Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

20 JUNE, 2011

Everything is a Remix, Part 3: The Elements of Creativity

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What Gutenberg has to do with Thomas Edison and the secret sauce of Apple.

Kirby Ferguson’s excellent Everything is a Remix project is, as I’ve previously written, one of the most important efforts to illuminate the mechanisms, paradoxes and central principles of creative culture in modern history — an ambitious four-part documentary on the history and cultural significance of sampling and collaborative creation, reflecting my own deep held belief that creativity is combinatorial. Today, Kirby releases the highly anticipated third installment in the series, titled The Elements of Creativity.

Enjoy — this is a cultural treasure:

The most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined. By connecting ideas together, creative leaps can be made, producing some of history’s biggest breakthroughs.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

From derivative work in art to incremental innovation in technology, Kirby tells the lesser-known stories of history’s greatest innovators to illustrate the point that creativity builds on what came before rather than crystallizing from thin air under the touch of a mythical muse.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb — his first patent was “Improvement in Electric Lamps,” but he did conduct trials with 6,000 materials for the filament until he created the first commercially viable bulb. Apple didn’t invent the first desktop computer — it copied Xerox (oh, the irony…), but was the first to combine the computer with the household appliance, sparking the personal computing revolution.

What started it all was the graphical interface merged with the idea of the computer as household appliance. The Mac is a demonstration of the explosive potential of combinations.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

Creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much — and that’s… copying.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

The fourth and final episode, coming this fall, will tackle the most complex question of all: How our legal, ethical and artistic burdens are hindering our collective ability to embrace technology as a true enabler of creativity. You can support the project here — I happily did.

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20 JUNE, 2011

The Medium is the Massage: Shepard Fairey + Marshall McLuhan

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Presaging the digital revolution by a half century, or what Telstar has to do with global wisdom.

I have a longstanding obsession with iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and I love equally iconic graffiti artist Shepard Fairy, so I was instantly in love with The Medium is the Massage — a phenomenal little book by McLuhan and designer Quentin Fiore, synthesizing McLuhan’s meatiest ideas in a powerful combination of words and images, with a stunning new cover by Shepard Fairey. The original book was published in 1967, but the remarkable art direction and distinct style are equal parts timeless and timely — so much so, some say, that Wired appropriated stylistic elements from the book in its acclaimed editorial design.

When information is brushed against information… the results are startling and effective. The perennial quest for involvement, fill-in, takes many forms.

The book is divided into several sections, each exploring a different facet of how “electric media” are changing everyday life, from self to family to education to government.

your family

The family circle has widened. The worldpool of information fathered by electric media — movies, Telstar, flight — far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.

McLuhan explores the big-picture significance of worldwide connectivity, best articulated in his concept of the global village, presages today’s discussions about the death of books by a half-century, and blends information theory and existential philosophy with such poetic grace it’s hard not to surrender to his words with full transcendence.

The stars are so big,

The Earth is so small,

Stay as you are.

Perhaps most notably, reading McLuhan’s observations from 1967 feels eerily like reading the latest intellectual debate on media theory today, bespeaking our culture’s chronic and patterned conditioned response to new technology: resistance, subversion and, eventually, surrender.

These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods. In late medieval art, for in stance, we saw the fear of the new print technology expressed in the theme The Dance of Death. Today, similar fears are expressed in the Theater of the Absurd. Both represent a common failure: the attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.

The Medium is the Massage is a pocket-sized cultural treasure, the kind you’d want to share with all your friends and keep by your side at all times as a timeless lens on the evolution of contemporary culture.

via @kirstinbutler

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16 JUNE, 2011

A Rare Look at Michelangelo’s Private Papers

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The secret life of marginalia, or what private poetry has to do with humanity’s greatest public art.

Besides being one of humanity’s most beloved artists, Michelangelo is also a paragon of the kind of cross-disciplinary curiosity and creativity I try to foster with Brain Pickings. But the origin and process of his creative genius turns out to be much more layered and faceted than previously thought. In Michelangelo: A Life on Paper, Princeton scholar Leonard Barkan exposes a lesser-known side of Michelangelo, looking beyond the great artistic achievements like the Sistine ceiling, the David, the Piet, and the dome of St. Peter’s to reveal, with as much intimacy as history’s most coveted artifacts will allow, a rare glimpse of Michelangelo’s unconscious.

Both a journey into the serendipity and randomness of the great artist’s curiosity and a record of his practical creative process, the lavish tome features over 200 museum-quality reproductions of Michelangelo’s most private papers and sketches. The drawings and doodles are sprinkled with bits of poetry, personal budgets, contracts, memos to self and other ephemera of the life of the mind, presenting the first study of the remarkable interplay between words and images in Michelangelo’s work.

The book is really about [Michelangelo’s] interior life. It’s an archive of the things that he put together when his mind was wandering and his hand was wandering and words popped into his head or drawings seeped out of his pen.” ~ Leonard Barkan

As a lover of language, I see as one of Barkan’s greatest feats the thoughtfulness with which he illuminates the role of the written word in Michelangelo’s creative process and the importance of marginalia in his — and anyone’s, really — artistic exploration.

Desire engenders desire and then leaves pain.” ~ Michelangelo

What makes Michelangelo: A Life on Paper all the more intriguing is that, by extending an invitation into Michelangelo’s private world of words written for his eyes alone, it raises the question of whom we create for — ourselves, as tender beings with a fundamental need for self-expression, or an audience, as social creatures with a fundamental desire to be liked, understood and acclaimed.

via @DesignObserver

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14 JUNE, 2011

The Vowels: A Ken Burns Parody

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What the secret quasi-history of vowels has to do with the Founding Fathers’ prankstership.

Ken Burns. Prolific documentarian. Potent distiller of history and culture. As fascinating as his films may be, however, they tend to take themselves a bit too seriously. At least that’s what Sam Cherington, Andrew Flanagan, Daniel Inkeles, William Morey and Benjamin Smith wink at with the excellent The Vowels: A Film by Ken Burns — a short film that isn’t, of course, by Ken Burns but is instead a wildly entertaining parody.

And to add to the comedic value of this find, spotted on Meta Filter, here’s a gem from the discussion thread on the post, a real why-we-love-MeFi treat:

I once rode in an elevator with Ken Burns. He got off after four floors. Good thing, too, otherwise we would have all turned sepia.” ~ jonmc

And the fitting response:

And your elevator panel choices were Up, Down, Pan Left, Pan Right…” ~ hal9k

Ah, MeFi.

For some of the real Ken Burns stuff, you won’t go wrong with The Civil War or, my personal favorite, Jazz. And for some real stuff for language-lovers, look no further than these 5 essential books.

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