Posts Tagged ‘art’
Jean Cocteau, who died at the age of 74 in 1963, was a man of many talents—a poet, a novelist, a filmmaker, and an artist. He wrote the libretto for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and was best known for his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles and the 1946 film adaptation Beauty and the Beast. After his death, in 1965, he was named the Honorary President of the Cannes Film Festival.
I once read that if you’re in a rut, creative or otherwise, you should read a biography of someone who did great things. Benjamin Franklin comes to mind, as does any social movement leader, but when I saw The Difficulty of Being, Cocteau’s collection of biographical essays—written in 1947— I was curious to know what this polymath had thought about life. As I thumbed through the copy in the bookstore, I noticed that the chapter headings read like Montaigue: “On conversation,” “On my style,” “On friendship,” “On death,” and “On beauty” are just a few.
In his introduction to Melville House’s Neversink Library edition, Geoffrey O’Brien, a critic and the Editor-in-Chief of the Library of America, notes that the book is written in “a mood of detached self-examination” and that Cocteau “makes himself his own portraitist … determined to work out some basic definitions.” He goes on to say, “It is most fundamentally a work of criticism, in which by paying close attention to his own writing process he creates a different kind of writing, opaque and deliberate.”
From my own reading, I found a poignancy in many of the questions Cocteau seeks to answer and the observations he puts on the page. Here is a very small selection of what is a great read—whether you choose to go from cover to cover or open at will.
I cannot read or write. And when the census form asks me this question, I am tempted to say no.
Who knows how to write? It is to battle with ink to try to make oneself understood.
Either one takes too much care over one’s work or one does not take enough. Seldom does one find the happy mean that limps with grace. Reading is another matter. I read. I think I am reading. Each time I re-read, I perceive that I have not read. That is the trouble with a letter. One finds in it what one looks for. One is satisfied. One puts it aside. If one finds it again, on re-reading one reads into it another which one had not read.
Books play the same trick. If they do not suit our present mood we do not consider them good. If they disturb us we criticize them, and this criticism is superimposed upon them and prevents us from reading them fairly.
What the reader wants is to read himself. When he reads what he approves of he thinks he could have written it. He may even have a grudge against the book for taking his place, for saying what he did not know how to say, and which according to him he would have said better.
The more a book means to us the less well we read it. Our substance slips into it and thinks it round to our own outlook. That is why if I want to read and convince myself that I can read. I read books into which my substance does not penetrate. In the hospitals in which I spent long periods, I used to read what the nurse brought me or what fell into my hands by chance. … you often hear a tubercular patient say of Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain: ‘That is a book one couldn’t understand if one hadn’t been tubercular.’ In fact Thomas Mann wrote it without being this and for the very purpose of making those who had not experienced tuberculosis understand it.
We are all ill and only know how to read book which deal with our malady. This is why books dealing with love are so successful, since everyone believes that he is the only one to experience it. He thinks: ‘This book is addressed to me. What can anyone else see in it?’
On the Rule of the Soul
We cannot run from place to place without losing something, suddenly move all our goods from one place to another and change our work all in a moment just as we please. Nothing takes so long over its journey as the soul, and it is slowly, if it detaches itself, that it rejoins the body. Hence those who think themselves speedy are thrown into confusion, badly reassembled, since the soul, joining them little by little and having rejoined them when they departed, is found by them to perform the same exercise in reverse. IN the end they come to believe they are, and are no longer.
The same thing applies to the discomfort of passing from one work to another, since the finished work goes on living in us and only leaves a very confused place for the new work. It is important, in regard to a journey, to wait for the body to reassemble itself and not to rely on an appearance in which only those who do not know us well can have any faith.
In regard to one’s works, it is important to wait after each one, and let the body free itself of the vapours which remain in it and which may take a long time to disperse. … In my estimation it takes a month, after a work or a journey, to regain control of one’s individuality. Until then it is in limbo. … Each time I find myself in this intermediate state, I wonder if it is permanent. It upsets me to the point of making me exaggerate the void it creates and convinces me that it will never be filled.
Here I am then between two rhythms, unbalanced, weak in body and lame in mind. Woe to him who rebels against this. An attempt to bypass it would only make things worse. … What is one to do against this fear of emptiness? It dries me up. One must forget it. I practise doing so. I go to the point of reading children’s books. I avoid any contact which might make me aware of the passing of time. I vegetate. I talk to dogs.
I attach no importance to what people call style and by which they flatter themselves that they can recognize an author. I want to be recognized by my ideas, or better still, by the results of them. All I attempt is to make myself understood as succinctly as possible. I have noticed that when a story does not grip the mind, it has shown a tendency to read too quickly, to grease its own slope. That is why, in this book, I turn my writing around, which prevents it from sliding into a straight line, makes one revise it twice over and reread the sentences so as not to lose the thread.
Whenever I read a book, I marvel at the number of words I meet in it and I long to use them. I make a note of them. When I am at work this is impossible for me. I restrict myself to my own vocabulary. I cannot get away from it, and it is so limited that the work becomes a brain-twister.
I wonder, at every line, if I can go any further, if the combination of these words that I use, always the same ones, will not end by seizing up and compelling me to hold my peace. This would be a blessing for everyone, but it is with words as with numbers, or with the letters of the alphabet. They have the faculty of rearranging themselves differently and perpetually at the end of the kaleidoscope.
Reprinted from The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau; English translation ©1966 Elizabeth Sprigge; Published by Melville House
One of my favorite genres is the comic book memoir—or graphic memoir as they are often called; Alison Bechdel’s work, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, being the most recognizable of the group. As goes with my text-based memoir preference, the edgier the better. I want personal struggle, rock bottoms, and, although not always necessary, redemption.
A few months ago one book kept jumping out at me. Whenever I’d walk into a store I’d see its bright, sky blue cover: a woman’s face from the eyes up peaking out from the bottom edge; overhead there was a design scheme of color and grayscale-ringed circles cropped by the margins. Its odd shape—a little bit taller and a little bit wider than the average book—called for my hands every time. I’d flip through and wonder what kind of story this quirky book held.
As I turned the pages, I noticed the art varied from simple charactertures—thick outlines without much detail—to more sophisticated sketches, notably a series of self-portraits. Some pages featured imitations of notebook scraps while others were intricate diagrams, like the nine panels of prescription drugs: Klonopin, Lithium, Celexa, and so on. Each pill was recorded, along with the many side effects they had on this particular artist. That’s because Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me is cartoonist Ellen Forney’s story of being bipolar: learning of it, learning about it, and learning how to live with it.
The book starts off with Ellen on a high. We see her in manic mode as she walks home in the snow having just gotten a full back tattoo; euphoria coursing through her veins: “My back felt warm, like I had a mild sunburn, and the warmth created a yin yang balance in the air. It was perfect. Exponentially perfect. Everything was magical and intense, and bursting with universal truth.”
Just a few pages later, a social worker Ellen has been seeing grows concerned about the sudden spike in cheer and refers her to a psychiatrist. Almost 30-years-old, Ellen receives the diagnosis: Bipolar I Disorder, her own “brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
What follows is Ellen’s adventure into a world of prescription pills and psychiatric help, the doses and frequencies of each fluctuating over the years. While attempting to move forward, Ellen looks to the past with new insight and examines the present for clues to her progress.
One of the first thoughts that pops into Ellen’s mind as she sits in the doctor’s office is that she is “officially a crazy artist” and therefore outfitted with some credibility. She researches historical figures who suffered from the same affliction. First we meet some of the more obvious cases: Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, but then we learn of Edvard Munch and Mark Rothko.
Shortly after, another thought follows: “Along with my romantic preconceptions about what being a crazy artist meant, were my terrified preconceptions about what being a medicated artist meant.” In the accompanying panel, the “crazy artist” is represented by a balloon, full of air, exploding out of a cloud-like mass, while the “medicated artist” is shown as a deflated balloon, seemingly a few days old and barely afloat.
Of Van Gogh Forney asks, “What would his art have been like if he hadn’t been ‘cracked’? Was it his demons that gave his art life? Or did he work in spite of them? What if he’d been stabilized on meds? Who knows?” Where inspiration and talent come from is of perennial interest to—as well as a great source of anxiety for—creative types. Both wonder and fear permeate the pages as Ellen explores these questions.
Before reading Marbles, I had viewed bipolar with skepticism. Sure, I believed it existed but I thought it was overdiagnosed and often overblown. For those outside of the disorder, for those whom it is an abstraction, the importance—and power—of Marbles lies in Ellen’s ability to make bipolar real, to strip away the doubt of even the hardest naysayer.
“Bipolar Disorder is difficult to treat. Finding the right medications can take a long time, so bipolars may list our med histories proudly, like merit badges,” she says. The lifelong commitment to mental health and its maintenance—ongoing therapy, expensive drugs, lifestyle change—eloquently documented in Ellen’s book shows that the process is not something someone would go through if they didn’t have to.
Meanwhile, for those in the thick of bipolar, themselves having been diagnosed, Marbles offers valuable lessons: How much should one tell their therapist? What are some useful exercises for self-exploration? How does one chart progress and setbacks?
This advice is so subtle, so woven into the story, that I often wondered if it was intentional or simply a byproduct of Ellen’s focused approach.
