- Figure out what’s worth stealing
- Move on to the next thing
Rinse and repeat.
Do ever feel like when you’re reading, you aren’t really learning anything, but you’re re-discovering what you already had inside you? That’s how it felt after reading The Power of Myth, a book companion to the PBS mini-series featuring Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell in conversation. Having never read any Campbell (I’m starting on The Hero With A Thousand Faces next) I found it to be a great introduction to his worldview.
Campbell had a lot of wisdom for artists, but here are two of the more practical excerpts.
On having a “sacred place”:
[A sacred place] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen….
[O]ur life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the music that you really love, even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects.
On how to read:
Sit in a room and read—and read and read. And read the right books by the right people….When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don’t say, “Oh, I want to know what So-andso did”—and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. But when you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such a poem—but he hasn’t said anything to you.
(This is something that both my friend Brandon and George Saunders have suggested.)
Great book. Highly recommended. Here are some other excerpts.
[M]yths, fairy-tales and religious stories like the Bible…They are endlessly interpretable and adaptable. A bottomless source. They’re the template for pretty much all storytelling in the Western world. Whether by design or by stumbling onto them I think there is much to be gained from brushing up against them, borrowing, stealing, rewriting and quoting from them, whether subtly…or overtly…”
…when making comics is working, it really doesn’t feel like you are the one telling the story, it feels like the story already exists and you are just doing your best to get it down on paper. It’s like a very carefully attentive manufacturing process. So for the story to change would be like for someone who assembles calculators to start changing the calculators. They probably wouldn’t work.”
On art and religion:
All art comes from religion. From trying to understand and contend with the world.”
On the artist disguising himself in his work:
I’m happy to be back to my usual practice of heavily disguising my life in the stories I tell. Generally speaking, it’s still me in my other work, it’s just that I’m disguised as a bunch of little birds.”
I came to David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, like many other beautiful books, by way of Edward Tufte. It’s a fantastic book with the basic thesis that from the early 1400’s on, painters and artists were employing the aid of optics (mirrors, glasses, lenses) to achieve a new stunning realism. If you want a great introduction/summary of the findings in the book, Lawrence Weschler’s article, “Through the Looking-Glass: Further adventures in opticality with David Hockney,” is available for free in full-text with color photos from The Believer online.
While I enjoy the mind-blowing content of his argument, what I enjoy most is Hockney’s way of looking. He came about his thesis by comparing color photocopies of 400 years of paintings and drawings side-by-side in a gigantic graphic collage timeline:
[Hockney] cleared the long two-story high wall of his hillside studio (the studio retains the general dimensions of the one-time tennis court over which it was built), installed a photocopier in the middle of the space, and, drawing on his brimming private horde of art books and monographs, effectively proceeded to photocopy the entire history of European art, shingling the images one atop the next–1300 to one side, 1750 to the far other, Northern Europe on top, Southern Europe below–a vast, teeming pageant of evolving imagery (and in some ways Hockney’s most ambitious photocollage yet).
It was from this gigantic collage that he was able to pinpoint a period at which painting seemed to change — somewhere around 1430, painting obtained an “optical” look.
Hockney argued that that look dominated European painting for centuries–just how far back he wasn’t yet sure–and that it only lost its hold on Western artists with the invention of the chemical process, in 1839, after which painters, now despairing of matching the chemical photograph for optical accuracy, finally fell away: awkwardness returned to Western painting for the first time as generation after generation of artists –impressionists, expressionists, cubists and so forth–endeavored to convey all the nuances of lived reality (time, emotion, multiple vantages, etc.) that a mere photograph couldn’t capture.
The wall, or art history from 1400-1900 becomes a three-part story: you have pre-optics (awkwardness), optics (the disappearance of awkwardness), and post-optics (the return of awkwardness).
“Awkwardness,” Hockney was saying, wheeling around, “the disappearance of awkwardness, the invention of chemical photography, and the return of awkwardness. The preoptical,” he wheeled once more, “the age of the optical, and then the post-optical, which is to say the modern. And look here.” He led me over to the corner where the two ends of the procession abutted. On the one wall he’d posited, as endpoint, Van Gogh’s portrait of Trabuc (1889); next to it, on the other, was a Byzantine mosaic icon of Christ from about 1150.
These two images together just blow my mind. It just makes so much sense. Here we are in a world where everything can be captured in perfect detail from a camera, and it takes the human hand to render it in some kind of form that actually seems closer to our experience. We don’t see life from one fixed-focus lens. We see it from two eyeballs, two ears, etc. And this is why, I think, we still love the human awkwardness of cartoons, or abstracted drawings: it can produce an experience that a photograph can’t.
Anyways, there’s a ton of other great stuff in Hockney’s book and Weschler’s article. Highly recommended.
I was Google Image Searching the I [heart] NY logo, and came across this great 2003 interview between Milton Glaser and Chip Kidd published in The Believer. Hard to believe Glaser never made a penny off the design, which he basically donated to the city in the mid-seventies in hopes of boosting the city’s morale (and cleaning the dog crap off the street).
I found nearly every bit of the interview fascinating, especially his thoughts about developing ideas with sketching versus computers, but the story about his mother and father really hit home:
In my parents I had the perfect combination—a resistant father and an encouraging mother. My mother convinced me I could do anything. And my father said, “Prove it.” He didn’t think I could make a living. Resistance produces muscularity. And it was the perfect combination because I could use my mother’s belief to overcome my father’s resistance. My father was a kind of a metaphor for the world, because if you can’t overcome a father’s resistance you’re never going to be able to overcome the world’s resistance. It’s much better than having completely supportive parents or completely resistant parents.
Best of all? When he was a kid, he wanted to be a cartoonist.
I’m going to teach myself color. It’s something I’ve never understood, and something I’ve never really been able to do. I’m sure that somewhere I have a subconscious understanding of it, but I just can’t consciously create effects using it. I suppose the solution is getting out a big box of crayons and starting to play, but I’ve been putting it off.
Last night I was reading Joann Sfar’s Klezmer, Book One. He is brilliant: he doesn’t plan anything when he writes it, he just cuts loose and lets the story dictate where it goes. His line is so free and sketchy, he just knocks the thing out. (This is why he has more than 100 books to his name.) He sent The Rabbi’s Cat to a colorist, but for this one, i think he did his own color (at least I couldn’t find a credit for another colorist.)
Look at the way his drawings are transformed by color:
I keep wanting Meg to teach me, because she’s a master of color, but we’re so busy that I don’t see it happening any time soon.
So I turn to books. Right now, it’s Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color. Page 8:
On the blackboard and in our notebooks we write: Color is the most relative medium in art.
The book’s aim is to show that colors work only against other colors, and that pleasing effects arise out of these juxtapositions. (When Meghan was learning to paint, her teacher would only let her use color — no blacks, no whites!) This was a big slap in the forehead for me, because my only foray into color has been to use it to accent black and white drawings. Albers uses several examples with colored paper to show different effects:
Meghan did a series of collages last year that were very similar to these paper confections: strips of pure color that she was arranging into these really cool landscapes. I can’t find a scan of them anywhere right now. Maybe I’ll post them later.
Either way: look out color, here I come.
This is an engraving by William Blake called “The Laocoon as Jehovah with Satan and Adam.” It was done around 1820, but to me, it looks like it could be a graphic for yesterday’s New York Times magazine.
The graffitti scrawl on this is really nutty: Blake is spouting off a manifesto about Christianity and art:
A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect, the Man
Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian
You must leave Fathers & Mothers & Houses & Lands if they stand in the way of Art
A little extreme for my tastes. I think that pretty much all that stuff is more important than art. (That’s probably why nobody will be reading my comics in 200 years…) And what about weddings? He goes on to say, “For every Pleasure Money Is Useless.” Tell that to the cake baker!
Maybe it’s the huge bags of currency we’re throwing into the celebration fire for this wedding, maybe it’s the Christmas season, or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been reading Dickens’ Christmas Carol in bed, but I’ve been thinking about money.
Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24) I guess that means that you should give everything away. Eat, drink, and be merry. Ebenezer’s life sure got better when he started burning through his savings…
And what about charity? What is our motivation for giving to others in need? It’s not necessarily the promise of getting into heaven. Dig this excerpt from an Nytimes article by Peter Singer, “What Should a Billionaire Give — and What Should You?”
Interestingly, neither [Bill] Gates nor [Warren] Buffett seems motivated by the possibility of being rewarded in heaven for his good deeds on earth. Gates told a Time interviewer, “There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning?? than going to church. Put them together with Andrew Carnegie, famous for his freethinking, and three of the four greatest American philanthropists have been atheists or agnostics. (The exception is John D. Rockefeller.) In a country in which 96 percent of the population say they believe in a supreme being, that’s a striking fact.
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