A drawing of me reading by my 8-year-old son Jules is at the top of my most recent newsletter.
A drawing of me reading by my 8-year-old son Jules is at the top of my most recent newsletter.
After our adventures at the Texas Book Festival, Jules and I walked west all the way across the Capitol grounds and down to the skate park by Lamar Blvd. I’m not sure Jules had seen anybody skateboard before. We watched the skaters and drew in our sketchbooks.
I’m not a skater myself, but I love to watch skaters. “I’m not familiar with the scene of skateboarding,” Werner Herzog said when he was shown a video of skateboarders. “At the same time, I had the feeling, yes, that’s kind of my people.”
One of my quarantine hobbies was watching skate videos of skaters in cities I wished I was in — I particularly love the Instagram of these dudes in San Francisco: @gx1000. (My friend James also sends me gnarly videos of hill bombing.)
Over time, I’ve been learning more about the sport, mostly by watching documentaries. I enjoyed Tony Hawk: Until The Wheels Fall Off. I also watched Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, which gives you the context of the scenius around Hawk. The skater who steals the show in both documentaries is Rodney Mullen, who has become a sought-after consultant and public speaker. (His TED talk is worth watching.)
I also love to listen to skaters talk about how they see the world. Skateboarding seems to reconfigure your molecules and changes the way you look and the kind of attention you pay to the world. (Exactly what we hope for when practicing any art.)
Skateboarding is not a hobby. And it is not a sport. Skateboarding is a way of learning how to redefine the world around you. For most people, when they saw a swimming pool, they thought, ‘Let’s take a swim.’ But I thought, ‘Let’s ride it.’ When they saw the curb or a street, they would think about driving on it. I would think about the texture. I slowly developed the ability to look at the world through totally different means.
This is echoed by my friend, the photographer Clayton Cubitt:
Skateboarding irreparably changes the way you perceive the built physical world and structures of power that guard it…. It’s hard to ever have respect for authority again after you’ve bombed a rail and glided away from a security guard chasing and yelling at you.
“Skateboarding is neither sport nor art,” writes Bret Anthony Johnson. “It’s a path, a perspective, and a practice—a habit of being.”
Jules thought it was funny how many times the skaters fell down. He was kind of like, Who would choose to fall down over and over? (Bret Anthony Johnson, again: “Learning to skate is, in fact, tantamount to learning to fall.”)
I told him it was like kind of like drawing: You turn to a blank page and you take a ride on your pencil and then you turn the page and try again. (“Fall” and “fail” don’t have the same etymology, but they’re only one little dot apart.)
Not sure if any of that sank in, but we had a good time.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) November 5, 2022
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) November 5, 2022
One of my all-time favorite drawing games with my kids is called Exquisite Corpse.
Put simply: two or more people draw a head/torso/legs without looking at each other’s drawings.
We made a silly video to show you how its done:
It’s probably worth pointing out that Exquisite Corpse actually started out with the Surrealist writers, as a kind of proto-MadLib such as:
The [adjective] [noun] [adverb] [verb] the [adjective] [noun].
This is where the name “Exquisite Corpse” came from:
Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau. (The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.)
It’s fun because it’s a cooperative game, not a competitive one.
I’m now thinking it would be fairly easy to do an musical Exquisite Corpse in GarageBand: you’d pick a tempo and a key, one person could make a beat, then the next person could make a bassline without listening to the beat, and the next person could make a melody without listening to either. Then you could play it back and see what it sounds like. (I’m going to try this and I’ll let you know how it goes!)
“No one really says ‘get a life’ anymore,” @perpetua tweeted earlier this month, “and frankly people need to ~get a life~ far more urgently now than they did back in the late 80s/early 90s.”
I tweeted back, “I think there was more life to get.”
Obviously we were both joking, but the sense of exhaustion can be quite real, the feeling that we’ve depleted our inner and natural resources and we’ve explored what there is to explore.
This feeling is amplified by living in a city like Austin, Texas, where you’re constantly hearing about how much better it was before you got here. In a recent piece on Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Sean O’Neal writes:
Austinites carry a default attitude of “You just missed it”—as in, all the really cool stuff already happened. As Linklater pointed out in his post-show Q&A, that’s something he and his friends heard back in the eighties from all the hippie cowboys who’d seen the city’s “true” heyday in the sixties and seventies. Linklater pointed to the Slacker scene where local noise rockers Ed Hall played their song “Sedrick” to a near-empty Continental Club. Its lyrics, Linklater said, perfectly sum up the Austin point of view: “Things were so much better before you were here / . . . So much better in the past / I had myself a real gas.”
Again, this is a feeling, a feeling that can be alleviated by a single person saying, “You know, I lived here then, and it wasn’t that great.” (I think all the time about Patti Smith pointing out that the New York City of the 70s and 80s that we romanticize was filthy, bankrupt, and dangerous.)