There are many questions packed into Marbles: What is bipolar? Where is the intersection between mental illness and creativity? Does managing the former lead to a loss of the latter? Taking Forney’s book as evidence, one can answer that last question with a resounding “no.” Marbles is an important book, easily digestible, highly entertaining, and instinctively informative.
I don’t believe this is a new phenomenon but I’ve noticed an overwhelming amount of quality journalism on the Internet lately. Here are a few pieces that made me think about creative nonfiction, links to more straightforward writing articles, and, of course, television shows and podcasts for when you’re done reading.
The Food That Ate Manhattan: The Implacable Rise of Frozen Yogurt Leaves Us Cold by Kim Velsey for The New York Observer
Anyone who knows me knows about my terrible frozen yogurt habit. I’ve memorized the locations of all the self-serve places below 14th street. I know the Tasti-d-Lites that surround the stores and coffee shops I frequent. I couldn’t go a day without it, or at least not easily. So, when I came across this fantastic article on the rise of frozen yogurt, specifically in New York City, and read its mocking, horrified tone, I was enthralled and wanted to share with everyone I knew.
It was not until one day in Union Square that I realized, in a moment of disquieting clarity, that frozen yogurt shops were everywhere. A Joyride frozen yogurt truck idled by the park, Diet Lite Ice Cream was visible just down 17th Street, and a Yelp search revealed that a Pinkberry, a Tasti D-Lite, a Red Mango, a 16 Handles, a Yoqua Bar and a Yogurberry were all within a five to 10 minute walk. None of which were deemed satisfactory by the friend at my side, who urged us on toward Flavaboom on Sixth Avenue, where one could get the nonfat flavors twisted together and heaped with cheesecake bites and cookie dough.
Nearly skipping with anticipation, she raved about frozen yogurt the whole way there. It was alarming. How could she be so into frozen yogurt? I wondered. How could anyone?
Saying Goodbye to Now by Thomas Beller for the New Yorker’s Culture Desk
Thomas Beller is an excellent observer. In this essay he looks at the difference between memories and photographs. At one point he asks, “Are [these memories] any more vivid to me because there are no photographs? Conversely, would photographing have taken me away and made it all less sharp in my mind?” But first he begins:
My daughter was now airborne. A flying monkey coming right at me, headfirst: straw-yellow hair, a blue skirt, blue spaghetti-strap shirt, apple cheeks, and lips garishly smudged with pink lip gloss within which is the whiteness of her bared teeth—
Stop! Right here, let’s freeze the frame. Here is an image that I will never see again, except in my memory. A girl in mid-flight, waves of green behind her, her face all bright with the colors —blue, pink, yellow, white—of joy and delight, and behind her, as though it was the place from which she had fled, an old, dignified mansion.
Right then, as she was airborne, my hand twitched and slapped my pocket, in the dim hope that I could locate my camera, pull it out, and shoot while the moment still held. But there was no camera, and anyway there was no time. I will never forget this image, though I may already be embellishing it. And you will never see it. You may picture it, but the picture itself was not taken. I had to fight off a sadness about this, because the moment, after all, was happening, and it was beautiful, and anything that detracted from my perception of that was a shame.
Deconstructed—Chris Ware’s Innovation by Steve Almond for The New Republic
Steve Almond is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I particularly like his nonfiction and usually find that his essays double as a writing lesson. In this review of Chris Ware’s epic graphic art experiment, Building Stories, Almond teaches us how to write about things of which we have no authority:
Let’s start with my qualifications as a critic of graphic novels: Putting aside an adolescent excursion into a stoner comic strip called the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, I have none. Worse yet, I tend to associate graphic novels with the regressive and haughty wing of hipsterism, the one that favors mope rock and off-brand beers. I guess what I’m getting at here is that I’m a nitwit.
There is no greater evidence of my nitwittedness (currently) than my initial reaction to the new release by the graphic novelist Chris Ware, who I have come to understand is something of a big deal in his field.
While this is totally hilarious, it is also getting at a problem that deserves attention–how do you write about something you haven’t got the slightest clue about? How do you look at a text, a work of art, a film, or listen to a piece of music and judge it, deconstruct it, and put to paper your thoughts and observations without context? Steve Almond breaks the taboo, touts his ignorance, and, inadvertently, champions the amateur.
Four hours with John McAfee by Adam Thomson for The Financial Times
This profile of John McAfee, a tech tycoon who went on the lam after his neighbor was murdered, is a story that got really weird, really fast. The first reporting I’d read was in the Financial Times when one of their correspondents met up with him in Belize to write a profile:
There was nothing serene or tranquil about McAfee. As soon as he closed the front door, he ditched the limp and the crippled arm. Then, hands trembling, he reached for one of several cigarette packets lying on the table.”
His distress, and that of Samantha, his feisty 20-year-old Belizean girlfriend – during the interview, she accused me of being scared: “I’m young and smaller than you and I’ve got more balls” – was more than understandable given the saga that their lives had become over the previous few weeks.
Apparently, VICE magazine was there as well and gave away McAfee’s location through an iPhone photo embedded with GPS coordinates. Something McAfee is now suing them for. However, as The New York Times Decoder blog reports:
Within 36 hours, he began an aggressive campaign to court and spin coverage of his story. … Mr. McAfee seemed to understand the dynamics of journalism well enough to know which assertions reporters would pass along without double-checking or qualifying — like his claim that he had eluded the police by burying himself in sand and positioning a box over his head — even as his self-created narrative veered ever further into the surreal.
WRITING and PUBLISHING
How to Write a Book Review from Daily Writing Tips
Why Netflix Makes You a Better Writer on LitReactor
Five Dos and Don’ts for Picking an Editor by Susan J. Morris for Omnivoracious
Should You Spend Money On Publicity & Marketing? by Randy Susan Meyers for Beyond the Margins
TELEVISION and PODCASTS
For those of you who don’t have cable, Lena Dunham’s show Girls is now available on DVD. While you’re at it, co-producer Judd Apatow’s show Freaks and Geeks (1999) is streaming on Netflix. And for his latest film, ‘This is 40,’ Apatow has been doing some interviews: The Nerdist with Chris Hardwick and Bullseye with Jesse Thorn.
Now that everyone’s caught up on Mad Men Season 5, you can listen to The Nerdist Writer’s Panel’s “Mad Men season five in review” episode with Creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner, showrunners Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, and writer Erin Levy.
Alec Baldwin spoke with Lapham’s Quarterly founder, Lewis Lapham, for his show, Here’s the Thing. Lapham has an excellent gravelly voice that makes his stories and wisdom even better, if that were possible. You can also read an interview Lewis recently conducted with Smithsonian Magazine that I meant to share last week.
To the Best of Our Knowledge spoke with autistic savant Daniel Tammet and it was mesmerizing. Daniel is one of the few people with autism who can express his thought process and explain what he experiences. To hear him tell the interviewer how he thinks was astounding.
Here are a few things I came across this week that were exceptional.
Perfect Day Publishing on Late Night Conversation
I’ve mentioned The Late Night Library’s podcast, Late Night Conversation, before but their interviews continue to be amazing, so, here we are again. This Portland-based organization is devoted to spreading the awareness of independent publishing. The show, hosted by co-founder Paul Martone, features debut authors and publishing professionals from small presses. Martone has the conversational style that makes podcasts so great. He’s thoughtful, informed, and curious.
The latest episode features Perfect Day Publishing founder Michael Heald and author Lisa Wells, whose book Yeah. No. Totally was published by the press this year. I first came to hear of Perfect Day Publishing through a previously self-published book they’d reprinted after it gained some attention. Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life is one of the best books I read in 2012.
In other podcast news, Alec Baldwin talked to Billy Joel in July and I just got around to listening to it. It was pretty great.You’ll probably enjoy it more if you’re from Long Island. A personal favorite, Teju Cole was on CBC’s Writers & Company, one of the best author interview shows out there today.
This weekend I came across an article by Blake Butler on HTMLGIANT called ‘22 Things I Learned from Submitting Writing.” At first glance I expected it to be snarky. While the site is typically earnest, there’s a level of sarcasm lurking underneath. This piece from Blake, however, was truly generous. Here are a few of my favorite points:
4. Often editors who reject you are doing you a favor. Either the piece isn’t great and needs work (thus saving you face of looking back later like whyyyyy did I publish this) or taking a strong piece and making it stronger because of force of will.
5. Some pieces are you learning. Some never get it right. Don’t publish your homework.”
13. Don’t lose sight of someone you love in the midst of this.
19. Be a person, not an email address with a social profile and an onslaught.
Also of note is writer Brad Leithauser’s essay about the different ways we read fiction–mainly two ways, like a critic and like a child. He recalls the time he and his then 15-year-old daughter had a conversation about Rachel from Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel.”
I’m eyeballs deep in noir at the moment and came across this great essay by Raymond Chandler called “The Simple Art of Murder.” I’m sure many crime fiction fans have already stumbled on this, a few possibly owning a highlighted copy in their drawer somewhere, but for the rest of us…
Every detective story writer makes mistakes, and none will ever know as much as he should. Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer, and Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.
The Los Angeles Review of Books has quickly become the place to go for in-depth, thoughtful coverage of the arts. Their front page has a triptych that changes at least twice a week. Recently, I came across their LARBart Tumblr where the work is displayed and explained.
