Tag: Art

TED Bookstore 2013

If you missed out on attending the famous TED conference this year — you’re not alone. But now you can queue up some of the books that were available at the TED Bookstore for your spring reading pile. The bookstore was curated this year by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings).

I haven’t been able to find a full list of all the books available. Yet, here are 10 of Maria’s favourites from this years TED Bookstore along with the text that appears on the bookstore cards introducing the book to TED attendees.

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail

A die-cut masterpiece, two years in the making, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, one of the best art books of 2012, is based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti. It comes from Indian independent publisher Tara Books (♥), who for the nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a community of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books.

Tiny Beautiful Things

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. Collected in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, is her no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — published under Sugar’s long-awaited real name.

Big Questions From Little People

The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — including TEDsters like Alain de Botton, Mary Roach, and Richard Dawkins — to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, among both the best children’s books of 2012 and the year’s overall reader favorites. A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Save the Children.

Internal Time

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. But despite the laughably sexist hierarchy, his rule of thumb turns out to be grossly unsupported by science. In Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), one of the best science books of 2012, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg demonstrates through a wealth of research that our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

Where the Heart Beats

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, also one of the best philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs an exceptional intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of John Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, this superbly researched, exquisitely written tome weaves together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, one of the best history books of 2012, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. Especially enchanting is the evolution of her relationship with love over that decade and a half, as Sontag settles into her own skin not only as a dimensional writer but also as a dimensional human being.

The Where, the Why, and the How

In The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, one of the best science books of 2012, some of today’s most celebrated artists create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language. Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves.

Henri’s Walk to Paris

Saul Bass is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. Exactly half a century later, Henri’s Walk to Paris, one of 2012′s best children’s books, was brought back to life.

A Technique for Producing Ideas

Originally published by an ad man named James Webb Young in 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas is a forgotten gem that lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs is a remarkable collection of canine-themed treats — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — by a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, this lavish tome embodies what Malcolm Gladwell eloquently observes in the introduction: “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

(h/t to Maria)

Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation

Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag’s second book, was published in 1966, but some of the essays date back to 1961, when she was still writing for The Benefactor. Sontag had come to New York in the early 60’s, eager to become the writer she so longed to become. Her ideas at the time of a writer was someone interested in “everything.”

Against Interpretation is regarded as a quintessential text of the 60’s. “It wasn’t the Sixties then,” she writes. “For me it was chiefly the time when I wrote my first and second novels, and began to discharge some of the cargo of ideas about art and culture and the proper business of consciousness which had distracted me from writing fiction. I was filled with evangelical zeal.”

Interpretation

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Taming Art

Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.

Genius

…interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.

Avoiding Interpretation

to avoid interpretation, art maybe become parody. Or it may become abstract. … Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content,t here can be no interpretation.

Our Task With a Work of Art

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

Art

Art is not only about something; it is something. … Art is seduction, not rape.

Morality

Morality is a code of acts, and of judgments and sentiments by which we reinforce our habits of acting in a certain way, which prescribe a standard for behaving or tiring to behave toward other human beings general (that is, to all who are acknowledged to be human) as if we were inspired by love. Needless to say, love is something we feel in truth for just a few individual human beings, among those who are known to us in reality and in our imagination. … Morality is a form of acting and not a particular repertoire of choices.

The Metaphor of Art as an “Argument”

The metaphor of the work of art as an “argument,” with premises and entailments, has informed most criticism since. Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.

Love and suffering

The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness. We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one’s ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, but one’s ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium. … For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.

If this has you curious, you should read the entire book.

Susan Sontag on Style and Metaphors

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) spent a lifetime on writing, art, and the commodification of wisdom.

Her moving work, Against Interpretation, is regarded as a quintessential text from the 60s. In it, she addresses both the advantages and the disadvantages of metaphors.

Sontag writes:

To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art. Like all discourse about totalities, talk of style must rely on metaphors. And metaphors mislead.