This feeling that “it’s all been done” is amplified and exacerbated by artistic pretensions.
On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem was talking about reading Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence early on and how unconcerned he is now with being new or original. He recalled a speech he heard by Brian Eno about his early ambient work:
It’s hard to explain, but it was very easy to be new at that time…. He had gone and seen Cluster and the early Krautrock bands. And no one had thought, “I’m going to put all these things together…” At that time, there was still a lot of ground unclaimed. The time we live in now, there’s far less unclaimed ground.
“Which I think is normal, you know?” he throws in at the end, and yes, this feeling is extremely normal, and has been normal for at least 4,000 years. In the new afterword to the 10th anniversary edition of Steal Like an Artist, I point out that in addition to Ecclesiastes’ “there is nothing new under the sun,” two millennia before that, the Egyptian poet Khakheperresenb was already complaining that the good words had been used up.
In 1824, Goethe, who was always forthright about his influences, told his assistant Eckermann that he was glad he didn’t read Shakespeare at a young age because “Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths,” and “there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do.”
And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest, appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!
Goethe warns of engaging with work that’s too good in your youth. He says what’s important is to admire someone just a little bit further than you, and maintain a “standard of excellent” that is “not much higher” than whatever step you’re on and able to attain. Had he read too many masterpieces in his youth, he says,
..they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, both should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.
We celebrate the fact that most artists today have a huge portion of humankind’s output at their fingertips at any given moment, but we rarely think about the fact that exposure and abundance can also become a paralytic. Eno said he wanted to hear a certain kind of music, so he had to invent it for himself. Who feels the need to make new music, when you can almost always call up music that is completely new to your ears?
Sometimes when I watch my 8-year-old making music, I note how unencumbered he is by musical history and how free he is of any need to be original. He is happy, for now, to make music that is a parody of what he’s heard, and in the parodying, he comes up with his own thing. It’s new to him and that’s what’s important.
In fact, this is the great gift of children: everything is new to them, and so it can become new to you, if you let it.
Let’s face it: life these days is depressing. I sometimes find it hard to imagine a future. It feels like the GAME OVER screen could pop up at any time, and what is the point of raising children in an age like this?
And then I come to my senses and remember that it’s probably felt like the end of the world since the beginning of the world.
Here is something Nancy Wallace wrote in 1983 — the year I was born — in her book, Better Than School:
I constantly have to remind myself: now is the envy of the dead.
There’s always more life to get, and more art to be made out of it.
The owls are gone again and I am sad. (Although it’s nice to know that Merlin and Minerva, not too far away, just hatched chicks!) I asked the six-year-old to make a “lost owl” flier and maybe that would help bring them back. This is what he drew. I am someone who is sometimes unfeeling, and because he seems, sometimes, to feel everything, he can often show me what I’m feeling in his drawings. For this reason, among many others, he’s been my favorite artist since he picked up a piece of chalk.
Read more: Nathaniel Russell’s fake fliers
“Art alone deterred me. How could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”
—Ludwig van Beethoven
Today is Beethoven’s 250th birthday! Well, nobody knows for sure what day he was actually born, but he was baptized on Dec. 17th, so Dec. 16th is generally accepted as the day we celebrate him. (Check out all the Peanuts strips about Beethoven’s birthday on this wonderful site about Charles Schulz’s use of classical music. I would love to turn this into a book.)
Classical music can be hard to get into for a lot of people. One thing that has helped me is to read stories about the composers and what they got up to. (Composer Jan Swafford’s Language of the Spirits is a great starting point.)
Beethoven is ridiculously fun to read about. He’s one of those musical artists who is so ubiquitous and popular that I never really got around to studying him, but once I did, holy moly, he became one of my favorites. Not because his tumultuous life is something to emulate. He was abused as a child and was notoriously difficult and ugly and sometimes abusive in his personal life. (The last musical notes Beethoven ever wrote were next to the words, “We all err, but each one errs differently.”) Like Bach, who also had a rough childhood, the fact that he was able to make such beautiful music out of such emotional chaos is remarkable.
The problem with Beethoven biographies are that some of them are absolutely massive. (Swafford’s acclaimed bio is over a thousand pages.) Years ago, I picked up John Suchet’s 300-page Beethoven: A Man Revealed, and it felt more than enough to whet my appetite. (The excerpts below are all Suchet.)
The rest of this post is some of my favorite Beethoven stories:
The funny thing about Beethoven is that many of the myths you’ve heard are actually true.
First off, it’s true that he was mostly deaf when he wrote his most glorious music, including the 9th symphony and the late quartets, which is totally freaking mindblowing to me.
Another thing people overlook when they get hung up on the deaf-guy-writing-music thing; they see the music through an abled lens, in which the deafness is something that Beethoven overcame, not something in which the deafness actually led to unique creative decisions!