While the name suggests heavy coverage of books, LARB has able people writing about other topics as well. Recently, they ran an interview with Ellen Lupton, one of the curators of “Graphic Design: Now In Production,” now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Ellen runs the MFA design program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and is the author of Thinking with Type.
Today, every designer is a production artist — setting type, retouching photos, and making endless updates for clients. The convergence of design and production gives us more direct control over the outcome of a project, while also loading us with an ever-growing list of skills and tasks to master. … Many designers today are using their knowledge of production techniques to become publishers, authors, editors, and instigators.
The term “graphic” has long been a point of contention in our field. … I like the word “graphic” because it connects us to the world of text, as well as to the “graphic arts” — the processes of printing and production. Typography is always about writing, and writing is a graphic phenomenon.
I usually roll my eyes at algorithms, those computer generated recommendations, but the other night while I was clicking through Netflix I noticed a British program from the 80s that was highlighted for me, The Comic Strip Presents, a sketch comedy show featuring Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson of The Young Ones and Jennifer Saunders, who later went on to create and star in Absolutely Fabulous. If you’re a fan of any of the above, you should stop reading now and add it to your queue. For those more familiar with Portlandia, this is their long lost British forebear.
Retail: many of us have been there, most of us survived, only few unscathed. Not My Bag is comic book artist Sina Grace’s autobiographical tale of clothing store misadventure, his brief stint in selling women’s apparel.
Grace begins his comic by asking, “What are we afraid of?” A cartoon image of him stands against a black background. He’s small, unsure. In the next panel there are two. The second Sina is wearing a suit and a smirk. In the following panel he admits, “I’m afraid of myself.” We soon learn the source of his anxiety, “What if being an artist isn’t in the cards for me?” This is a story of identity and what happens when our expectations don’t match our reality.
After a minor car accident that did more damage to his hybrid than anything else, Sina finds himself in debt to the insurance company. Shortly after he applies for a job at the local mall department store and is hired as a sales associate selling women’s clothes.
From the start we see that Sina is an overachiever; in the training session he offers the history of the company and within weeks spends hours studying the clothing line. Before too long he’s able to distinguish the different styles of stretch pants by sight alone. But, as with all ambitious types, this is not enough. He hopes to gain enough experience to “move over to a boutique, where [he] believed in the designer, where [he] saw the clothes as art pieces.”
Although it’s obvious that Sina likes clothes—he spends $800 on an Alexander McQueen wool fringe coat and takes pride in the accessories used to jazz up his work attire—retail is not where he’s supposed to be. It’s his art that is his true passion and both his boyfriend, only known to us as “The Lawyer,” and his friend, a fellow comic book artist, ask if he would rather not focus on his comics. The stress from juggling these two lives comes to a head when Comic-Con and a meeting with corporate headquarters collide.
Sina’s psychological decline becomes visible. In one scene we see him curled up on his boyfriend’s lap, lacking the energy to stay awake during a television show. Their “date nights” have gone from dinner and a movie to re-runs on the couch.
All the melodrama of working in retail is on display in Not My Bag, from an evil boss whose nature is depicted through grotesque facial renderings to the silent competition of fellow coworkers. More importantly, however, Not My Bag is a warning, it shows what happens when one forgoes their passion and, at best, chases after someone else’s dream.
Last week at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore based in the heart of SoHo, Austin Kleon, artist and, most recently, the author of Steal Like an Artist, brought together three fascinating minds on the internet today. Joining him in conversation about creativity and curation were Maria Popova of the website Brainpickings, Maris Kreizman of the mashup Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210, and cultural critic Maud Newton.
One of Austin’s ideas that I find most interesting is “creative lineage,” those who influence your work, whose fingerprints can be seen in your creations. For Maud Newton, Muriel Spark is woefully underrated; Maris raved about fiction writer Lorrie Moore and recommended Self Help and Anagrams; Maria named Susan Sontag along with Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince; Austin, a fan of Midwesterners who include pictures with their writings, named Kurt Vonnegut and Lynda Barry.
Here is a profile I wrote and a Q&A I conducted with Austin early in April when his book first came out. It originally ran on The Nervous Breakdown. You can also read my riff on Austin’s analog vs. digital approach to creating, posted in March on this site.
Below are links to all the various places you can find Austin and the panel participants on the internet, along with more recommendations mentioned throughout the discussion.
“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to” –Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.
But as he said on the phone one Saturday morning before embarking on a major US tour to support his latest book, Steal Like an Artist — the title a riff on a popular saying in the creative world often misattributed to Picasso — “nothing comes from nowhere.” It was soon after creating these blackout poems that Kleon traced the style’s origins back 250 years to a former next-door neighbor of Benjamin Franklin’s. More recently, William Burroughs had done something similar with his cut-up technique.
Far from disappointed by his findings, Austin developed a philosophy, one that he celebrates in the book. “All creative work builds on what came before,” he continued. Whether it’s our subconscious at play or a dedicated effort, we all have influences whose work guides our own. Austin encourages us to embrace and cultivate them rather than see our mashup style as fraudulent.
“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”
Although his “family tree” is always changing, Austin named four influences who have stuck with him over time. Lynda Barry, his favorite cartoonist, showed Austin he could make a career out of pairing words and pictures. He believes her book What It Is should be required reading for high school students. Austin’s work is highly visual, the book features drawings throughout, so it was no surprise to hear him mention two other artists: Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame and Saul Steinberg, an illustrator best known for his work with The New Yorker. Acclaimed fiction writer George Saunders also made the list.
Although the influences he mentions appear cohesive, leading one to assume his work has a singular foundation, Austin says there’s no harm in variation. “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece — what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it,” he said.
The beauty of Steal Like an Artist is that it’s accessible, something that was important to Austin. As one can surmise from the subtitle, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, a tagline that fits neatly into today’s culture of pared down how-tos, there’s a noticeable lack of technical jargon. Instead, Austin filled its pages with thought-provoking aphorisms and bite-sized insights. Structured around these ten simple rules, Steal Like an Artist offers a list that will most certainly transform the way you think about your work: use your hands; do good work and share it with people; be nice (the world is a small town); and be boring (it’s the only way to get work done) — to name a few.
Unlike many big thought books, Steal Like an Artist doesn’t leave you stranded: putting ideas in your head without a practical plan for going forward. In the last few pages Austin offers tips on how to harness creative energy: take a walk, get yourself a calendar, start a blog, and take a nap. As an avid reader and someone who believe books hold many answers, he includes a reading list of other books that might help you along the artistic path.
Ultimately, Steal Like an Artist is an inspiring conversation, one worth returning to again and again as your creative process evolves over time.
Here are a few bonus questions I’d asked Austin after our phone call. Check out what he has to say about procrastination, serendipity, and Carl Jung.
You talk about finding one’s voice. I’m curious to know how you found yours — or if you think the search ever ends.
Voice always confused the hell out of me in school. I really had no idea what professors were talking about when they said “find your voice.” I still don’t have a handle on it real well, honestly. The closest I’ve been to understanding is through something Billy Collins said: you find your poetic voice by emulating about 6-8 different poets, and once they fit together, so you can’t tell what comes from who, you’ve discovered your voice. I don’t think the search ends, though — at least I hope not. To have one voice forever sounds boring to me.
Do you feel procrastination is an integral part to the creative process?
Oh yeah. Basically, I always have 3-4 projects I’m working on and when I get sick of one I bounce over to the other. At some point I’ll become obsessed with one and run on that energy until it’s dead, then I switch again.
As much as we like being productive, We also need time to sit around and do nothing. To stare at the wall and think, or do something routine and mundane with your body so your mind is freed up.
How do you procrastinate productively?
I like going for walks and doing the dishes — both get me ideas, but one makes me less fat and one gets the kitchen clean.
You say “Creative work is a kind of theater.” I love that. As an artist, how do you see your work — or creative work in general — as theater?
The stage is your workspace — your desk, or your studio, whatever. The costume is your smock, or your favorite sweatpants, or a funny hat you put on to think. The props are your tools — pens, welding torch, etc. — and the script is just plain old time set aside to work. You know, just like actors “get into character,” I think we can trick our minds into get into the zone, too.
You mentioned recently that you’ve been making more of an effort to step away from your computer — your chapter “Step Away from the Screen” is one of my favorites — and that you spend your time in the local university library looking through the stacks. What’s your take on serendipitous findings in the physical world versus the virtual/online world?
Yeah, you just can’t beat having books in a physical space. I call it the “serendipity of the stacks” — you go looking for a book with a certain Dewey Decimal number, and then your eye gets caught on another book’s spine, and pretty soon you’re reading that book instead of the one you went looking for.
The same thing can happen on the Internet, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same. Steven Johnson says, if you can’t find serendipity on the web, you’re not using it right.
I’d asked you about your favorite artist biography or memoir and you mentioned Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Did it change your life in some way?
I’m not sure it’s changed my life, but what I love about the book is how Jung is constantly on the edge between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, etc. it’s just a great story about one of our great minds coming into being.
