“Art is anything you can get away with.” – Marshall McLuhan
Last night, I watched “For No Good Reason” which is a documentary about visual artist Ralph Steadman. I’d never heard his name but I recognized his work. To be sure, his grotesque artwork is impossible to ignore. Watching him paint, you see a sort of interaction with his subconscious. The angriest, most frustrated depths of his Id come splattering out on the page: The rage, the social injustice, the malaise of modern life. It’s all there in sickening detail.
Steadman is best known as Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrator. Theor work embodies the ethos of the 60’s and 70’s when, according to Steven Pinker, “sanity was denigrated, and psychosis romanticized” in pop culture. In other words, a period of decivilizing in the mainstream that’s antithetical to today’s social media.
It’s fascinating to hear fellow Baby Boomers discuss Ralph’s art. The era of organized protest being taken seriously by young people is so fargone as to be completely foreign. From director Terry Gilliam: “The problem with protesters is that we got old and we got tired. We screamed and shouted and we did change the world to a degree, but not as much as we’d like. And that leads to a depression and a sense of semi-impotence, which I think after a while just begins to wear you down. You realize you did make these changes, and you see a new generation of people coming up, who are beneficiaries of a lot of the noise we made, and they don’t give a damn. They’re interested in shopping.” And therein lies the rub.
I stayed up late last night watching Tim’s Vermeer, Penn and Teller’s recent film about their friend Tim Jenison’s obsessive quest to paint like Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Is Tim a painter? Not hardly. But he is a successful entrepreneur, computer graphics whiz, and inventor with an eccentric, restless, and brilliant mind. After reading in the book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters that perhaps Vermeer’s talent was perhaps augmented by the technology available at the time, Tim had to figure out what his secret was.
Vermeer’s art is acclaimed to this day for it’s photo-realistic reproduction of light. Strangely enough, x-ray scans of his originals show that they weren’t sketched beforehand, further deepening the mystery of how he was able to paint such life-like scenes.
Tim puts a ton of research, money, travel, and effort into figuring out Vermeer’s secret. Whether or not the method he finally settled on to paint was indeed Vermeer’s technique will never definitively be known, but Tim’s reproduction, the product of his grueling 6 year odyssey, is quite convincing:
Not bad for a guy with no previous artistic training!
Do yourself a favor and check out Penn and Teller’s brilliant documentary:
The Century Of The Self – Part 1
–a fantastic documentary, via Brain Pickings. This BBC documentary recounts the history of Freud and how his theories came to influence Nazi propaganda, advertising, political campaigns and modern life at large. The production and conspiratorial-toned narrator crack me up and remind me of Chris Farley’s Coffee Crystals SNL skit, but the information conveyed is prescient, shocking and frighteningly accurate. Also check out parts two, three, and four.
“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”—a fantastic documentary, via Farnam Street. To add to this discussion I would also consider the New Yorker’s profile on Aaron Schwartz, ‘Requiem for a Dream’.
“This is the story of a boy my age who tried to make his expectations of the world become reality. Instead, he was crushed by the very system he sought to change. I don’t necessarily agree with his views but his story is as incredible as it is inspiring. “HE WAS NOT a saint. He could be as petty as anyone. But the thing that makes a good life isn’t constantly being saintly—it’s just continuing to do shit. We spend so much time waiting to start to live. He always went big—he never looked for permission to go big. He assumed that he could talk to anyone he wanted, and he was right, and it wasn’t because he was super-special-genius-boy, it was because he tried.” “WE WERE TALKING about the money and about how much debt it was reasonable for him to go into around the case. I was saying, ‘You can get a half-million salary a year as a C.T.O. for some tech company.’ And he said, ‘I would rather sleep on friends’ couches for the rest of my life than take a job I don’t want.'”
I’ve also taken a few book recommendations from his annual Review of Books, most notably Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.