Take, for instance, Whitman’s very material metaphor. By likening style to a curtain, he has of course confused style with decoration and for this would be speedily faulted by most critics. To conceive of style as a decorative encumbrance on the matter of the work suggests that the curtain could be parted and the matter revealed; or, to vary the metaphor slightly, that the curtain could be rendered transparent. But this is not the only erroneous implication of the metaphor. What the metaphor also suggests is that style is a matter of more or less (quantity), thick or thin (density) . And, though less obviously so, this is just as wrong as the fancy that an artist possesses the genuine option to have or not to have a style. Style is not quantitative, any more than it is superadded. A more complex stylistic convention-say, one taking prose further away from the diction and cadences of ordinary speech—does not mean that the work has “more” style.

Indeed, practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the Inside. As Cocteau writes: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one’s “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.

I should make clear, however, that what I have been saying about dangerous metaphors doesn’t rule out the use of limited and concrete metaphors to describe the impact of a particular style. It seems harmless to speak of a style, drawing from the crude terminology used to render physical sensations, as being “loud” or “heavy” or “full” or “tasteless” or, employing the image of an argument as “inconsistent.”

Against Interpretation is well worth the read in its entirely.

Against Interpretation

In reading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays I came across this passage on interpretation.

Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit do to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text, they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.

Rembrandt — The Power of Art

You’re a painter. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you: neglect, derision, disgrace? Worse than all these misfortunes is to have to mutilate your masterpiece, the bravest thing you’ve ever tried. That’s what happened to Rembrandt in 1662.

That’s how Simon Schama introduces us to Rembrandt in his amazing book: The Power of Art.

20 years before, when Rembrandt was in his 30s, Amsterdam couldn’t get enough of the young master. “Over and over he had confounded expectations, and expectations adjusted accordingly to whatever it was he had done.” He was on top of the world.

By 1660, when Rembrandt was in his 50s, he

was living in a modest dwelling on the Rozengracht, opposite a pleasure garden. There were drunks in the street, knife fights on the corner. The tongue-clickers now saw him as someone from whom things had called steeply away: credit, property, the benisons of the mighty. God did not distribute fortune idly, so the truisms of the pious had it. Thus, in some fashion, Rembrandt’s fall from grace must have been ordained as a caution against sinful pride.

But then a lucky break. The Amsterdam elite desired a monumental history painting for their new town hall. Govert Flinck, their first choice for the job, unexpectedly died leaving Rembrandt with an opportunity to redeem himself and change everything.

The commission would be one of a series of paintings illustrating the history of the Dutch.

Together the cycle of histories would remind Amsterdammers that, while they were not themselves masters of an empire, their history began with an act of virtuous insurrection against the arrogance of the Roman Empire.

Rembrandt’s work would be the most important. He would be painting the Batavian leader Claudius Civilis at “the very moment of swearing his brethren to pledge their lives to the liberty of the Fatherland.” If he succeeded, Rembrandt would clear his name and return to prosperity.

The result was something no one expected and for the ruined painter it was a massive gamble.

Everyone knew about Rembrandt’s ruffian audacity; his regrettable imperviousness to the niceties of decorum, personal and professional. But with all those reservations, the civic worthies must still have been unprepared for what they got from his hand.

Wanting to save face, the worthies decided that letting it hang in the hall was better than leaving a vacancy where the masterpiece belonged. However, a few months later they changed their mind. “It’s confrontational coarseness” was too much and they ordered it removed, rolled up, and sent back to the artist. Rembrandt didn’t receive a penny for his work. Someone else, someone predictable, was hired to fill the space. They knocked off a painting in record time. “It might have been the worst painting on public display anywhere in the Netherlands. But no one complained.”

If Rembrandt wanted to rescue something from his masterpiece he would have to cut it down from the enormous arched space it was designed for into something for a residential buyer. So the cutting began.

You can learn more about Rembrandt by watching this Power of Art BBC series .

Still curious? Pick up a copy of Simon Schama’s, The Power of Art, or watch the excellent BBC series.

Related:
Bernini — The Power of Art
Caravaggio — The Power of Art

Physicist Richard Feynman on Beauty of a Flower

Richard Feynman talking about the beauty of the natural world.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.