Tag: Art

The Art of Being Alone

Loneliness has more to do with our perceptions than how much company we have. It’s just as possible to be painfully lonely surrounded by people as it is to be content with little social contact. Some people need extended periods of time alone to recharge, others would rather give themselves electric shocks than spend a few minutes with their thoughts. Here’s how we can change our perceptions by making and experiencing art.

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At a moment in time when many people are facing unprecedented amounts of time alone, it’s a good idea for us to pause and consider what it takes to turn difficult loneliness into enriching solitude. We are social creatures, and a sustained lack of satisfying relationships carries heavy costs for our mental and physical health. But when we are forced to spend more time alone than we might wish, there are ways we can compensate and find a fruitful sense of connection and fulfillment. One way to achieve this is by using our loneliness as a springboard for creativity.

“Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed but simply that one is alive.”

— Olivia Laing

Loneliness as connection

One way people have always coped with loneliness is through creativity. By transmuting their experience into something beautiful, isolated individuals throughout history have managed to substitute the sense of community they might have otherwise found in relationships with their creative outputs.

In The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing tells the stories of a number of artists who led isolated lives and found meaning in their work even if their relationships couldn’t fulfill them. While she focuses specifically on visual artists in New York over the last seventy years, their methods of using their loneliness and transmitting it into their art carry wide resonance. These particular artists tapped into sentiments many of us will experience at least once in our lives. They found beauty in loneliness and showed it to be something worth considering, not just something to run from.

The artist Edward Hopper (1882–1967) is known for his paintings of American cityscapes inhabited by closed-off figures who seem to embody a vision of modern loneliness. Laing found herself drawn to his signature images of uneasy individuals in sparse surroundings, often separated from the viewer by a window or some other barrier.

Why, then, do we persist in ascribing loneliness to his work? The obvious answer is that his paintings tend to be populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress. But there’s something else too; something about the way he contrives his city streets . . . This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near unbearable exposure.

While Hopper intermittently denied that his paintings were about loneliness, he certainly experienced the sense of being walled off in a city. In 1910 he moved to Manhattan, after a few years spent mostly in Europe, and found himself struggling to get by. Not only were his paintings not selling, he also felt alienated by the city. Hopper worked on commissions and had few close relationships. Only in his forties did he marry, well past the window of acceptability for the time. Laing writes of his early time in New York:

This sense of separation, of being alone in a big city, soon began to surface in his art . . . He was determined to articulate the day-to-day experience of inhabiting the modern, electric city of New York. Working first with etchings and then in paint, Hopper began to produce a distinctive body of images that captured the cramped, sometimes alluring experience of urban living.

Hopper roamed the city at night, sketching scenes that caught his eye. This perspective meant that the viewer of his paintings finds themselves most often in the position of an observer detached from the scene in front of them. If loneliness can feel like being separated from the world, the windows Hopper painted are perhaps a physical manifestation of this.

By Laing’s description, Hopper transformed the isolation he may have experienced by depicting the experience of loneliness as a place in itself, inhabited by the many people sharing it despite their differences. She elaborates and states, “They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them. As if what he saw was as interesting as he kept insisting he needed it to be: worth the labor, the miserable effort of setting it down. As if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’ strange, estranging spell.”

Hopper’s work shows us that one way to make friends with loneliness is to create work that explores and examines it. This not only offers a way to connect with those enduring the same experience but also turns isolation into creative material and robs it of some of its sting.

Loneliness as inspiration

A second figure Laing considers is Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Born Andrew Warhola, the artist has become an icon, his work widely known, someone whose fame renders him hard to relate to. When she began exploring his body of work, Laing found that “one of the interesting things about his work, once you stop to look, is the way the real, vulnerable human self remains stubbornly visible, exerting its own submerged pressure, its own mute appeal to the viewer.”

In particular, much of Warhol’s work pertains to the loneliness he felt throughout his life, no matter how surrounded he was by glittering friends and admirers.

