Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Georgia O’Keeffe on the Art of Seeing

“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Georgia O’Keeffe on the Art of Seeing

In her stunning autobiographical reflection on the moment she understood what it means to be an artist, Virginia Woolf beheld the cosmos of connections in a single flower. Decades later, the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman offered a different, complementary lens on the art of seeing through his now-famous monologue known as “Ode to a Flower.”

Before Feynman, before Woolf, another titan of the creative spirit found a powerful metaphor for how we experience the world — how we see it, and how we don’t — in a flower.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Canna, 1924 (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

“I found that I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way things that I had no words for,” Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) wrote in the foreword to a catalog for an exhibition of her work two decades before she became the first female artist honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — a triumph largely predicated on her arresting large-scale paintings of flowers, magnified and abstracted to radiate uncommon emotional intensity haloed by awe. Although art critics consistently insisted that O’Keeffe’s depictions of flowers were her commentary on women’s sexuality, the artist herself resolutely denied these interpretations. For her, they were her commentary on seeing — a magnifying lens for the attention. Painting these close-ups was a way of learning to look, a way of removing the blinders with with we gallop through the world, slowing down, shedding our notions and concepts of things, and taking things in as they really are.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Rufus Holsinger, 1915 (Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

In a passage originally published in the exhibition catalog An American Place — which also gave us O’Keeffe’s serenade to blue — and later cited in Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things (public library), she writes:

A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower — the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower — lean forward to smell it — maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking — or give it to someone to please them. Still — in a way — nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.

So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New-Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.

Well — I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, 1923 (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

Complement with O’Keeffe on setting priorities, success, public opinion, and what it means to be an artist, and her passionate love letters to Alfred Stieglitz, then revisit cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on the art of looking, Annie Dillard on the secret to seeing, philosopher Martin Buber on what a tree can teach us about seeing others as they truly are, John Ruskin on how drawing trains you to see more clearly and live with greater presence, and Emily Dickinson’s astounding herbarium — a forgotten masterpiece of attention at the intersection of poetry and science.

BP

How to Weigh Your Options and Decide Wisely: Benjamin Franklin’s Pioneering Pros and Cons Framework

A worksheet for the moral mathematics of decision-making from America’s original prophet of self-improvement.

How to Weigh Your Options and Decide Wisely: Benjamin Franklin’s Pioneering Pros and Cons Framework

When the 29-year-old Charles Darwin made his endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage, he was applying a now common decision-making technique pioneered half a century earlier by another revolutionary mind on the other side of the Atlantic: America’s polymathic Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706–April 17, 1790).

Not since the Stoics had there been so prolific a prophet of self-improvement as Franklin. From the list of thirteen virtues he penned when he was only twenty to his staggering daily routine to his clever trick for disarming haters, he continually devised and applied various psychological frameworks to just about every problem of existence. By middle age, Franklin’s reputation as a formidable sage of practical wisdom rendered him on the receiving end of countless pleas for advice, many of which he generously and thoughtfully obliged.

Benjamin Franklin (Portrait by David Martin, 1767)

In the late summer of 1772, Franklin received one such plea from a friend — the English scientist, theologian, and liberal political theorist Joseph Priestley, at the time working as minister of the famed Unitarian church Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds. On Franklin’s recommendation, the Earl of Shelburne had offered the 39-year-old Priestley a lucrative position as his general assistant, tasked with managing his library and educating his children. Priestley was torn — the appointment would grant him financial stability for the first time in his life and would leave ample time for his scientific investigations, but it would require that he relinquish his ministry and move his family to the Earl’s estate near Bath. Unsure how to proceed, he turned to Franklin for help in navigating the high-stakes conundrum.

Joseph Priestley (Portrait by Ellen Sharp, 1794)

Rather than telling his friend what to choose, Franklin taught him how to choose. His letter, cited in Steven Johnson’s excellent book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most (public library), outlined a sort of worksheet for the moral mathematics of decision-making — the first known instance of a pros and cons framework.

Franklin writes:

In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.

When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us.