Maria Popova: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Maris Kreizman: Tumblr, Twitter
Maud Newton: Website, Twitter, Tumblr, The Chimerist (A Tumblr about iPad reading, co-run with Laura Miller of Salon)
Perchance to Dream: an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine
Who is Mark Twain?: an animated conversation with John Lithgow at the New York Public Library
Artist Marc Johns on Pinterest
Maud Newton outlines her day at the Paris Review: Part I, Part II
Maria uses Evernote
Austin likes the show Justified, based on Elmore Leonard’s novels
UNDER THE INFLUENCE: How Colors Make Us Buy
Host Terry O’Reilly, an award-winning copywriter who has worked with leading advertising agencies and the co-founder of a creative audio production company, explores the shift marketing has taken “from a century of overt one-way messaging to a new world order of two-way dialogue”. Think marketing plus science plus history plus storytelling and you’ll have an idea of what Under the Influence is like.
The show’s most recent topics have included movie marketing, ads that have worked “too well,” and something called “hyper-marketing,” which I hadn’t heard of until the episode aired. This past week, Terry looked into color theory. Follow the usual format, the episode uses anecdotes from companies to explain why they use the colors they use, how they came to use those colors, and the successes and failures that followed.
As usual, the entire show eye-opening but what really caught my attention was this: “White has a feeling of lightness, and is the reason why most planes are painted this colour. It soothes the concern we all secretly harbour that a machine that size can’t possibly become airborne.” Blew my mind … and got me thinking about a book I’ve been meaning to read for years.
Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
“Discover the tantalizing true stories behind your favorite colors. For example: Cleopatra used saffron—a source of the color yellow—for seduction. Extracted from an Afghan mine, the blue “ultramarine” paint used by Michelangelo was so expensive he couldn’t afford to buy it himself. Since ancient times, carmine red—still found in lipsticks and Cherry Coke today—has come from the blood of insects.”
Terry discusses Pantone colors and the role they play in a company’s brand recognition–not entirely surprising. Tiffany’s was one of the examples. Pantone is not a new subject to the program, Terry had mentioned them a few episodes ago, right around the time they picked their color of the year (Tangerine), which, apparently influences the year’s fashion. Obviously, Pantone has more authority than many of us know and it might just do us well to pay attention.
Pantone: The Twentieth Century in Color by By Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker
Pantone, the worldwide color authority, invites you on a rich visual tour of 100 transformative years. From the Pale Gold (15-0927 TPX) and Almost Mauve (12-2103 TPX) of the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris to the Rust (18-1248 TPX) and Midnight Navy (19-4110 TPX) of the countdown to the Millennium, the 20th century brimmed with color. Longtime Pantone collaborators and color gurus Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker identify more than 200 touchstone works of art, products, decor, and fashion, and carefully match them with 80 different official PANTONE color palettes to reveal the trends, radical shifts, and resurgences of various hues.
TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE: Henry David Thoreau
For the 150th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s death, To the Best of Our Knowledge looks at the man, the myth, and the lasting influence of the Thoreau persona.
“Henry David Thoreau died 150 years ago, and he’s still a great American icon. But have you ever wondered exactly why? Thoreau wasn’t exactly the model environmentalist he’s often made out to be. And his account of living at Walden Pond is partly fictionalized; he spent nine years writing and revising it. We examine Thoreau’s legacy and why he still inspires us.”
The Journal of Henry David Thoreau 1837-1861
I must admit, I’ve never read Walden in full. If anything, I’ve read 20 pages and that’s not even certain. I’m sure I’ll try it again one day but right now his journals sound more appealing.
“Henry David Thoreau’s Journal was his life’s work: the daily practice of writing that accompanied his daily walks, the workshop where he developed his books and essays, and a project in its own right—one of the most intensive explorations ever made of the everyday environment, the revolving seasons, and the changing self. It is a treasure trove of some of the finest prose in English and, for those acquainted with it, its prismatic pages exercise a hypnotic fascination.”
One guest on the Thoreau episode was author Terry Tempest Williams. A nature writer and environmental acitvist, Williams talks about reading Thoreau’s work.
When Women were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother’s journals. When Women Were Birds is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question “What does it mean to have a voice?”
“Terry Tempest Williams has been called “a citizen writer,” a writer who speaks and speaks out eloquently on behalf of an ethical stance toward life. A naturalist and fierce advocate for freedom of speech, she has consistently shown us how environmental issues are social issues that ultimately become matters of justice.” [via author’s website]
BULLSEYE WITH JESSE THORN: An Interview with Tom Bissell
Tom Bissell is a journalist, video game critic and author whose latest book, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, is a series of pieces attempting to capture all angles of the creative process. This one has been in my sights since it came out last month.
Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation
In Magic Hours, award-winning essayist Tom Bissell explores the highs and lows of the creative process. He takes us from the set of The Big Bang Theory to the first novel of Ernest Hemingway to the final work of David Foster Wallace; from the films of Werner Herzog to the film of Tommy Wiseau to the editorial meeting in which Paula Fox’s work was relaunched into the world. Originally published in magazines such as The Believer, The New Yorker, and Harper’s, these essays represent ten years of Bissell’s best writing on every aspect of creation—be it Iraq War documentaries or video-game character voices—and will provoke as much thought as they do laughter.
What are sitcoms for exactly? Can art be both bad and genius? Why do some books survive and others vanish? Bissell’s exploration of these questions make for gripping, unforgettable reading.
THE GUARDIAN BOOKS PODCAST: Literature which disrupts reality
This episode of the Guardian Books Podcast features author Jeet Thayil and Etgar Keret. A growing household name among young, literary Americans (not at the exclusion of others), Keret is known for his surrealistic short stories. However, Thayil, lesser-known outside of his home in India and better known there as a poet, has just written his debut novel. Narcopolis takes from reality but doesn’t stay there.
“Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. . . . Narcopolis tracks the descent of Mumbai’s drug users from the sybaritic excesses of opium in the 1970s, to the harsh reality of contemporary addiction to heroin and crack.”
Read Etgar Keret’s short story Unzipping, excerpted from his latest, Suddenly, A Knock on the Door.
As someone who was turned onto blues at an early age, this Radiolab short about Robert Johnson was fascinating.
For years and years, Jad’s [Abumrad] been fascinated by the myth of what happened to Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The story goes like this: back in the 1920s, Robert Johnson wanted to play the blues. But he really sucked. He sucked so much, that everyone who heard him told him to get lost. So he did. He disappeared for a little while, and when he came back, he was different. His music was startling–and musicians who’d laughed at him before now wanted to know how he did it. And according to the now-famous legend, Johnson had a simple answer: he went out to the crossroads just before midnight, and when the devil offered to tune his guitar in exchange for his soul, he took the deal.
Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson by Tom Graves
The result of careful research, this stylish biography of infamous blues musician Robert Johnson reveals the real story behind the mythical talent that made him a musical legend. According to some, Robert Johnson learned guitar by trading his soul away to the Devil at a crossroads in rural Mississippi. When he died at age 27 of a mysterious poisoning, many superstitious fans came to believe that the Devil had returned to take his due. This diligent study of Johnson’s life debunks these myths, while emphasizing the effect that Johnson, said to be the greatest blues musician who ever lived, has had on modern musicians and fans of the blues.
Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald
The life of blues legend Robert Johnson becomes the centerpiece for this innovative look at what many consider to be America’s deepest and most influential music genre. Pivotal are the questions surrounding why Johnson was ignored by the core black audience of his time yet now celebrated as the greatest figure in blues history.
Trying to separate myth from reality, biographer Elijah Wald studies the blues from the inside — not only examining recordings but also the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, as well as examining original research. What emerges is a new appreciation for the blues and the movement of its artists from the shadows of the 1930s Mississippi Delta to the mainstream venues frequented by today’s loyal blues fans.
NERDIST WITH CHRIS HARDWICK: John Lithgow
Without any hyperbole, John Lithgow is a brilliant actor. Drama, comedy, television, theater, he nails it. The Nerdist podcast has really hit its stride. The past dozen or so episodes have been truly incredible and this interview with John Lithgow has surpassed all that have come before it. As Lithgow says at the end of the interview, Chris Hardwick is a fantastic host. Both shine in this one.
Drama: An Actor’s Education by John Lithgow
In this riveting and surprising personal history, John Lithgow shares a backstage view of his own struggle, crisis, and discovery, revealing the early life and career that took place out of the public eye and before he became a nationally known star.
Above all, Lithgow’s memoir is a tribute to his most important influence: his father, Arthur Lithgow, who, as an actor, director, producer, and great lover of Shakespeare, brought theater to John’s boyhood. From bedtime stories to Arthur’s illustrious productions, performance and storytelling were constant and cherished parts of family life. Drama tells of the Lithgows’ countless moves between Arthur’s gigs—John attended eight secondary schools before flourishing onstage at Harvard—and details with poignancy and sharp recollection the moments that introduced a budding young actor to the undeniable power of theater.
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
John and Chris both raved about Steve Martin’s memoir. Anyone interested in the craft of comedy should read this one.
In the midseventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.”
Emmy and Grammy Award winner, author of the acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Martin has always been awriter. His memoir of his years in stand-up is candid, spectacularly amusing, and beautifully written.
What have you listened to lately that added to your reading pile? Be sure to include the book, too.