Throughout Warhol’s oeuvre, we see his efforts to turn his own sense of being on the outside into art. A persistent theme in his work was speech. He made thousands of tapes of conversations, often using them as the basis for other works of art. For instance, Warhol’s book, a, A Novel, consists of transcribed tapes from between 1965 and 1967. The tape recorder was such an important part of his life, both a way of connecting with people and keeping them at a distance, that he referred to it as his wife. By listening to others and documenting the oddities of their speech, Warhol coped with feeling he couldn’t be heard. Laing writes, “he retained a typically perverse fondness for language errors. He was fascinated by empty or deformed language, by chatter and trash, by glitches and botches in conversation.” In his work, all speech mattered regardless of its content.

Warhol himself often struggled with speech, mumbling in interviews and being embarrassed by his heavy Pittsburgh accent, which rendered him easily misunderstood in school. Speech was just one factor that left him isolated at times. At age seven, Warhol was confined to his bed by illness for several months. He withdrew from his peers, focusing on making art with his mother, and never quite integrated into school again. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1949, Warhol moved to New York and sought his footing in the art world. Despite his rapid rise to success and fame, he remained held back by an unshakeable belief in his own inferiority and exclusion from existing social circles.

Becoming a machine also meant having relationships with machines, using physical devices as a way of filling the uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable space between self and world. Warhol could not have achieved his blankness, his enviable detachment, without the use of these charismatic substitutes for intimacy and love.

Later in the book, Laing visits the Warhol museum to see his Time Capsules, 610 cardboard boxes filled with objects collected over the course of thirteen years: “postcards, letters, newspapers, magazines, photographs, invoices, slices of pizza, a piece of chocolate cake, even a mummified human foot.” He added objects until each box was full, then transferred them to a storage unit. Some objects have obvious value, while others seem like trash. There is no particular discernable order to the collection, yet Laing saw in the Time Capsules much the same impulse reflected in Warhol’s tape recordings:

What were the Capsules, really? Trash cans, coffins, vitrines, safes; ways of keeping the loved together, ways of never having to admit to loss or feel the pain of loneliness . . . What is left after the essence has departed? Rind and skin, things you want to throw away but can’t.

The loneliness Warhol felt when he created works like the Time Capsules was more a psychological one than a practical one. He was no longer alone, but his early experiences of feeling like an outsider, and the things he felt set him apart from others, like his speech, marred his ability to connect. Loneliness, for Warhol, was perhaps more a part of his personality than something he could overcome through relationships. Even so, he was able to turn it into fodder for the groundbreaking art we remember him for. Warhol’s art communicated what he struggled to say outright. It was also a way of him listening to and seeing other people—by photographing friends, taping them sleeping, or recording their conversations—when he perhaps felt he couldn’t be heard or seen.

Where creativity takes us

Towards the end of the book, Laing writes:

There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who have never met and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.

When we face loneliness in our lives, it is not always possible or even appropriate to deal with it by rushing to fill our lives with people. Sometimes we do not have that option; sometimes we’re not in the right space to connect deeply; sometimes we first just need to work through that feeling. One way we can embrace our loneliness is by turning to the art of others who have inhabited that same lonely city, drawing solace and inspiration from their creations. We can use that as inspiration in our own creative pursuits which can help us work through difficult, and lonely, times.

The Trojan Horse: How Marketers, Retailers, and Artists Conceal Their True Intents

A Trojan Horse is an innocuous appearing container for hiding something within to get past defenses or some other obstacle. Trojan Horses can be used for both good and evil. Here’s how to recognize and use them.

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The Basics

The story of the Trojan Horse is perhaps the most famous of all the Greek myths.

The Trojan War had been going on for a decade, with no end in sight and many Greek heroes dying, when Odysseus came up with an idea that won the war for the Greeks.

Because the Trojans considered horses to be sacred, the Greeks built a large, hollow wooden horse. To make it even more irresistible, they used wood from Cornel trees (also sacred) to construct it. Odysseus and a group of men hid inside while the rest of the Greek army pretended to leave the area, destroying their camp and boarding their ships.

After some debate as to whether the Greeks could be trusted, the Trojans dragged the giant horse inside the walls of the city. The end of the ten-year siege was a huge relief to the people of Troy, who spent the night celebrating.