— ? sharon su ? (@doodlyroses) December 17, 2019
He was so deaf he carried a notebook around and had people write their questions in it so he could have conversations:
…his deafness led him to carry a notebook, so-called “conversation books,” for people to write down their questions. His nephew Karl wrote in one of these, “You knew Mozart, where did you see him?” And in other conversation book a few years later, “Was Mozart a good pianoforte player?” It [the instrument] was then still in its infancy.”
Of course the utterly maddening, infuriating, frustrating fact is that Beethoven spoke rather than wrote his answer, so we have no idea of what he said.
It’s also true that Beethoven was sort of a slob and he looked totally crazy at times, waving his arms, composing in his head, and shouting to be heard.
In fact, he once got arrested by the police when he got lost in the suburbs of Vienna and he started peeking in people’s windows to try to orient himself. A local musician had to be brought into the police station to identify him.
You did not want to rent a room to Beethoven:
There were, certainly, instances of him being expelled from a lodging because of complaints from other residents about his habit of working through the night, pounding on the piano keys to try to hear his music, banging on the apartment walls. He had to leave one apartment after getting in a stonemason to knock a hole in a wall and install a window to give him a decent view, without permission from his landlord.
(My kids adore the Beethoven Lives Upstairs, which is based on these stories.)
You did not want to challenge Beethoven to a piano duel: he once embarrassed a guy named Daniel Steibelt so bad that Steibelt had to leave Vienna. He never came back.
Me: Do you think Beethoven drove a pickup truck?
Toddler: No, he just played the piano.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) January 6, 2016
You probably didn’t want to mess with Beethoven in general.
He once told a critic: “What I shit is better than anything you have ever thought.”
He once stood outside of a palace shouting that his patron, living inside, was a donkey.
Another time, he broke a chair over a patron’s head and then got mad when the dude wouldn’t give him any more money.
But my all-time favorite Beethoven story is one of sibling rivalry.
Beethoven’s brother once ended a letter, “From your brother Johann, Landowner.” Beethoven ended his reply with, “From your brother Ludwig, Brain Owner.”
Sick music and sick burns!
Speaking of siblings: one of the reasons I know so much about Beethoven and I’m a classic geek now is that my sons got obsessed with Welcome To Symphony, a book that explains the orchestra by using Symphony No. 5. Here’s an orchestra drawing they collaborated on:
My oldest hummed the opening Symphony No. 5 so much I put little pieces of cheat tape on his tiny toy piano:
Of course, nothing compares to hearing an orchestra perform Beethoven. One of the highlights of my musical life was watching Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic rehearse the 9th symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2015:
Anyways, I dig Beethoven and you should check him out if you haven’t.
The one tricky thing about his music, his symphonies in particular, is that they’re terrible background music. They’re so dynamic and intense they demand your attention.
Kid at playground: Jesus is dead!
My kid: So is Beethoven!
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) October 1, 2017
This playlist Teju Cole made is also lovely:
The stories are great, but nothing beats the music.
My 5-year-old often gets frustrated with his drawings, crumbles them up, and throws them across the room. I pick them up when he isn’t looking and paste them in my notebook.
Yesterday he helped me with my diary:
Someone yesterday seemed incredulous that I had a paper dictionary open on my desk. Let me tell you: it is the best $5 you will spend at Goodwill. Keep it open nearby, and look up words in it constantly. (This one is an American Heritage.) As you’re looking for a word, you will be distracted by other words. This is a feature, not a bug. If you don’t know what to write about, you can just turn to a random page and start reading and stealing words. Bonus points if you use a pencil to mark words you’ve looked up and why. I also keep one open in the living room and look up definitions with the kids when they want to know what a word means.
And just a few days later, I discovered that my kindergartner (although, are you really a kindergartener if you never actually go to kindergarten?) had got into my stamp pad and done this:
On Sunday, the boys achieved one of my professional dreams: a full page of drawings in The New York Times! They were published along with an essay I wrote about the creative hijinks they’ve been up to during quarantine. You can read the piece online here.
“You can’t really teach art,” said John Baldessari, “you can just sort of set the stage for it.”
So here’s an assignment, from our house to yours: Forget school for now. Give your household time, space, and materials, and fill the rest of the summer with art.
It was an extra thrill to be part of “The Diary Project,” as it started with a page by my hero, Lynda Barry, and went on to feature pages by some of my very favorite cartoonists, including: Anders Nilsen, Wendy MacNaughton, Ivan Brunetti, Esther Pearl Watson, and Eleanor Davis.
Big thanks to Alicia DeSantis — I pitched her “The Chronovirus,” then some of my houses alongside Jules’ drawings of the Three Little Pigs, and she had the keen editorial sense to say, “What if we just ran the boys’ drawings?”
The boys were quite pleased on the whole, but Owen would like everyone to know that there’s one glaring error in my text: Super Kleon Bros. is not an “imaginary” video game! He is busy making the music and coding the game in Scratch. (I told him he should send a letter to the editor.)
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