler

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22 MAY, 2012

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See

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The art-science of walking the fine line between keen and crass.

Since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has garnered remarkable reverence as much for its editorial style as it has for its inimitable covers, a singular medium for political and sociocultural visual satire matched perhaps only by Al Jaffee’s legendary MAD magazine fold-ins. In Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director of nearly two decades, offers exactly what it says on the tin — a delicious forbidden taste of the art that didn’t quite nail it, or nailed it a bit too hard.

From Monica Lewinsky with a lollipop to Osama Bin Laden appraising proposed designs for the new World Trade Center, the images come from a slew of beloved New Yorker regulars, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, R. Crumb, and Art Spiegelman (who happens to be Mouly’s partner), and explore — some might say, exploit — our most deep-seated cultural conceits, our grandest fears, our most irrational beliefs, and our greatest unspoken truths. What emerges is a fascinating and unprecedented glimpse of the creative process behind the art of walking the fine line between the humorous and the haughty, the keen and the crass, the unapologetic and the too unapologetic.

Before arriving at the right character set to poke fun at our fears of terrorism -- two Arab men -- Barry Blitt tried the idea with two children and two businessmen. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped -- the reference to the mild DIY explosive, despite the viral fame of the Mentos + Diet Coke mixing experiments, was deemed too obscure for the magazine's audience.

Art Spiegelman winked at Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom from Want' to comment on anti-Muslim violence.

Immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christoph Niemann captured the anti-French sentiments sweeping America.

After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was assaulted by white NYPD officers in 1997, Harry Bliss zeroed in on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's semi-secret paranoia.

Though Art Spiegelman didn't make the cover cut with this 1993 sketch, he and Mouly made it into the family's Christmas card that year.

Much of what makes the book special — and, no doubt, what makes New Yorker covers sing — is Mouly’s relationship with the artists, whom she consistently encourages not to self-sensor or hold anything back. There emerges a kind of “fail better” mentality, underpinned by her conviction that even the most outrageous idea may serve as a gateway to an inspired, publishable line of thinking.

The book’s companion site offers a weekly cover contest, the entries to which have been surprisingly excellent. My favorite, by writer and illustrator Ella German, came last week, themed “The Gays,” in light of the recent historic moment for marriage equality, but also referencing Maurice Sendak, who had passed away the previous week. Though far from a gay rights activist, Sendak lived as an openly gay man with his partner of half a century. The two never had the opportunity to marry.

What Here At The New Yorker did for the magazine’s editorial voice on its 50th anniversary in 1975, Blown Covers has done for its brand of visual satire, offering a rare glimpse of Oz behind the curtain. And to those whose first blush might be that Oz is better off unseen and omnipotent, Mouly offers the following lens in this interview on Imprint:

One could have to do with demystifying, making the process more predictable. But I actually think that it’s so rich and so interesting that it’s actually even more interesting if you have a sense of how the images are thought about, rather than less. It doesn’t explain anything because it still is genius when somebody gets the right idea.

Images courtesy of Abrams Books

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21 MAY, 2012

To Do: Gertrude Stein’s Posthumous Alphabet Book

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“Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster.”

In 1939, Gertrude Stein penned her first children’s book, The World Is Round, whose dramatic story was featured in this two-part omnibus of obscure children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature. The following year, Stein wrote an intended follow-up, titled To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays — a fine addition to my well-documented obsession with unusual alphabet books.

But publisher after publisher rejected the manuscript as too complex for children. (One must wonder what Maurice Sendak might have said to that.) The book was never published in Stein’s lifetime. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version and in 2011, more than half a century later, the first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision was released, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter.

In the press release for The World Is Round, Stein offered the following characteristically philosophical statement regarding her children’s writing, exuding the same dedication to the intertwining of form and meaning we’ve come to expect from her adult writing:

Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.

Z is a nice letter, and I am glad it is not Y, I do not care for Y, why, well there is the reason why, I do not care for Y, but Z is a nice letter.
I like Z because it is not real it just is not real and so it is a nice letter to you and nice to me, you will see.

Zebra and Zed.

A Zebra is a nice animal, it thinks it is a wild animal but it is not it goes at a gentle trot. It has black and white stripes and it is always fat. There never was a thin Zebra never, and it is always well as sound as a bell and its name is Zebra.

It is not like a goat, when a goat is thin there is nothing to do for him, nothing nothing, but a Zebra is never thin it is always young and fat, just like that.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press

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