In my neighborhood, coffee shops are overrun by people on laptops. Baristas put signs on tables pleading for courtesy, the places that have zero tolerance rules feel extreme, and the New York Times reports on us under the headline “Destination: Laptopistan”. For the freelancers, the appeal is free WiFi. For me, it’s the promise of a sanctuary from online life.
While meditating on this coffee shop life of mine, one free from Twitter “interactions,” time-sucking Internet memes, and the endless flow of information, I came across a quote from Lynda Barry, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits!” A tidy aphorism with great timing.
When I was in college I had a zine. I created it mainly by hand. All I had was a word processor — the electric typewriter kind — scissors, and glue. It felt good to sit on my floor, listen to music, and create something physical. It’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve done anything like that. Now, with websites and blogs, there’s no reason to go through the hassle. Believe me, there’s a lot to be thankful for but we also lose something in this neat way of publishing.
In his book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, artist Austin Kleon, in the chapter ‘Step Away from the Screen,’ where the Lynda Barry quote can be found, explores the work habits of illustrator and cartoonist Tom Gauld: once the computer is involved “things are on an inevitable path to being finished. Whereas in my sketchbook the possibilities are endless.”
Anyone who’s sat down to a blank page, pen in hand, knows there’s a certain amount of freedom in it. When I stare at a clean, unlined sheet of paper I wonder what will happen. How will my thoughts manifest? In words? Pictures? Both? When I edit on paper, or when I work out an idea in longhand, all sorts of things creep in that are impossible to replicate onscreen — grammatical cues that only I understand, words circled and heavily retraced either for emphasis or while daydreaming, and blatant disregard for margins and linear composition.
It’s easy to overlook the limitations humans face when drawing a straight line. Now that much of our work, often from start to finish, is done on computer, where perfection is possible, we demand exactness. “The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us,” Austin says. “We start editing ideas before we have them.” While I don’t have the scientific background to support it, I’m the type of person who likes to think there’s some neurological significance to these dueling processes. I’m not saying one is better than the other, only that both need our attention.
My weekend mornings are spent on the computer, alternating between writing and allowing whatever shiny, virtual object of the moment to pull me away. After the third hour of disjointed creative focus I pack up my books and head out the door. It would be easy to stay inside that sterile world, the hours dissolving into the ether with each distraction, but as online has become our default location, it’s more important than ever to consciously engage with something tangible. Austin suggestions two desks, one analog and one digital, but for those of us with limited space and deficient willpower, a coffee shop offers a unique space away from the online world. If it weren’t for coffee shops, I’d be just another casualty of the delete key. Austin’s book is a great reminder as to why we should never let that happen.
“Our mission: . . . humiliate ourselves in the name of art.”
The joy I felt while reading Reverend Jen’s memoir, Elf Girl, can not be expressed in words. Instead, it should be expressed by devoting one’s life to performance art — dignity forsaken, shame stricken from the lexicon. One should stock up on foam core, cardboard, dollar store instruments, hot glue guns, and whatever else it takes to live a life by Rev Jen’s example. This would be the appropriate response after reading Elf Girl. A lesser, although still respectable, response would be to fall absolutely in love with this woman, a woman who played a formative role in shaping the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 90s.
Elf Girl begins with Jen’s stint as a Christmas elf at Bloomingdale’s. As a longtime fan of elves, often considering herself one, Jen, disappointed by the department store’s idea of what the fantastical creature would wear (“Dresses!”), counteracted the inauthenticity with her own beloved elf ears, which, oddly enough, did not go over well with the management. This incident offers shades of what’s to come: fierce individualism and unintentional anti-social behavior, all at the expense of self-preservation.
Throughout the book you get the sense that Jen isn’t merely “doing” performance art, she is performance art, as if outrageous and absurd are Jen’s default modes.
At an early age Jen was a creative force, starting with her elementary school endeavor, Jen Magazine. Taking her art seriously even then, she recruited classmates to serve on the editorial team. At 15 she was accepted to a free art program. Under the instruction of “the most maniacal art teacher in the western hemisphere,” who taught his students to “sacrifice sleep, sanity, and any semblance of a normal life,” she learned “that being an artist wasn’t a way to coast through life. It required discipline.”
When she later left her hometown in Maryland for the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, living in a Salvation Army run residency on Gramercy Park South, she teamed up with her newfound friend Julia and formed Pop Rox, a band outfitted with a $2 toy guitar and snow-leopard-print unitards. At first they played covers of Guns-n-Roses, Metallica, and Alice Cooper but soon moved onto originals, which included one about their love for Woolworth’s, an inexpensive department store. They played to captive audiences of art students — locking their fellow classmates in a room — and crashed parties where they soldiered on through the jeers.
You would think that at SVA, an art school based in New York City, a quirky girl like Jen would at least be embraced by, if not hoisted on the shoulders of, fellow students. However, Jen was shunned by both the student body and the faculty. Eventually, however, Jen found her place and began to make a name for herself on the Lower East Side.
It was there that she came into contact with open mic nights; in particular, one run by an actor and producer known as “Faceboy”. Together, in the mid 90s, they formed a tongue-in-cheek group called the Art Stars, a term first coined by Andy Warhol. There are thirteen steps to becoming an Art Star, all listed and explained in Elf Girl. Just a few, to give you an idea, are:
1. Eliminate Hobbies: Everything an Art Star does should be done with obsessive/compulsive zeal. . .
3. Avoid self-improvement: . . . Self-improvement is for people with time on their hands, and Art Stars have no time on their hands.
6. Only take jobs that offer no room for advancement: The last thing you want is to get roped into a job that will prohibit you from staying out until four in the morning five nights a week. . .
One of the main components of being an Art Star is aversion to competition. Four years out of art school and turned off by all forms of art criticism, Jen was horrified that artists and performers, would willingly subject themselves to the spectacle of judgement. In direct reaction to an ongoing poetry slam at the time, the Anti-Slam was born — a place where performers could go on stage without leaving with a number pinned to their act.
Around the same time, John Ennis, the director of Toolz of the New School, a show that aired on the cable access station Manhattan Neighborhood Network, contacted Jen to see if he could borrow her elf costume for their Christmas special. Just before filming he asked if she wanted to be in the episode; and so began Jen’s televised career in sketch comedy. Nearly every episode, whether Jen showed up at NYU orientation as a student forced into prostitute in order to pay her tuition or at FAO Schwarz as Doo-Doo, the hard-drinking Teletubby forced into exile, ended with someone threatening to call the cops.
As someone who enjoys quirky social history, especially when it’s about New York City, I found the chapters involving Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral years some of the most interesting. Not only were they hilarious, as he often butted heads with local artists, they served as a reminder of the political climate during that time. In 1994, when Giuliani first assumed the role of mayor of New York City, I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the implications his tactics had on artists in the area. I do, however, remember that he ramped up the police presence as part of an aggressive campaign against crime. Before Giuliani my parents warned me against walking east of 1st avenue while later, in my 20s, I was getting overpriced, chic haircuts on Avenue C. However, it is disputable whether Giuliani had much to do with this decline in violence or whether the city had been part of a coinciding nationwide trend.
One of the more notable offenses was when Giuliani, in 1999, threatened to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum if they went ahead with an exhibition featuring controversial British artists. I won’t ruin Jen’s stories for you but one I can’t help mentioning took place in response to Giuliani’s enforcement of the cabaret laws as part of his “quality of life” campaign. The previously unenforced law, one that prohibits dancing in bars and clubs when the owner doesn’t have the proper license, led to a two day closing of friend Robert Prichard’s club, Surf Reality, the home of Faceboy’s open mic. Swiftly, Prichard and Jen formed the Dance Liberation Front and organized a guerrilla-style, agitprop protest: a conga line down Houston Street to Tompkins Square Park on Avenue A. The action, which Jen eloquently called it “social commentary disguised as comedy,” brought hundreds out onto the streets and received write-ups in local newspapers.
Since the start of her time in New York, many of Jen’s cohorts have moved to Los Angeles, but Jen remains a fixture of the Lower East Side, hosting her Anti-Slam every last Wednesday of the month at the Bowery Poetry Club and co-running the Art Star Scene Studios, an independent film production company, and writing a regular column for Artnet. New York is a better place for retaining this elfin wonder and once you read Elf Girl, you’ll think so, too.
Buy Elf Girl at IndieBound
Reverend Jen’s website
Bowery Poetry Club
Diary of an Art Star column at Artnet.com
Jen’s Troll Museum Reviewed in The Village Voice
An interview with friend John Ennis (with photos)
Toolz of the New School videos
ABC Radio National’s Book Show had a great topic the other day: comics. The first segment, Female Comic Superheroes, was an interview with Karen Healy, an author, critic, and this year’s keynote speaker at Australia’s Tights and Tiaras conference, a symposium on female superheroes and media culture. Karen not only discusses the portrayl of women in comics but also their presence—or lack of it—in the industry. The topic reminded me of the kerfuffle over Wonder Woman’s outfit change a few months ago. Honestly, I was happy to see her wearing pants.
The second segment, for all those interested in the nitty-gritty of the publishing industry, was a round table discussion on Comics in the Digital Age. As with most media-driven industries, the internet is raising many questions to the future of the business. I can imagine it’s an interesting time for artists and designers—afew weeks ago I talked about web comics. According to the panel though and not surprisingly, much of the comics industry still lives in the print world. The show’s notes links to an optimistic story from WIRED magazine about comics in the digital era. Don’t miss it.
What’s your take on women in comics? Any thoughts on the future of the comic book art?
On the shelf this week . . .
Blue Monday by Chynna Clugston
Growing up, I read comics but never the superhero kind. While I wasn’t aware of it then, the majority of artists were men. There was one comic book series that I found in my late-teens, however, that I loved and it was Blue Monday by female artist Chynna Major. It was like Archie, which I read as a kid, but punk and mod.
Grrl Scouts by Jim Mahfood
Grrl Scouts might be written and drawn by a guy but it had a feminist feel. The three female protagonists are tough, ass-kicking drug dealers who are hunted down by an organization who views them as competition: the U.S. government. This was one of my favorites growing up. I still have it on my shelf.
Fun Home: a Family Trigicomic by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdelis well known in the comic book world for being one of the most outspoken gay artists producing works about gay life. Fun Home is her graphic memoir featuring, among other things that happened in her life, Alison’s coming out story.
Queen of the Black Black by Megan Kelso
Megan has been a DIY artist and has had her comics serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Queen of the Black Black is a collection of her early Girlhero strips. In this book you’ll find stories of bike messnegers, unwanted pregnancies, STDs, and family reunions. All the stuff that makes like fun.
What’s on your shelf?
If you like grammar you probably have a favorite punctuation mark. Maybe you feel strongly about the use of the serial comma or exclamation points in email. Quite possibly you have an opinion on double spacing after periods. If any of these ring true, you’ll want to read the following articles. In case you missed them, here’s Ben Yagoda on where to put the period when using quotation marks, Farhad Manjoo on the origins of double-spacing and why you should never do it now, and Aimee Lee Ball’s fascinating cultural piece on the exclamation point—she even interviewed some of today’s top authors for their thoughts.
And, If you still haven’t gotten your fill, the Christian Science Monitor has a language column called Verbal Energy; Grammar Girl is a great reference site to keep handy for all your grammar questions and the Grammarphobia blog features fun language facts that are bound to keep you the life of the party.
What’s on the shelf?
Since listening to the Bookrageous podcast and now SF Signal‘s, both of which frequently comment on comics and graphic novels, I’m seeking out webcomics, comics published on the internet and are often free. I grew up with Archie Comics and then, in my early 20s, I found some great artists published by Oni Press but since then I haven’t stayed on top of the graphic novel industry.
While many of the top webcomics tend to focus on gaming culture, such as Ctrl+Alt+Del by Tim Buckley and Penny Arcade, written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik, both wildly popular, there are a few for the non-gamers. The award-winning Girl Genius, by Kaja and Phil Foglio, is a steampunk adventure story with a female lead, Agatha Heterodyne. Diesel Sweeties by R Stevens is the story of a robot who dates real women and, despite my doubts, is surprisingly addictive. Over at The Rumpus, they take their comics seriously and have an impressive lineup of contributors which currently includes Tony Millionaire, All Over Coffee, Jon Adams, and more. While you’re at it, you should follow legendary Scott McCloud, one of the earliest promoters of webcomics. What’s your favorite? I’m looking for more.
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
It’s hard not to notice that Robopocalypse is out now in stores. If you read major newspapers, scroll through popular websites, or peruse your local bookshop you’ve undoubtedly seen the haunting cover image—the close-up of a shiny, white plastic face with determined red eyes. Daniel H. Wilson, a man who holds a PhD in Robotics and who has written many humorous nonfiction books on robots now brings us the story of a world after a robot uprising. Boingboing sums it up as a “a kind of oral history, composed of vignettes that take the form of first person accounts, transcripts, technical documents. . .” and Steven Spielberg has a film version slated for release in 2013.
You can read a review at boingboing, check out an excerpt at io9 followed by nonfiction musings from the author, and listen to an interview with Daniel on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. If you still want more, Future Tense, a project in conjunction with Slate, even used the book’s buzz to jump into the larger issue of safety in a world that is increasing its use of technology.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
I recently came across Angry Robot, a publisher specializing in “modern adult science fiction, fantasy and everything in between,” according to their site. A few of their books caught my eye at the bookstore last week, thanks to their really cool logo and cover designs, and I picked up Zoo City by South African writer Lauren Beukes. Zoo City is Beukes’ second book—Moxyland is her first—and can be summed up as an urban speculative fiction novel about a young woman, recently released from prison, now “animalled” (saddled with an animal due to a past illegal act), who is hired, under the radar, to solve a missing persons case. I’ve plowed through half of this book in a day, full review to come.
Coming up on its 10th year in existence, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) is a great space in New York City, just below Houston on Broadway, devoted to “the collection, preservation, study, education, and display of comic and cartoon art.” On display through June 30th is the legendary Will Eisner’s work in an exhibit entitled, Will Eisner’s New York: From The Spirit to the Modern Graphic Novel, curated by Denis Kitchen, publisher of Kitchen Sink Press, and comic book writer and editor Danny Fingeroth.
Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, Will Eisner forged a revolutionary career in the comic book industry that spanned nearly 70 years. He’s responsible for setting many precedents, among them owning the copyrights to his work and coining the term “sequential art.”In his interviews, Eisner often mentioned the influence books in his life. On his official website he’s quoted as saying that his “first true literary influences were the stories by Horatio Alger.” Alger was a 19th-century American author of teen fiction who wrote about the merits of hard work and honesty. Growing up poor in Brooklyn, it’s easy to see why Will was taken with the down-and-out kids guaranteed success through determination.
What he saw in the stories was an “average person triumphing against obstacles,” a theme he deliberately used in his own work. Alongside these stories for boys, was his insatiable appetite for gritty pulp magazines. Cheaply produced and full of exploitative genre fiction, pulp publications were at their peak in the 1920s and 30s, with the most popular often selling up to 1 million copies. They were available on every newsstand, inexpensive, and instrumental in Eisner’s sense of storytelling.
In addition to an innate ambition, Eisner had the good fortune of attending DeWitt Clinton High School, which I believe was located in Hell’s Kitchen during his years there. The school still ranks high on the nation’s quality education lists and counts among its alumni the famed photographer Richard Avedon. While at DeWitt, Eisner illustrated many of the school’s publications, art directed its magazine, and created stage designs. Of his education he said, “it would be hard for me to overstate the depth of the effect my high school experience had on me. It meant everything to me, and in large part was responsible for the person I became and continue to be. I had the opportunity to try so many things, to find the things that suited me the best.”
Surrounded by other creative types, while there he teamed up with a classmate to created an intentionally pretentious literary journal with the intentionally pretentious sounding name of The Lion and Unicorn. Producing the magazine, a mixture of art and writing, came with a valuable lesson. To print the artwork using metal plates would have been too expensive so he learned to use cut wood engravings. Eisner said, “it taught me the value of learning to work in other media” and later shaped his pedagogy. During his later years teaching at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan he would tell his students “not to resist dabbling in other media,” saying that “they all have value.”
A pivotal moment in Eisner’s direction as a professional artist occurred one summer when he joined the Art Students League, an art school in New York whose former students include Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock. It was there that he studied under well-known artists. At the age of 19, after leaving the school, Eisner joined an advertising department of a New York-based magazine but soon left in favor of freelancing and working as a printer’s assistant.
During this time he approached Jerry Iger, the editor of a the short-lived magazine Wow!, which included comics in their issues. Turning down an offer as Iger’s assistant, preferring to draw comics rather than attend to administrative tasks, Eisner published a few features with them. Four issues later, after the publication folded, Eisner, still 19 years old, approached Jerry once again. Sensing a shared vision for the future of comic books, he suggested they become business partners in a studio. There they developed and produced work for pulp publishers, still a large market but at that time facing a decline in popularity, and built enough of a name for themselves to begin creating stories for the first comic book publishers.
Eisner was developing a reputation for himself, not only by producing material on time, a feat that required incredible dedication given the amount of work the Eisner-Iger Studio was creating with a small staff, but also for being one of the most talented artists in the business. It wasn’t long before he was approached by one of the leading comic book publishers, Everett “Busy” Arnold, to come up with a comic strip for newspaper syndication. The only problem was, it would be a full-time gig and he would need to leave Iger.
After settling the sale of half the business to Iger and after securing the unprecedented demand of owning the copyright on his new creation, Eisner went to work creating The Spirit, a 7-page insert about Denny Colt, a vigilante fighting crime on the streets of Central City. “I had at last struck a new market … a comic book insert for Sunday newspapers … that had never been done before,” he later said in an interview with The Comics Journal.
There was one stipulation, it was 1940 and Superman had just come out about 2 years earlier. The newspaper industry, seeing the Sunday section as a service for popular demands, craved superheroes; The Spirit leaned more towards realism but to appease the editors’ desire to adhere to the new fad, Eisner gave Spirit a mask.
His approach to writing the new comic was innovative and drew upon his beloved books. About his vision for the series he said, “what I originally wanted to do was a straight detective character that would give me room to do stories. I was interested in the short story form, and I thought here at last was an opportunity to work on short stories in comics. I could do the stories I wanted, because I was going to have a more adult audience.” The short stories of O. Henry and Ambrose Bierce were his literary inspiration. It was “the twist endings, the surprise endings” that formed his story arc and, as for his philosophy, “The Spirit, as I saw it (and as I saw comic books), was nothing but a series of short stories. They were the pulps in visual form.”
Back then, and continuing into today, there are two categories for comics, strips and books—Eisner straddled both genres expertly.
In 1942 Eisner was drafted into the Army to fight in World War II. This interrupted his work on The Spirit but did not end the series itself. He’d worked with a number of artists, most notably the cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer, to produce the story and left it in their hands until his service ended in 1945. While in the military, as was known to happen to talented artists, Eisner created posters, illustrations and strips for the troops, both to entertain and educate. Eisner continued this work with the military when, in 1951, the army publication PS magazine was created. For 20 years he served as its Art Director.
After his service ended, he picked up The Spirit from the artists who had kept it going and for the next 12 years, Eisner used the strip to play with form and content, pushing his craft to heights that would inform his later work. For the structure of the stories he experimented with song and poetry; for content he explored the lives of common people as well as themes in science fiction.
Just as he paved the way with The Spirit, Eisner once again proved himself an astute businessman, rightly predicting a new opportunity to push the genre forward. In 1978 Eisner released A Contract with God, a collection of four semi-autobiographical stories set in a Bronx tenement. He’d originally wanted to publish the book with a major house in New York, calling the president of Bantam Books directly, but when he got him on the phone it occurred to him that if he said he had a “comic” to show him he wouldn’t get through the door. Instead, he used the term “graphic novel”. The publisher took a look at Eisner work and told him it was a comic and to try a smaller publisher. He might not have gotten a deal with a major house, the book was ultimately published by a Baronet Books, but he did expand the notion of cartoon art, creating a story and format that appealed to a population of aging comic book fans.
The book was a commercial success and because the cover of the paperback edition said “graphic novel” it’s often thought that Eisner coined the term. Luckily comic book fans do not shy away from research; so in 2003, when TIME magazine ran a feature on graphic novels as a way of celebrating the 25th anniversary of Eisner’s book, a reader wrote in with the history. It turns out the term first appeared in November 1964 when critic Richard Kyle used it in a newsletter to members of the Amateur Press Association. TIME ran this response:
Eisner acknowledges that the term “graphic novel” had been coined prior to his book. But, he says, “I had not known at the time that someone had used that term before.” Nor does he take credit for creating the first graphic book. Eisner admits that, “I can’t claim to have invented the wheel, but I felt I was in a position to change the direction of comics.” TIME.comix’ argument is that Eisner’s book, published outside the comic book system and pretty clearly the first comix work deliberately aspiring to literary status, by having the term on the front cover, crystallized the concept of a “graphic novel.” But the matter is clearly open to debate.
Comic-world squabbles aside, it’s undeniable that Will Eisner pushed boundaries, created standards beneficial to artists, and forged a creative path for future generations of cartoonists. When you go see the exhibit at MoCCA, because why wouldn’t you?, it’s important to view his work as the grand accomplishments that they were and not just as the masterpieces they will always be.
Eisner On Art and Writing:
To achieve the name, or to be worthy of the name, of creator, a man should be both writer and artist. Now, he doesn’t have to write with words. After all, [Diego] Rivera and [Jose Clemente] Orozco were making murals which, as far as I’m concerned, were vast pieces of writing, because the painter had an idea and he was trying to communicate with the people who would ultimately view it. He had something to say. That’s the heart of it — having something to say. The man who sits down and takes somebody else’s script and merely renders it into pictures is doing something, and I don’t withdraw from him what is his due. I can only measure him by the contribution he’s made to the script. He is going just so far, but he has a limitation. [Salvador] Dali is a writer-artist combination.”
—Interview in The Comics Journal
One of the comic industry’s most prestigious awards, The Eisner Award, is named after him. Recognized as the ‘Oscars’ of the American comic book business, the Eisners are presented annually before a packed ballroom at Comi-Con International in San Diego, America’s largest comics convention.
Eisner in Pop Culture:
Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is based in good part on Eisner.
for many, the mention of vincent van gogh brings to mind images of a swirling evening sky, sunflowers with textured orange and yellow petals, and slightly distorted self-portraits, perhaps one with a white bandage wrapped around the painter’s head, covering the place where an ear should be. what also comes to mind is the image of an artist unhinged.
one of the most recognizable artists in history, van gogh, the dutch post-impressionist painter born in 1853, is both pictorially ubiquitous and personally enigmatic. lust for life, the 1934 biographical novel written by irving stone, cuts through the mythology, fleshes out the details, and creates a sympathetic character.
not well-known about van gogh is his circuitous route to painting and the real growing pains endured while getting there. van gogh was something of a late bloomer; his childhood was not marked by years of art instruction. however, he was born into a family of prominent art dealers with shops in many european cities and in his early 20s he worked in their london gallery selling commercial works to wealthy clientele. he was good at it and advanced quickly. that was until he was rejected by his landlord’s daughter. emotionally derailed and obsessively persistent, he alienated those around him and, after some major professional missteps, lost his job. the irreparable damage was done and van gogh had little choice but to leave the city.
without salary or direction, vincent moved to his uncle’s house in amsterdam where he set out to study his family’s other profession: theology. vincent’s father was a protestant pastor and he himself was not without religious conviction. although failing miserably at latin and greek and unable to deliver an elegant sermon, one pastor had confidence in his skills as a missionary and sent him to borinage, a poor mining town in southern belgium, where the disapproving church authorities gave him 6 months to convince them he deserved a permanent position.
in one of the more comical scenes, when the pastors showed up for their visit, they found that van gogh had not been satisfied purely with preaching. taking his work to heart, vincent had decided he should become part of the community, living as the miners did, which often meant going hungry and walking around filthy from coal ash—cue the parallels to christ. this gesture of genuine devotion had endeared him to the local population but clearly upset the pastors’ conventional sensibilities: they banned him from preaching, swiftly ending his religious aspirations.
once again without salary or direction, vincent went to live with his family in etten, an hour and a half south-west of amsterdam, but the relationship was strained. he was well-meaning and sincere but couldnt shake his status as the black sheep of an otherwise refined family.
although he sketched the mining families in borinage, it was during his time at home that vincent began to take his art seriously, spending full days in the fields sketching the landscape. it’s in this early period that he developed a unique style—unencumbered by formal training and outside influence—but, as was becoming the leitmotif of van gogh’s life, his stay was not without emotional turmoil ultimately leading to his having to pack up and leave the area. he’d fallen for his cousin, which seemed to have grossed out everyone but him.
next, he moved to the hague to study under the reluctant tutelage of his cousin-in-law, painter anton mauve. by then he was receiving a monthly allowance from his younger brother theo with whom he had a heartfelt relationship until the end of his life. the stipend covered rent, food, and supplies so he could devote all his energy to art. theo was a successful dealer in the family’s paris shop and, having close contact with the french impressionists, was one of the few who saw and encouraged vincent’s talent.
but alas, the hague proved too stuffy for vincent. the dealer in the city’s shop was traditional-minded, as was his uncle, and vincent’s work didn’t make sense to them. he’d also met a so-called fallen woman who was as close to a wife as he’d even know, which, once again, caused a stir within the provincial circles forever concerned with him by birthright. by the time he left the city, called away by his ailing father, his relationship with the woman had soured. vincent had found it difficult to support a family, which included her two bastard children, and his art on theo’s money.
van gogh was dutch but it’s also the french who have a legitimate claim to his legacy. when theo finally convinced his brother to come live with him in paris vincent was 33 years old. their time rooming together was far from a pleasant experience—vincent frequently picked fights with theo about art and woke him up in the middle of the night to look at the day’s canvases. vincent was frustrated by what he saw as his inability to absorb all the techniques he was witnessing at a dizzying pace. before then, he’d never worked in oil; neither had he heard of the impressionists: monet, degas, renoit, but soon his circle of friends included seurat, the painter made famous to generation x’ers by the museum scene in ferris bueller’s day off, as well as cezanne, gauguin, and henri rousseau.
It looked so easy. All he had to do was throw away the old palette, buy some light pigments, and paint as an Impressionist. At the end of the first day’s trial, Vincent was surprised and a bit nettled. At the end of the second day he was bewildered. Bewilderment was succeeded in turn by chagrin, anger, and fear. By the end of the week he was in a towering rage. After all his laborious months of experimentation with colour, he was still a novice. His canvases came out dark, dull, and sticky. . . .
. . . If it was a hard week for Vincent, it was a thousand times harder for Theo. Theo was a gentle soul, mild in his manners and delicate in his habits of life. . . .
The little apartment on the rue Laval was just large enough for Theo and his fragile Louis Philippes. By the end of the first week Vincent had turned the place into a junk shop. He paced up and down the living room, kicked furniture out of the way, threw canvases, brushes, and empty colour tubes all over the floor, adorned the divans and tables with his soiled clothing, broke dishes, plashed paint, and upset every last punctilious habit of Theo’s life.
. . . “It’s of no use,” he groaned. “I began too late. I’m too old to change. God, Theo, I’ve tried! I’ve started twenty canvases this week. But I’m set in my technique, and I can’t go back to Holland and paint sheep after what I’ve seen here. And I came too late to get in the main swing of my craft. God, what will I do?
always a good judge of when to move on, van gogh left for arles, a small city in the southeast region of france. he went to the countryside to regain his strength and to spend some time alone, to process all he’d learned and find his own voice again. presciently, on one of his first days there he was warned by a parting journalist, “Arles is the most violently insane spot on the globe. . . . I’ve been watching these people for three months, and I tell you, they’re all cracked.”
the hot sun of arles, not to mention the strong winds, had a tendency to drive the sanest person mad, but the bright light was great for vincent’s use of color—he’d never seen such vibrant yellows. some of his best, and most recognizable, paintings are from this period: the sunflowers, the bedroom, the cafe terrace. but in the end, vincent never stood a chance against the cursed city and soon developed nightmares, experienced bouts of insomnia, and began hearing voices.
by the time he’d convinced gauguin to come live with him he was unpredictable and easily irritated. gauguin was not feeling too amiable either. the two would have heated arguments about art. the excitement ultimately drove van gogh to his breaking point. one night he nearly went after gauguin with a knife but, always one for self-destruction rather than harming others, he opted for cutting off his own ear instead. unrequited love was not involved, unless you count the disapproval of a friend.
the incident, a bit too crazy for even the most tolerant arlesian, prompted a yearlong stay at a nearby sanatorium but episodes of mental breakdown continued and ultimately cost the painter his life.
when alive, vincent van gogh was no better than an untouchable but in death he is one of the most celebrated artists in modern history; and while this is true of many artists across all mediums, stone’s ability to cultivate empathy for van gogh makes his story especially heartbreaking.
a good book is remembered as enjoyable but an extraordinary one creates a desire to know more; and so, the last page of lust for life is not the end, it’s only the beginning.
Theo decided to give a party for Vincent’s friends. They made four dozen hard-boiled eggs, brought in a keg of beer, and filled innumerable trays with brioches and pastries. The tobacco smoke was so thick in the living room that when Gauguin moved his huge bulk from one end to the other, he looked like an ocean liner coming through the fog. Lautrec perched himself in one corner, cracked eggs on the arm of Theo’s favourite armchair, and scattered the shells over the rug. [Henri] Rousseau was all excited about a perfumed note he had received that day from a lady admirer who wanted to meet him. He told the story with wide eyed amazement over and over again. Seurat was working out a new theory, and had Cezanne pinned against the window, explaining to him. Vincent poured beer from the keg, laughed at Gauguin’s obscene stories, wondered with Rousseau who his lady friend could be, argued with Lautrec whether lines or points of color were most effective in capturing an impression, and finally rescued Cezanne from the clutches of Seurat.
The room fairly burst with excitement. The men in it were all powerful personalities, fierce egoists, and vibrant iconoclasts. Theo called them monomaniacs. They loved to argue, fight, curse, defnd their own theories and damn everything else. Their voices were strong and rough; the number of things they loathed in the world was legion. A hall twenty times the size of Theo’s sitting room would have been too small to contain the dynamic force of the fighting, strident painters.
—Lust for Life, the classic biographical novel of Vincent Van Gogh / Irving Stone /1934
painting: Coalmine in the Borinage / Van Gogh / 1879
exit through the gift shop is as entertaining as Banksy’s art, and warrants the same double take
the elusive street artist Banksy has earned an incredible amount of recognition over the past few years. his public displays of political satire have since expanded from the confides of his hometown, bristol. the attention reached new heights when, in 2005, he painted nine ironic images onto the separation wall in the west bank. before that he’d caused a stir at a number of prominent museums in new york and one in brooklyn when he put a few paintings of his own up on the walls. now, the documentary exit through the gift shop, which he both stars in and is given credit for directing, is up for an Oscar.
for people unfamiliar with the big names in street art—shepard fairey, hands-down the most recognizable in the film; space invader, a true up-and-comer; swoon, a woman who knows how to use a haunting image; and ron english, a contemporary artist who turns pop-advertising on its head—this documentary is a great intro not only to the cast of deviant characters and their works but also to the essence of the movement: a rebellious world where smart asses and class clowns reign.
street artists—whether they use paint, stencils, or mixed media installations—go to great lengths to thwart fines, arrest, and injury; most of the time it’s hard to tell if they do it in spite of or because of the risks involved. these talented and determined artists use the street as their canvas. they don’t create for the money but will most likely admit that fame plays a factor. Fame: not in the lindsay lohan and lady gaga sense but fame: the ubiquity of their signature character or style. like puppies on the first day in a new home they tag every spot, leaving no corner, wall, or fixed object unmarked; the harder to reach the better. even when a person’s technique or image isn’t the best, if they reach new levels of visibility, they earn respect.
this is why thierry guetta, a frenchman living in los angeles, is the perfect documentor for an authentic film on street art. just like the people he follows, he’s driven to take it one step further.
from the day thierry held his first video camera, the context of its arrival now forgotten, it became an appendage. this new extension was always on, filming every moment to the annoyance of strangers and movie stars, and to the resignation of family members.
as luck would have it, one of those family members, thierry’s cousin, is the french artist space invader. during a visit to france, thierry collects footage of invader’s stealth gluing adventures. space invader, for all who have not yet had the pleasure of spying his work, is the creator of small mosaics featuring much-loved 1980s video game characters. these tiled squares, ranging from small to medium in size, have since made their way to many cities around the world—berlin, bangkok, bilbao, lyon, los angeles, and new york.
in a scene where the camera is turned on the filmmaker the audience is privvy to thierry’s sincere appreciation for what his cousin is doing; pasting up art in a public space for all to enjoy without having to pay an entrance fee. the experience changes him, his focus, and sparks an obsession; all of which only adds to his quirky charm.
thierry, obviously prone to obsessive behavior, digs deeper into the haphazard project, stubbornly pursuing and building relationships with the top names in the industry.
his first non-familial subject is shepard fairey, a connection made in 2002 through space invader. thierry goes to kinkos where shepard is printing out large sheets of his trademark image: a tightly-cropped face of wrestling legend Andre the Giant with the vague command, “obey,” written overhead. shepard had become used to increased media attention, his art having been recognizable for a few years at that point, but repeat interviews was something new and like any sane person, after a few mildly-intrusive days with the odd frenchman, shepard questions thierry about his plans.
thierry claims he’s working on a documentary about street art; fairey, convinced, allows him unprecedented, near-continuous access. soon thierry takes off for days at a time, leaving his wife and three kids at home, to travel the world documenting shepard’s wheatpasting escapades.
through thierry’s adventure videography, and because of his unrelenting desire to capture everything, viewers experience the streets with these graffiti-world heroes, witnessing firsthand what it’s like to scale the highest point of a building, dodge the police, and remain incognito—sometimes unsuccessfully—while committing unlawful acts, often on a large scale.
after embarking on a dogged pursuit thierry tracks down Banksy, the one artist notorious for keeping his face out of the press. his encounter with the indispensable figure, who appears on film only in the shadows and with his voice digitally altered, fundamentally changes the course of the film (or, the film that wasn’t, to be more precise).
in 2006, the art world experienced a shock: banksy’s show, “barely legal,” drew lines which, until that time, were reserved only for major museum exhibit openings. adding to the awe, the line wasn’t just for the first night, it persisted for three consecutive days; and even more incredible, it was in a warehouse located in downtown LA’s skid row, an area that contains one of the largest homeless populations in the US. big-time collectors started coming out to auction houses and paying good money for these pieces that were once categorized as crude vandalism. but now shepard fairey’s work hung side-by-side with rothko’s in the homes of international elites.
concerned with the commercialization of the work, banksy told thierry it was the time to finish the documentary—to show the artists for the anti-establishment, adrenaline addicts that they were and not some money-seeking flashes in the pan.
nearly a thousand, possibly more, hours of tape sat in thierry’s garage, uncategorized and abandoned without future. under pressure thierry does something he never expected: he edits the footage into a full-length feature; the end product is akin to acid visions on speed. filmmaker thierry is not but compulsive collector his is and banksy, with the eye and instincts of a world-class artist, takes over, turning the camera on thierry in the process.
along the way thierry had come up with his own character, an image of himself with a video camera, and had begun stickering and stenciling alongside his mentors. with this in mind banksy sends thierry back to LA with the idea of curating an art show in his head. it was a way of getting thierry out of his hair so he could sift through the footage but thierry, apparently very literal-minded, took it as a direct order. moving full-steam ahead as his newly-adopted street art persona, mr. brainwash, what becomes of thierry is comical—or horrific—depending on your sense of humor. rather quickly he sets up a studio ala warhol, hiring artists to create his mashed up visions pulled from a variety of art books and pop culture resources.
the speculation surrounding the film has become trite. skeptics believe banksy staged it all as another one of his sarcasm-soaked critiques of society. it probably didnt help that around the same time, joaquin phoenix came out with a documentary that supposedly followed him during his alleged nervous breakdown. both were a hoax, confirmed by the director and mentally-healthy star a few days after it hit the theaters. real street art fans won’t care; after all, they crave intelligent, well-crafted pranks; and anyway, exit through the gift shop, is so amazingly absurd it can’t help but be genuine.
exit through the gift shop‘s official site
interview with producer and editor on KCRW’s the treatment
space invader’s website
extra special thanks to laughing squid for running a giveaway of the dvd, which i won