Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

22 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Communist Threat: A Trip Through America’s Ideological Wayback Machine

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From Walt Disney to Stalin, or how 1952 America interpreted the Soviet regime.

During World War II, some of the West’s greatest filmmakers — including Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock — put their Hollywood films on hiatus and started producing propaganda films on behalf of the U.S. government. Even Walt Disney did his part. Eventually, when the war drew to a close, these iconic filmmakers went back to making commercial films. But propaganda films kept right on going. The Cold War was getting underway, and because the danger was more potential than actual, the U.S. government felt an extra need to paint a picture for its citizens.

Just what was the existential threat coming out of the Soviet Union? A series of films made it clear. Some , like Communism (1952), offered a brief overview of the historical and ideological foundations of Communism and its point men — Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and the rest. Others, like the famous Duck and Cover educational video, gave young Americans and their parents every reason to fear the atomic bomb. And others still talked about the superiority of capitalism and the American way of life.

The fact that the Soviet regime (which produced its own Cold War propaganda) was repressive, no one doubts. But whether the regime truly posed an existential threat to the U.S. has remained somewhat open to debate. Just watch Noam Chomsky speaking on the matter in 1985.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Tales for Little Rebels: Radical Politics in Famous Children’s Books

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What Dr. Seuss has to do with gender politics, or how Carl Sandburg carried out anti-war propaganda.

I have a soft spot for beautiful and thoughtful children’s books, especially children’s literature with timeless philosophy for grownups. Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature explores how the political beliefs of famous mid-century American authors shaped their cherished stories, teaching children to question rather than obey authority, to stand up and out rather than conform, to develop critical thinking skills rather than seek redemption through prayer.

Featuring 43 mostly out-of-print stories, comic strips, poems, primers, and other illustrated literary ephemera for pre-teen readers, the collection spans work by such icons as Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff, Norma Klein, Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, as well as lesser-know authors, many of whom blacklisted at the time. The stories cover everything from civil rights to gender politics to environmental responsibility to dignity of labor, and each piece is prefaced by an introduction and a biographical sketch of the author.

Editor Julia Mickenberg offers an instantly sensible explanation for the project’s proposition:

People interested in changing the world have to be looking towards the future and are therefore interested in children.”

Jack Zipes writes in the book’s introduction:

The very idea of ‘radical children’s literature’ may be surprising, because we do not commonly think about the connections between children’s literature and politics. But children’s literature has always been ideological. Consider an ABC from the 1680s: ‘A. In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned all.’ And, next to a picture of a Bible, ‘B. Thy Life to Mend / This Book Attend.’ The New England Primer teaches more than just literacy.”

Zipes points out the perplexing paradox in how we tend to think about what the appropriate and inappropriate subjects of children’s literature are, arguing that morality and politics are both embedded in

From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for young children suggests that adults have no problem prescribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is the tendency to fear that ‘political propaganda’ will taint a young child’s ‘innocence.’ […] Teaching children to obey a moral authority can be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson.”

Tales for Little Rebels made me think of the subtle ideological messages in some of my favorite recent children’s books — in Blexbolex’s People, a meditation on human duality challenging commonly held stereotypes; in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, a reflection on our search for belonging in an ever-confusing world; in Fani Marceau’s Panorama, a passionate case for biodiversity conservation; in Christoph Niemann’s That’s How!, a playful prompt to question the accepted explanations we’re given about how the world works.

via Meta Filter; images courtesy of NYU Press

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Dime-Store Alchemy: Joseph Cornell’s Surrealist Shadow Boxes

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Finding surrealist inspiration in found objects, or what a parrot has to do with aesthetic theory.

Joseph Cornell is often considered the first and greatest American surrealist, said to have influenced creators as diverse as iconic French dadaist Marcel Duchamp and beloved speculative-fiction novelist William Gibson. An artist and filmmaker, he is perhaps best-known for the intricate, mysterious boxes he created druing the 1930s through 1960s — bizarre and beautiful assemblages of dime-store tchotchkes and remnants of once-beautiful objects, placed in meticulously hand-crafted small cabinets. Today marks the paperback release of Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell — a fascinating long-out-of-print book that explores the eccentric genius of the artist through the insightful and often obsessive lens of the poet Charles Simic, who examines eight of Cornell’s most remarkable boxes. It is, more than anything, a meditation on beauty and the art of imagination. Simic’s writing itself is a metaphor for Cornell’s thoughtful collages, stitching together elements of texts by some of the artist’s favorite poets and authors. (Sound familiar?)

When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are our best guides. In writing the pieces for the book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image would turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.” ~ Charles Simic

L'Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, cours élémentaire d'histoire naturelle, 1940

Untitled (Pink Palace), ca. 1946-1948

Untitled (Bebe Marie), early 1940s

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set), 1936

Untitled (The Hotel Eden), 1945

What makes Dime-Store Alchemy most exceptional is the elegant parallel between the poetry of Cornell’s work and that of Simic’s narrative interpretation of it, at once an embodiment of and commentary on the power of remix in creation.

Images via WebMuseum, Paris

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Night Life of Trees: Exquisite Handmade Illustrations Based on Indian Mythology

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What ancient Indian mythology has to do with fair-trade entrepreneurship and the timeless love of books.

If there ever was a project that reclaimed “authenticity” and “innovation” from their present status of fluff-lined buzzwords and into a genuine ethos, it would be South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books. Crafted by local artisans in their fair trade workshop in Chennai, the books are hand-bound and each page is painstakingly screen-printed by hand using traditional Indian dyes, whose fresh earthy scent gently oozes from the gorgeous pages of the finished book.

Tara’s crown jewel is the magnificent The Night Life of Trees (public library) — the kind of large-format tactile treasure you take into your hands and never want to let go. It’s based on the ancient mythology of India’s Gond tribe, who believe that during the day trees serve to nourish and protect the Earth’s creatures, but it’s at night when they come into a life of their own. The breathtakingly beautiful illustrations, screen-printed on thick and textured black paper, come from three renowned Gond artists and blend the whimsical stories about the spirits of the Sambar tree with the practical uses of trees in Indian life, woven together into a delicate lace of magic and mundanity that poetically captures the duality of existence.

Take a peek inside the book’s beautiful pages, but bear in mind the camera and the screen don’t do any justice to their rich, textured splendor, which remains lost in digital translation.

The book comes in a number of limited-edition runs of 2000, each featuring a different artwork on the cover and hand-numbered on the back.

A multisensory delight with a soul-warming story, The Night Life of Trees is a pinnacle of breathing new life into ancient traditions and timeless storytelling with a modern entrepreneurial ethos. Above all, it’s a moving manifesto for the mesmerism of the paper page in the age of e-everything.

Artwork courtesy of Tara Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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