How an 18th-Century Monk Invented the First Electronic Instrument

We tend to think of electronic music as a modern phenomenon, dating back only to the 20th century, but the invention of the first instrument made to use electricity occurred a couple centuries deeper than that. The man pictured above, Czech theologian and scientist Václav Prokop Diviš, "is now regarded as the earliest visionary of electronic music," writes Motherboard's Becky Ferreira, owing to the fact that "his dual interests in music and electricity had merged into a single obsession with creating an electrically enhanced musical instrument." Around the year 1748, that obsession produced the "Denis d'or," or "Golden Dionysus," a "keyboard-based instrument outfitted with 790 iron strings that were positioned to be struck like a clavichord rather than plucked like a guitar." Through the electromagnetic excitation of the piano strings, the monk could "imitate the sounds of a whole variety of other instruments."

"Diviš was an interesting character, having also invented the lightning rod at the same time as, but independently of, Benjamin Franklin," says the Cambridge Introduction to Electronic Music. He designed the Denis d'or with "an ingenious and complex system of stops" that reportedly allowed it to "imitate an astonishing array of instruments, including, it was claimed, aerophones." The same applied to "chordophones such as harpsichords, harps and lutes, and even wind instruments."

The term aerophone (which denotes any musical instrument that makes a body of air vibrate) might not sound familiar to many of us, but the functionality of Diviš' invention will. Don't we all remember the thrill of sitting down to our first synthesizer and discovering how many different instrumental sounds it could make, vague though the sonic approximation might have been?

Whether the Denis d'or counts as the founding instrument of all electronic music or a mere early curiosity, you can learn more about it at 120 Years of Electronic Music and Electrospective Music. The pre-history of electronic music (since its history proper begins around 1800) has remembered it as a practical-joke device as much as an instrument. "Diviš devised a novel method of temporarily charging the strings with electricity in order to 'enhance' the sound," says the Cambridge Introduction. "What effect this had is unclear (unfortunately only one instrument was made and this did not survive), but it apparently allowed Diviš to deliver an electric shock to the performer whenever he desired." Nobody ever said a polymath couldn't also be a prankster.

via Motherboard

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Take a Free Animation Course from a Renowned French Animation School

An FYI for any aspiring animators who happen to speak some French...

A free course that covers the basics of computer animation has just gotten underway. Called Anima Podi, the free course is offered by the Gobelins, L'École de L'Image, the famed Parisian school of visual arts.

According to Cartoon Brew, the "MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] is aimed at first-time or self-taught animators. The first week of the course will be dedicated to introductory preparation, while each subsequent week will focus on a new animation exercise." "Anima Podi will also dedicate a significant amount of time to animation history ... and delve into styles and traditions from around the world 'so that people understand what is animation beyond Disney.'" Animation exercises will be completed with a software called Rumba.

The free course (register here) is currently offered in French, but an English version will appear down the road.

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via Cartoon Brew

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Yale Professor Jason Stanley Identifies Three Essential Features of Fascism: Invoking a Mythic Past, Sowing Division & Attacking Truth

New books on fascism are popping up everywhere, from independent presses, former world leaders like Madeleine Albright, and academics like Jason Stanley, Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Stanley’s latest book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, has been described as a “vital read for a nation under Trump." And yet, as The Guardian’s Tom McCarthy writes, one of the ironies Stanley points out is that—despite the widespread currency of the term these days—fascism succeeds by making “talk of fascism… seem outlandish.”

Is it?

The word has certainly been diluted by years of misuse. Umberto Eco wrote in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism” that "fascist" as an epithet was casually thrown around “by American radicals… to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits.” When every authority figure who seems to abuse power gets labeled a fascist, the word loses its explanatory power and its history disappears. But Eco, who grew up under Mussolini and understood fascist Europe, insisted that fascism has clearly recognizable, and portable, if not particularly coherent, features.

“The fascist game can be played in many forms,” Eco wrote, depending on the national mythologies and cultural history of the country in which it takes root. Rather than a single political philosophy, Eco argued, fascism is "a collage... a beehive of contradictions." He enumerated fourteen features that delineate it from other forms of politics. Like Eco, Stanley also identifies some core traits of fascism, such as “publicizing false charges of corruption,” as he writes in his book, “while engaging in corrupt practice.”