By midnight, everyone was in a drunken stupor. Odysseus then acted, signaling to the Greek fleet to return and leading his men out of the Trojan Horse to kill the unsuspecting guards and open the doors. The Greeks then had access to the city. They massacred the Trojans, keeping a few alive as slaves. Some of the soldiers traveled further afield, forming settlements which are supposed to have led to the creation of Rome.

Ancient Greeks saw this myth as factual, with the events occurring between 1300–1200 BC in the area near Dardanelles.

There is some archeological evidence for the existence of Troy, although most historians now accept that the story is mythological. There is probably still some basis in actual events, as sieges were common during that era.

Myth or not, the fact that the story of the Trojan Horse has survived for over 3,000 years indicates its power and utility as a mental model.

Why, exactly, has this particular story retained its grip on our imagination for so long?

We can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the Trojan Horse is not just a story. It’s also a parable, a metaphor, an invitation to be ingenious, an example of out-of-the-box thinking.

Reading it has sparked so many ideas for so many people. It is at once practical and bizarre.

Using it as a mental model, we can apply the Trojan Horse story to an array of disciplines and situations. As a concept, it can be used for both good and evil.

The Trojan Horse in Marketing and Business

We live in an era when we are all besieged by marketing messages every moment of the day. Like the Trojans hiding in their city, we have learned to shut these messages out — we use advertisement blockers, throw away junk mail unopened, ignore billboards, and filter out spam emails.

In order to gain our attention, marketers often use a technique similar to the Trojan Horse. They offer people an apparent gift — a free ebook, a discount card, a sample. Only once this item has been enjoyed can its real purpose can be enacted.

A good heuristic when things seem too good to be true is to just forget about them.

Many marketing lessons can be found in the original myth.

The Greeks chose a form which appealed to their targets, using a sacred creature and type of wood. Likewise, marketers must fit their gift to the audience, making it appealing to their basic interests. The Greeks used innovative thinking, inventing a tactic which was new and therefore unexpected. If they had tried the same thing again, it would have had no effect.

Once a marketing technique is recognizable, its impact wanes. No one is going to click on a “5 ways to kill belly fat” pop-up anymore, or fall for an email from a Nigerian prince telling you just how much money you left there, or enjoy a free executable file that will clean your computer. These ruses are now well known and we ignore them. But when these techniques were new and unfamiliar, huge numbers of people were attracted by the offers.

Some examples of Trojan Horse marketing include:

  • Offering the first chapter of a book for free to people who join an email list — Having read the chapter and received more emails which connect them to the author, people are more likely to buy the full book than they would have been if they had only seen an advert.
  • Creating free high-quality blog content for an audience to enjoy — Once people are interested in the blogger’s voice and expertise, the marketing can begin. Many people will at some point want to support the person whose work they have been consuming for free. This support might include buying courses, books, or consulting services or donating to a Patreon page. We developed the learning community as not only a bunch of extras for people but also a means to support the free content we provide.
  • Writing a book detailing an expert’s specialized knowledge — While sales of the book are often not high, having it published benefits the expert’s business. For example, Ryan Holiday has stated that his books have led to more income from speaking and consulting than from actual book sales.
  • Making the most income from revenue streams which do not appear to be the main objective of a business — For example, high-fashion brands often make more money from perfume than from clothing, cinemas rely on sales of popcorn and drinks, and some restaurants profit predominantly from sales of alcohol.
  • Creating viral branded content which people share and engage with due to its being interesting and often amusing — For example, just try to watch the Android “Friends Furever” video without forwarding it to at least one person. The adorable video wraps up a marketing message, making people more likely to pay attention to it.

In his book Permission Marketing, Seth Godin discusses the idea under a different name. When you let people into your inbox, you’re letting people into your city. They might be there for good or bad reasons; it’s hard to know in advance. In a blog post, Godin explains how the concept works:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious…

Real permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went…

Permission is like dating. You do not start by asking for the sale at first impression. You earn the right, over time, bit by bit…

In order to get permission, you make a promise. You say, “I will do x, y and z, I hope you will give me permission by listening.” And then, this is the hard part, that’s all you do. You do not assume you can do more. You do not sell the list or rent the list or demand more attention…

In the book, Godin explains how Amazon has used permission marketing to build an empire:

Using permission, Amazon can fundamentally reconfigure the entire book industry, disintermediating and combining every step of the chain until there are only two: the writer and Amazon … Amazon appears to be building a permission asset, not a brand asset.