To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Priestley accepted the position, which proved to be a turning point in the history of science. Less than three years later, in the laboratory the Earl of Shelburne built for him, he went on to conduct the famous experiment in which he focused the sun’s rays on a sample of mercuric oxide through a burning glass and discovered oxygen, O2 — a new kind of air Priestley marveled was “five or six times better than common air for the purpose of respiration, inflammation, and, I believe, every other use of common atmospherical air.”

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether insightful Farsighted with Descartes on the cure for indecision, Milan Kundera on knowing what we really want, Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman on how our intuitions mislead us, and Oliver Burkeman on the psychology of why overplanning and excessive goal-setting limit our happiness and success, then revisit Franklin on the truest source of happiness.

BP

The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animated

“Now I will do nothing but listen, / To accrue what I hear into this song…”

The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animated

“Every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote as he contemplated the interconnectedness of the universe not long after Walt Whitman issued his timeless, exquisite reminder that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” And yet, Muir recognized, “the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself.” To hear the song of existence — ours, or another, or the entire symphony of being — is the supreme task of life. But how do we listen to that song when it is drowned out by the ceaseless noise of daily distraction, muffled by apathy, or crowded out by a cacophony of demands?

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores with characteristic splendor of sentiment in the twenty-sixth of the fifty-two numbered section of Song of Myself included in the fourth edition of his revolutionary 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | free ebook).

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Drawing on his reverence for nature and his reverence for music as the profoundest expression of nature, Whitman composes an invitation to listening that comes alive in this beautiful short film animated by Daniela Shere, narrated by Peter Blegvad, and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Poetry of Perception — Harvard’s eight-part series exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts, which also brought to life Emily Dickinson’s stunning ode to resilience.

SONG OF MYSELF
Section 26

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music — this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

Complement with artist Allen Crawford’s splendid illustrated rendition of Song of Myself, artist Margaret C. Cook’s stunning illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass, a rare recording of Orson Welles reading from the Whitman classic, and one of James Earl Jones, then revisit Whitman himself on creativity, democracy, the wisdom of trees, the building blocks of character, his most direct definition of happiness, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

Wordsworth on Genius and the Creative Responsibility of Elevating Taste

“To create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.”

Wordsworth on Genius and the Creative Responsibility of Elevating Taste

What is genius — what is its nature and its proof? For Beethoven, genius was based on a foundation of talent, but required additional “freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit.” “Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Kerouac proclaimed in weighing whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius. Schopenhauer furnished what remains the finest metaphor for the difference between genius and talent. Thoreau drew a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius. And yet genius — that singular creative force capable of bowling us over with truth and beauty, leaving us transformed and enlarged — continues to fascinate and puzzle with its elusive essence.

This eternal question of what genius actually is and how we measure it — one of the major themes in Figuring — is what the Romantic poet laureate of human consciousness, William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770–April 23, 1850), examines in a prefatory essay from the 1815 edition of the two-volume set Poems by William Wordsworth (public library | free ebook).

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth — who fervently championed the shared bedrock of genius in science and the arts — writes:

Of genius the only proof is, the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before: Of genius, in the fine arts, the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility, for the delight, honor, and benefit of human nature. Genius is the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe: or, if that be not allowed, it is the application of powers to objects on which they had not before been exercised, or the employment of them in such a manner as to produce effects hitherto unknown.

True genius, he argues, does not merely bestow a work of art or a discovery upon a passive audience but cultivates in that audience the very capacity for understanding, appreciating, and being transformed by the product of genius — something another great poet, Joseph Brodsky, would echo generations later in his meditation on how to develop one’s taste in reading. A century and a half before the pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner asserted in his analysis of the psychology of storytelling that “the great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer,” Wordsworth adds:

What is all this but an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the Poet? Is it to be supposed that the Reader can make progress of this kind, like an Indian Prince or General — stretched on his Palanquin, and borne by his Slaves? No, he is invigorated and inspirited by his Leader, in order that he may exert himself, for he cannot proceed in quiescence, he cannot be carried like a dead weight. Therefore to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.

Complement with James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society and Albert Camus on creating dangerously.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated