Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interviews’

31 OCTOBER, 2014

Butterflies and Iron Bolts: What Virginia Woolf Teaches Us About Great Design and the Value of the Ungoogleable

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Celebrating the significance of small things and the iron bolts that hold butterfly wings together.

In 2002, a small and confounding book titled Schott’s Original Miscellany (public library) was released to very little fanfare by British independent press Bloomsbury, publishers of such diverse and beloved offerings as Harry Potter and Lost Cat. The author of this unusual book was a young man named Ben Schott, whose level of public prominence was closer to that of a stray feline than of J.K. Rowling. And yet, within weeks, the book — a quirky and beautifully designed catalog of curiosities, partway between a Victorian encyclopedia a century after the golden age of Victorian encyclopedias and a meticulously curated Tumblr a decade before the golden age of Tumblr — became the publishing sensation of the year. Soon, it had sold a million copies and was translated into thirteen languages.

In this magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Schott — who identifies neither with being a writer nor with being a designer but describes himself instead as “a writer who uses design and a designer who uses word” — shares the unlikely, remarkably heartening story of his success. Folded into it are Schott’s reflections on how his father’s obscure scientific papers on the history of the footnote shaped his miscellaneous mind, what Virginia Woolf can teach us about the secret of great design and craftsmanship, and why the art of finding the ungoogleable is of ever-increasing value today. Highlights below.

On choosing creative purpose over a profitable or prestigious occupation, something with which young William James also tussled, and dropping out of advertising:

If you look up and you don’t want to get to the top of the ladder you’re climbing, then why are you climbing the ladder?

On being self-taught as a photographer and learning the craft through apprenticeship, via absorption:

That’s how I learned — you find a standard and think, “This guy is really good, or this girl is really good, and if I can be that good, I’m getting there.”

On being inspired by Virginia Woolf — his first book opens with a quote from The Common Reader: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” — and what Woolf, who herself had strong opinions on craftsmanship, can teach us about the secret of excellence in design and any craft:

I’m a fan Virginia Woolf — I’m a real fan of Mrs. Dalloway more than anything else she’s written. But what, I think, seduces her work is that sense that small things are significant. There’s another great quote [from To the Lighthouse] which sums up one of my theories of design, to the extent that I’m entitled to have any theories, which is: “light and evanescent but held together by bolts of iron.”

[Design] must be, on the surface, like a butterfly’s wing — but underneath it must be clamped together with bolts of iron…

This is what I think is the secret of so much craft — to make it look effortless and evanescent, like a butterfly’s wing, but it needs to have structure, rigidity, purpose.

But perhaps Schott’s most pause-giving point — at least for me, as someone who spends a considerable amount of time dwelling in archives and literature of which there is no pervious trace online — has to do with how he found the curiosities and quotes for the book in a pre-Google age. I frequently say that books are the original internet — every footnote, every citation, every allusion is essentially a hyperlink to another text, to another idea — and Schott captures this notion beautifully by inviting us into a time-machine that exposes all we’ve come to take for granted in just a few years:

Information totally changed in the last fifteen years, since this book came out. You have to remember what the mindset was then. So a lot of it was [spending] time in libraries and stumbling across things. People said, “Oh, have you seen this?” It was a wonderful paper chase. And anyone who’s spent time in libraries knows: you follow the footnote; you get taken for a walk — one footnote leads to another footnote leads to another footnote. By the time you know it, you’re drowning in paper…

The point was not to get stuff that was out there — it was trying to find things that no one else had talked about. Which is increasingly hard, by the way — to find stuff that is ungoogleable.

Schott’s Original Miscellany, which Schott describes as a book about “everything on the back of your mind and the tip of your tongue [and] all the things that you think you know or would like to know but don’t really know,” was followed by Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany in 2004, Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany in 2005, and Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany in 2011.

If you aren’t yet subscribed to Design Matters — the world’s first podcast about design, which celebrates its 10th birthday in just a few months — remedy the situation immediately and gladden yourself on iTunes.

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29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Werner Herzog on America and His Lifelong NASA Dream

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“The country has always had a capacity to rejuvenate itself, pull itself out of defeat and look to the future. There has always been space there to create real change.”

“America,” young Italo Calvino wrote upon his first visit to the United States, “is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible.” But for a land this vast, full of this many people of such enormous diversity, what is “America,” really, if not an abstraction onto which each person projects his or her narrow slice of experience? The landmarks, icons, and stereotypes that have come to signify “America” as a kind of shorthand certainly don’t even begin to capture the full dimension of that abstraction, for the measure of any country — as that of any person — lives between the lines of such shorthand, in the richness of the ordinary and the of the aliveness of the mundane.

From Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — the same wide-ranging interview by Paul Cronin, three decades in the making, that gave us the legendary filmmaker’s no-bullshit advice to aspiring creators and his thoughts on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you love — comes Herzog’s meditation on America. Remarking that contrary to some critical interpretations, his film Stroszek was not intended as a critique of capitalism — “The film doesn’t criticize the country; it’s almost a eulogy to the place,” he adds — Herzog tells Cronin:

What I love is the heartland of the country, the so-called “flyover” zone, like Wisconsin, where we filmed Stroszek and where Orson Welles was from. Marlon Brando came from Nebraska, Bob Dylan from Minnesota, Hemingway from Illinois, these middle-of-nowhere places, to say nothing of the South, the home of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. I like this kind of terrain, where you can still encounter great self-reliance and camaraderie, the warm, open hearts, the down-to-earth people. So much of the rest of the country has abandoned these basic virtues. I like America for its spirit of advancement and exploration; there is something exceptionally bold about the place. The idea of everyone having an equal chance to succeed, no matter who they are, is impressive. If a barefoot Indian from the Andes had invented the wheel, the patent office in Washington would have assisted him in securing his rights.

As an immigrant myself, having brushed with the less generous sides of American law during my decade-long tussle with the immigration system, I found Herzog’s optimistic take on the attitudes embedded in other aspects of the law particularly heartening:

When I made The Wild Blue Yonder I discovered an extraordinary cache of footage shot by NASA astronauts in outer space, and was told that because it was filmed by federal employees, the material was “property of the people.” I asked, “Can I, a Bavarian, be considered one of the people?” Such images, it turns out, according to American law belong to everyone on the planet. This is a unique and astounding attitude to the world. Naturally there are things in the United States I’m ambivalent about, just as there are when it comes to Germany. I could never be a flag-waving patriot. But there are many reasons why I have been in America for so many years. The country has always had a capacity to rejuvenate itself, pull itself out of defeat and look to the future. There has always been space there to create real change. I could never live in a country I didn’t love.

Recontextualized NASA footage used in Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder

Herzog, indeed, holds a soft spot for NASA. “We thank NASA for its sense of poetry,” he says at the end of The Wild Blue Yonder, a line that reads like a eulogy itself as we bear witness to NASA’s tragic downward slide in government priorities today. In contemplating the necessary risks of the creative life, Herzog shares with Cronin his dream of joining NASA — a notion that seems so naturally resonant with his penchant for the lyricism of wanderlust:

I would never complain about how difficult it is to get images that belong to the recesses of the human heart, that show unexpected things we have never seen or experienced before, that are clear, pure and transparent. I would go absolutely anywhere; that’s my nature. Down here on Earth it’s hardly possible any more. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second if given the chance to venture out with a camera to another planet in our solar system, even if it were a one-way ticket. It’s frustrating to me that astronauts never take advantage of the photographic possibilities available to them. On one of the Apollo missions they left a camera on the moon, slowly panning from left to right, then right to left, for days. I yearned to grab the damned thing. There are so many possibilities up there for fresh images, and I always thought it would be better to send up a poet instead of an astronaut; I would be the first to volunteer. I did actually once seriously consider applying to NASA to be on one of their missions. Space travel is unfinished business for me, though these days I wouldn’t be allowed. You need a complete set of teeth to get inside a spaceship.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is a magnificent read in its hefty totality. Sample Herzog’s life-tested wisdom further here and here, then complement this particular bit with Debbie Millman’s illustrated literary geography of America.

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10 JULY, 2014

Artist Francis Bacon on the Role of Suffering and Self-Knowledge in Creative Expression

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“An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs.”

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden,” Viktor Frankl wrote in his spectacular 1946 treatise on the human search for meaning. We’re immersed in a great deal of cultural mythology regarding spiritual and psychoemotional suffering, but nowhere is it more dangerously romanticized than in the “tortured genius” myth of creative destiny — a myth whose patron saints include tragic heroes like Vincent van Gogh, David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath. It’s a formulation of creative pathology that I’ve always found toxic, and yet beneath it lies a deeper conversation about the role of suffering in human life and creative expression.

From The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists (public library) by the prominent dance and art critic John Gruen — the magnificent out-of-print tome fifteen years in the making that also gave us Agnes Martin on art, happiness, pride and failure — comes a wide-ranging conversation with artist Francis Bacon, known for his highly graphic, emotionally charged imagery with strong undertones of anxiety, terror, and turmoil. Considered Britain’s greatest living painter at the time of the interview in 1972, Bacon was as reviled for his violent themes as he was revered for creative vision. In 2013, eleven years after his death, his painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, amassing a formidable $142,405,000.

Portrait of Francis Bacon by Irving Penn

Bacon, whom Gruen describes as seemingly enveloped in a time vacuum, presenting “the image of an awkward teenager, aged 62,” reflects with remarkable self-awareness on what he calls his “gilded gutter life” and contemplates the broader role of suffering in the creative experience:

I think that life is violent and most people turn away from that side of it in an attempt to live a life that is screened. But I think they are merely fooling themselves. I mean, the act of birth is a violent thing, and the act of death is a violent thing. And, as you surely have observed, the very act of living is violent. For example, there is self-violence in the fact that I drink much too much. But I feel ever so strongly that an artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs. These things alter an artist whether for the good or for the better or the worse. It must alter him. The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.

Three Studies of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, 1969

After offering Gruen another round of drink, Bacon revisits the subject of suffering, offering an alternative interpretation of — or, rather, a confound at the heart of — the “tortured genius” mythology:

Of course I suffer. Who doesn’t? But I don’t feel I’ve become a better artist because of my suffering, but because of my willpower, and the way I worked on myself. There is a connection between one’s life and one’s work — and yet, at the same time, there isn’t. Because, after all, art is artifice, which one tends to forget. If one could make out of one’s life one’s work, then the connection has been achieved. In a sense, I could say that I have painted my own life. I’ve painted my own life’s story in my own work — but only in a sense. I think very few people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that the painting is an expression of the artist’s mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.

This osmosis of suffering and creative flow, according to Bacon, is rooted in a deep and necessary self-knowledge:

You must understand, life is nothing unless you make something of it. I’ve learned, as life progresses, to become more cunning. I know where I would automatically go wrong, which I wouldn’t have known when I was younger. Anyway, I’ve become more cunning both in my work and in my relationships. When I say cunning, perhaps it’s the wrong word. I think knowledgeable is a better word, because, in fact, I don’t like cunning people.

Ultimately, the creative process itself springs from that self-knowledge and remains a private experience, independent of external validation:

When one is right inside the work … it’s very stimulating and exciting, because that’s when you bring things nearer to the nervous system. you must understand that I don’t paint for anybody except myself. I’m always very surprised that anybody wants to have a picture of mine. I paint to excite myself, and make something for myself. I can’t tell you how amazed I was when my work started selling!

The Artist Observed, should you be able to find a surviving copy, is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring conversations with such creative icons as Saul Steinberg, Agnes Martin, and Roy Lichtenstein. For more archival interview goodness, see Jackson Pollock on art, labels, and morality and Frank Lloyd Wright on his famous peers, education, and New York City’s skyline.

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