Amazon began by offering cheap books. Once people fell for that initial Trojan Horse, Amazon offered them other products and gradually captured more and more of their online spending. Services such as Prime, Echo, and Kindle are contained within the Trojan Horse — that first cheap purchase someone makes.

Just as the Greeks invested effort into building the horse, Amazon has invested millions in technology and infrastructure. This is the essence of Trojan Horse marketing: offering a gift (with Amazon, this includes free trials, discounts, and generally low costs for popular items) and then upselling and upselling and upselling.

On the topic of Amazon Prime, John Warrillow writes:

Like many subscription models, Amazon Prime is a Trojan horse that is expanding the list of products consumers are willing to buy from Amazon and giving the eggheads in Seattle a mountain of customer data to sift through.

The Trojan Horse and the Benjamin Franklin Effect

Let’s say there is a person who dislikes you — a lot. It’s fine; this happens to all of us.

But what if you need to form an allegiance with this person? Or maybe they don’t dislike you, they just don’t know you. Either way, you need to build a relationship with them.

What should you do? Ask them out for coffee, offer a gift, ask someone for an email introduction?

One solution is to utilize the Benjamin Franklin effect, essentially a sort of Trojan Horse approach to building relationships.

The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon in which we begin to like people we have done favors for. Essentially, the initial favor is the Trojan Horse, containing within it a relationship. Franklin’s original story, told in his autobiography, details how he used this during his time as a legislator:

Having heard that he [a rival who disliked Franklin] had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour.

When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

We can use Franklin’s technique as a Trojan Horse to gain the respect, friendship, and cooperation of other people.

Asking someone for a favor indicates that we already respect them and consider them to have something we lack — a form of flattery which serves as the gift. Once they have accepted this and performed the favor, it can be leveraged.

Examples of the conjunction between the Benjamin Franklin effect and the Trojan Horse include:

  • Salesmen use the foot-in-the-door technique. This involves making a small request (for example, filling in a survey), then trying to sell you something.
  • If someone you know has a particular area of expertise, try texting or emailing them (rather than Googling it) whenever you have a related question. One Reddit user on r/LifeProTips recommends texting your mother simple questions on a regular basis to strengthen the relationship. Doing so indicates to people that we consider them knowledgeable, making them more likely to respond to larger requests.

Robert Greene also recommends a number of Trojan Horse–style tactics in The 48 Laws of Power, concealing true intentions within a facade and using specific behavior to achieve goals.

Use selective honesty and judgment to disarm … One sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones. Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people. Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armor, you can deceive and manipulate them at will. A timely gift—a Trojan horse—will serve the same purpose.

In The 33 Strategies of War, Greene returns to the same analogy:

[B]efriend your enemies, worming your way into their hearts and minds. As your targets’ friend, you will naturally learn their needs and insecurities, the soft interior they try so hard to hide. The guard will come down with a friend. And even later on, when you play out your treacherous intentions, the lingering resonance of your friendship will still confuse them, letting you keep on manipulating them by toying with their emotions or pushing them into overreactions. For a more immediate effect, you can try a sudden act of kindness and generosity that gets people to lower their defenses—the Trojan Horse strategy. …

When confronted by something difficult or thorny, do not be distracted or discouraged by its formidable outer appearance; think your way into the soft core, the center from which the problem blossoms… Knowing the problem’s core gives you great power to change it from the inside out. Your first thought must always be to infiltrate the center… never to whale away at the periphery or just pound at the walls.

How Artists Change Your Mind

Many artists (a term used here to denote anyone who creates something, not just those who paint canvases) have used their work to conceal important agendas.

The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Conor Oberst wrap political and social messages within beautiful music.

Bloggers such as Seth Godin and James Altucher envelop key life lessons and paradigm-altering concepts within humorous anecdotes and metaphors. The women who embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry added their own subtle views to the panoramas of war and victory.

Companies such as Toms, Ben & Jerry, and Lush use the popularity of their products to fund real change. Johannes Vermeer’s most serene paintings tell complex, taboo narratives.

Botticelli’s La Primavera (above) is actually an exploration of his interest in horticulture, not a study of human figures.

Consider Gatsby, throwing lavish parties with the sole purpose of attracting Daisy back to him. This is the essence of much of art — an attractive and appealing exterior conceals the true purpose.

People use whatever means are available to them to express their views and attitudes. Sometimes this is intentional; sometimes the Trojan Horse is built unconsciously. The purpose is to get a message across in a form which is palatable to people.

Few of us enjoy or engage with straightforward expressions of a particular agenda. But when it comes in an interesting form, we pull the wooden horse within the city walls with glee. Just as with marketing messages, we have become desensitized to these sorts of messages. Artists must now use ingenuity and creativity to spread their ideas.

As Walter Hamady writes:

The book as a structure is the Trojan horse of art — it is not feared by average people. It is a familiar form in the world, and average people will take it from you and examine it whereas a painting, poem, sculpture, or print they will not.

This concept of art as a Trojan Horse is extremely important.

Farnam Street itself serves as a Trojan Horse. Our intention is to spread an appreciation of the importance of clear thinking, lifelong learning, making good decisions and living a meaningful life.

If upon your first visit to this site, you had found nothing but a list of instructions, the chances are high that you would have ignored it and never returned. Through the use of stories, analogies and careful explorations of important ideas, this agenda has reached and inspired many people. When you read a post about a military tactic or the life of a historic figure, the purpose is not the narrative alone. It is about much more than that — a way of changing how people think.

In Contagious, Jonah Berger explains the power of stories as a Trojan Horse:

People don’t just share information, they tell stories. But just like the epic tale of the Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry things such as morals and lessons. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. So, we need to build our own Trojan horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell… we need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.

Francis T. Marchese also advocates the Trojan Horse approach to art:

The Trojan Horse is an artifact that possesses a host of hidden agendas. Rather than presenting a one-off manifestation, the Trojan Horse offers many platoons, capable of strategically addressing the wider culture, pointing to replicable solutions through demonstration. Thus, an artwork acting like a Trojan Horse can contain the seeds of multiple strategic outcomes.

In short, when we want to spread an idea or spark change, we would do well to learn from the ancient Greeks.

People have strong defenses against anything which challenges their worldviews. By packaging it in a format which appeals to them, we can pass on meaning. Artists, marketers, and politicians (among others) have long realized the importance of this approach. It is a means of injecting our ideas, both good and bad, into people’s worlds through an apparent gift.

Is Human Progress Real or An Illusion?

Against the historical backdrop of nations, morals and religions that rise and fall, “the idea of progress finds itself in dubious shape”, according to Will and Ariel Durant in their amazing book The Lessons of History. Allow me to explain.

The core idea of their work is that man’s nature hasn’t changed all that much throughout history. Technical advances remain but must be “written off as merely new means of achieving old ends— the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.”

Science has no morals, it can heal as well as kill. Science can build and, more easily, destroy. The Francis Bacon motto that “Knowledge is power,” doesn’t fully explain the situation. Power rests in the hands of humans – it is our nature that drives the ends to which we wield it.

Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.

The Durants make an interesting argument that our comforts and conveniences, largely the result of technological progress, have “weakened our physical stamina and our moral fibre.”

We have immensely developed our means of locomotion, but some of us use them to facilitate crime and to kill our fellow men or ourselves. We double, triple, centuple our speed, but we shatter our nerves in the process, and are the same trousered apes at two thousand miles an hour as when we had legs. We applaud the cures and incisions of modern medicine if they bring no side effects worse than the malady; we appreciate the assiduity of our physicians in their mad race with the resilience of microbes and the inventiveness of disease; we are grateful for the added years that medical science gives us if they are not a burdensome prolongation of illness, disability, and gloom. We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose peace was only gently disturbed by the news of their village. We have laudably bettered the conditions of life for skilled workingmen and the middle class, but we have allowed our cities to fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums.

History affords us the opportunity to draw any conclusion we wish.

History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances. Choosing our evidence with a brighter bias, we might evolve some more comforting reflections.

So we must first define progress.

If it means increase in happiness its case is lost almost at first sight. Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval. It seems silly to define progress in terms that would make the average child a higher, more advanced product of life than the adult or the sage— for certainly the child is the happiest of the three. Is a more objective definition possible? We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life. It is a test that may hold for the lowliest organism as well as for man.

At any point in time some nations are progressing and some are regressing. Adding even more nuance, nations and people may advance in one area and recede in another.

America is now progressing in technology and receding in the graphic arts. If we find that the type of genius prevalent in young countries like America and Australia tends to the practical, inventive, scientific, executive kinds rather than to the painter of pictures or poems, the carver of statues or words, we must understand that each age and place needs and elicits some types of ability rather than others in its pursuit of environmental control. We should not compare the work of one land and time with the winnowed best of all the collected past. Our problem is whether the average man has increased his ability to control the conditions of his life.

The unhappiness of undertakers as a measure of progress.

The lowliest strata in civilized states may still differ only slightly from barbarians, but above those levels thousands, millions have reached mental and moral levels rarely found among primitive men. Under the complex strains of city life we sometimes take imaginative refuge in the supposed simplicity of pre-civilized ways; but in our less romantic moments we know that this is a flight reaction from our actual tasks, and that the idolizing of savages, like many other young moods, is an impatient expression of adolescent maladaptation, of conscious ability not yet matured and comfortably placed. The “friendly and flowing savage” would be delightful but for his scalpel, his insects, and his dirt. A study of surviving primitive tribes reveals their high rate of infantile mortality, their short tenure of life, their lesser stamina and speed, their greater susceptibility to disease. If the prolongation of life indicates better control of the environment, then the tables of mortality proclaim the advance of man, for longevity in European and American whites has tripled in the last three centuries. Some time ago a convention of morticians discussed the danger threatening their industry from the increasing tardiness of men in keeping their rendezvous with death. But if undertakers are miserable progress is real.

It is no trivial achievement that famine has almost been eliminated and many of the viruses that killed millions worry us not. And yet the probability is that our civilization will die. As Frederick asked his retreating troops at Kolin, “Would you live forever?”

Perhaps it is desirable that life should take fresh forms, that new civilizations and centers should have their turn. Meanwhile the effort to meet the challenge of the rising East may reinvigorate the West.

But great civilizations do not entirely die, they leave fragments. These fragments are the connective tissues that bind us together.

Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states: the making of fire and light, of the wheel and other basic tools; language, writing, art, and song; agriculture, the family, and parental care; social organization, morality, and charity; and the use of teaching to transmit the lore of the family and the race. These are the elements of civilization, and they have been tenaciously maintained through the perilous passage from one civilization to the next. They are the connective tissue of human history.

If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing. Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again. So our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all.

This calls into question the role of education.

None but a child will complain that our teachers have not yet eradicated the errors and superstitions of ten thousand years. The great experiment has just begun, and it may yet be defeated by the high birth rate of unwilling or indoctrinated ignorance. But what would be the full fruitage of instruction if every child should be schooled till at least his twentieth year, and should find free access to the universities, libraries, and museums that harbor and offer the intellectual and artistic treasures of the race? Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

The fragments we transmit to the current generation are richer than ever before. We stand on the shoulders of those that have come before us and in assuming the new height, we attempt to allow others to stand on our shoulders. If we see farther, it is because of this.

If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.

History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

If you liked this post, you’ll love these two:

The Three Lessons of Biological History — Human history is a fragment of biological history. If we are to learn enduring lessons it is best to go back in time.

What History Teaches us about The Concentration of Wealth — Assuming practical ability differs amongst people, the majority of whatever society values will always rest with the minority of men.

Agnes Martin on The Secret of Happiness

“The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone.”

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Agnes Martin was a famous abstract painter and minimalist.

In this short interview with Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama from her studio in 1997, the 85-year-old Martin shares the secret of happiness, and some wisdom on solitude.

On happiness …

There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want. … That’s the way to be happy.

Later in the interview she turns the table and asks Smith if he feels like he’s doing what he was born to do. When he responds in the affirmative, she replies “that’s the way to be happy.” (This runs counter Cal Newport’s stark opposition to not follow your passion.)

On the worst thing to think about — you:

The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself. … (because when you do) you make mistakes.

Another interesting part of the interview is when she responds to the question on how she feels when the painting is done. She fails to let herself decide right away … instead she waits.

Once the painting is done … I ask if it was a good painting. But I also wait three days before I decide.

While we’re not advocates of the stop-thinking approach, there are opposing ends of the spectrum and thinking too much or even being too rational is not always the best way to live. Martin gave up meditation when she trained herself to stop thinking.

Before you train yourself to stop thinking … I don’t believe what the intellectuals put out. The intellectuals discover one fact and then another fact and then another and they say from all these facts we can deduce so-and-so. No good. That’s just a bad guess. Nothing can come but inaccuracy.

The last point is perhaps the most important. This one strikes at the heart of today’s culture and into the value of an empty mind — free from busyness and distractions. Martin believes that when you have an empty mind, you can see things when they come into it. Imagine the freedom of an empty mind — one not bound by to-do lists, meetings, work and the other muck we dump into it. When the mind is full our attention revolves around the meaningless. And yet attention is perhaps the most valuable thing we have.

I’m reminded of the words of W.H. Auden

“Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”

Rendez-Vous with Art: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Art

Philippe de Montebello was the longest-serving Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1977-2008). Martin Gayford was an acclaimed art critic. Their book, Rendez-Vous with Art, is structured around the conversations they had in churches, museums, and art galleries around the world. It’s an intimate look into the pleasures and pitfalls of art.

Starting with a fragment that’s left of the face of an Egyptian woman who lived 3,000 years ago, de Montebello and Gayford’s book confronts the elusive questions: how and why do we look at art? That is a large subject we will leave you to explore, but there are two parts of this book we wish to draw your attention to.

WE CAN NEVER STEP IN THE SAME RIVER TWICE

“If,” they write, “we stand in front of a work of art twice, at least one party — the viewer or the object — will be transformed on the second occasion. Works of art mutate through time, albeit slowly, as they are cleaned or ‘conserved’, or as their constituent materials age.”

As far as the object, Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses collection comes to mind. Van Gogh employed bright pigments in a way that encouraged them to lose their vibrancy over time, anticipating “time will only soften them too much.” The contrast between the originals and those we witness today is stark — color like all living organisms fades over time.

But even more important than the physical evolution of pieces are the ones happening internal to us.

Gayford writes:

Inevitably, we all inhabit a world of dissolving perspectives and ever-shifting views. The present is always moving, so from that vantage point the past constantly changes in appearance. That is on the grand, historical scale; but the same is true of our personal encounters with art, from the day to day. You can stand in front of Velazquez’s Las Meninas a thousand times, and every time it will be different because you will be altered: tired or full of energy, or dissimilar from your previous self in a multitude of ways.

… Our idea was to make a book that was neither art history not art criticism but an experiment in shared appreciation. It is, in other words, an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art: what it feels like on a particular occasion, which is of course the only way any of us can ever look at anything.

This brings to mind the famous fragment of Heraclitus: “You cannot step in the same river twice.”

HOW TO LOOK AT ART

There is undeniably a curatorial aspect to art. De Montebello notes that contrast between addition and subtraction when it comes to selection.  He writes:

In Europe, one often has a sense that a selection has been made by paring down a lot of inherited dynastic objects or spoils of colonization or war. Then a curatorial mind has built on that base. In the USA, you start ab initio. American museums large and small tend to be encyclopedic, whether you are in Toledo, Minneapolis, or elsewhere, because they started from nothing, and from the premise that they’d like to buy a little bit of everything: a couple of Chinese things, a few medieval things, and so on.

While there are differences in what’s on display at American museums, de Montebello also alludes to the “sameness in their governing principles and the criteria used for acquisitions.” The great museums, he argues, “are organisms, constantly changing, and mainly expanding. The collections grow, move in new directions, and, on rare occasion, get sold off. The buildings are adapted and frequently enlarged.” A visit to a museum in itself is part of the learning process.

De Montebello writes:

I have found that when I have forced myself — often with the help of curators — to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knowledge, what had been hidden from me became manifest. I’ll give you an example: for a long time I approached galleries of Greek vases with a sense of dread; whether black- or red-figured, the vases all looked alike to me. Museums were often culpable as they tended to show far too many. So I’d walk into one of those rooms, take one look and dash for the exit. But a curator at the Met, Joan Mertens, told me once to go to the vitrines where only fragments, or shards, were shown. She stood beside me and said, look at one of them as if it were a drawing on paper.

I found I was able to look at it this way, forgetting that it was a fragment of a vessel, a three-dimensional utilitarian object. I could focus on the drawing itself, the line, the composition, and how marvellous it was. But the epiphany came when I was able to put surface decoration and vessel shape together, and look at them as one. It is the only correct way, incidentally.

Fragments are a representation of the whole—to appreciate them we have to engage beyond the instant gratification we so often seek. It often takes us repressing our ego and asking for help to truly see a piece or an exhibit, much like an adult who takes classes to appreciate Shakespeare.

De Montebello concludes:

[O]ne can be taught, and needs to taught, how to look, how to push aside one’s prejudices, one’s overly hasty negative reactions. For me, it was a long learning process, and I have to imagine that for the majority of visitors it can’t be easy either. …  The appreciation of art requires an engagement that is wholly different from the instant gratification provided by most popular forms of popular culture, and museums have a responsibility to help visitors achieve this.

This strikes a familiar note, as we have often called Farnam Street “curated interestingness” for the very same reason: We feel it’s our job to help you find and appreciate the best wisdom the world has to offer.

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Rendez-Vous with Art adds to our expanding library on art, sitting next to The Power of Art and The Story of Art.

The Creative Process in 10 Acts

“It’s good to understand that it’s all a process and it’s going to take you to a new place.
And I try to remind myself … to enjoy the process.”

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In this short video, Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards, offers creative process in ten acts based on her experience in film and art. Consider this an extension to Graham Wallace‘s model of the four stages of the creative process and how we gain creative insight.

1. The Hunch
Any project starts with a hunch, and you have to act on it. It’s a total risk because you’re just about to jump off a cliff, and you have to go for it if you believe in it.

2. Talk About It
Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your community … they’re the ones who are going to support you on this whole treacherous journey of the creative process, so involve them, engage them.

3. The Sponge
I’m going to tons of art shows, I’m watching a lot of movies, I’m reading voraciously. I’m asking questions … and I’m just sponging up ideas and trying to formulate my own idea about the subject.

4. Build
I love the word filmmaker because it has maker in it. My team and I are … building an armature — the architecture for the project.

5. Confusion
Dread. Heart of Darkness. Forest of fire, doubt, fear, every project has this stage for me. But as hard as it is — and it is really hard — any project always gets infinitely better after I’ve rumbled with all of my fears.

6. Just Step Away
Take a breather — literally just step away from the project. And I’ll build this into the schedule. Let it marinate — don’t look at it or think about it.

7. The Love Sandwich
To give constructive feedback, always snuggle it in love — because we’re only human, and we’re vulnerable … Set expectations for where you are in the project, then ask questions in a way that allows for the love sandwich: First, “What works for you?” Then, “What doesn’t work for you?” Then, “What works for you?” again. If you just ask people for feedback, they’ll go straight for the jugular.

8. The Premature Breakthroughlation
You’ll find in a project that you’ll have many small breakthroughs — and you have to celebrate those breakthroughs, because they’re ultimately going to lead to the big breakthrough, which will happen.

9. Revisit Your Notes
I always do this throughout the project, but especially during that last home stretch. Those late nights. Usually near a deadline. … I revisit all my notes and think back, and always find a clue — that missing link that brings it all home.

10. Know When You’re Done