In the short New York Times opinion video above, Stanley summarizes his “formula for fascism”—a “surprisingly simple” pattern now repeating in Europe, South America, India, Myanmar, Turkey, the Philippines, and “right here in the United States.” No matter where they appear, “fascist politicians are cut from the same cloth,” he says. The elements of his formula are:

1. Conjuring a “mythic past” that has supposedly been destroyed (“by liberals, feminists, and immigrants”). Mussolini had Rome, Turkey’s Erdoğan has the Ottoman Empire, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban rewrote the country’s constitution with the aim of “making Hungary great again.” These myths rely on an “overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a past that is racially pure, traditional, and patriarchal.” Fascist leaders “position themselves as father figures and strongmen” who alone can restore lost greatness. And yes, the fascist leader is “always a ‘he.’”

2. Fascist leaders sow division; they succeed by “turning groups against each other,” inflaming historical antagonisms and ancient hatreds for their own advantage. Social divisions in themselves—between classes, religions, ethnic groups and so on—are what we might call pre-existing conditions. Fascists may not invent the hate, but they cynically instrumentalize it: demonizing outgroups, normalizing and naturalizing bigotry, stoking violence to justify repressive “law and order” policies, the curtailing of civil rights and due process, and the mass imprisonment and killing of manufactured enemies.

3. Fascists “attack the truth” with propaganda, in particular “a kind of anti-intellectualism” that “creates a petri dish for conspiracy theories.” (Stanley’s fourth book, published by Princeton University Press, is titled How Propaganda Works.) We would have to be extraordinarily naïve to think that only fascist politicians lie, but we should focus here on the question of degree. For fascists, truth doesn’t matter at all. (As Rudy Giuliani says, "truth isn't truth.") Hannah Arendt wrote that fascism relies on “a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth.” She described the phenomenon as destroying “the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world.... [T]he category of truth verses falsehood [being] among the mental means to this end.” In such an atmosphere, anything is possible, no matter how previously unthinkable.

Using this rubric, Stanley links the tactics and statements of fascist leaders around the world with those of the current U.S. president. It’s a persuasive case that would probably sway earlier theorists of fascism like Eco and Arendt. Whether he can convince Americans who find talk of fascism “outlandish”—or who loosely use the word to describe any politician or group they don’t like—is another question entirely.

Related Content:

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20 Lessons from the 20th Century About How to Defend Democracy from Authoritarianism, According to Yale Historian Timothy Snyder

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free Guided Imagery Recordings Help Kids Cope with Pain, Stress & Anxiety

I don’t have to tell you modern life is full of stressors that exacerbate hypertension, depression, and everything in-between. Therapeutic stress reduction techniques based in mindfulness meditation, trauma research, and a number of other fields have proliferated in our daily lives and everyday conversation, helping people cope with chronic pain, career anxiety, and the toxic miasma of our geopolitics.

These methods have been very successful among adult populations—of monks, veterans, clinical subjects, etc.—but adults process information very differently than children. And as every parent knows, kids get majorly stressed out too, whether they’re absorbing our anxieties second-hand or feeling the pressures of their own social and educational environments.

We can’t expect young children to sit still and pay attention to their breath for thirty minutes, or to change their mental scripts with cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s far easier for kids to process things through their imagination, channeling anxiety through play, or art, or—as pediatric psychologists at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) explain—guided mental visualization, or “guided imagery,” as they call it. How does it work?

Guided imagery involves envisioning a certain goal to help cope with health problems or the task or skill a child is trying to learn or master. Guided imagery is most often used as a relaxation technique that involves sitting or lying quietly and imagining a favorite, peaceful setting like a beach, meadow or forest.

The therapists at CHOC “teach patients to imagine sights, sounds, smells, tastes or other sensations to create a kind of daydream that ‘removes’ them from or gives them control over their present situation.” In the video at the top, Dr. Cindy Kim describes the technique as “akin to biofeedback,” and it has been especially helpful for children facing a scary medical procedure.

While all of us might need to go to our happy place once in a while, most kids find it hard to relax without some form of creative redirection, like the guided imagery program above from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. At the CHOC website, you’ll find over a dozen other audio programs tailored for pain and stress management and relaxation, for both young children and adolescents. Lifehacker’s parenting editor Michelle Woo describes a representative sampling of the programs:

  • For pain management for young kids, listen to “The Special Cake.” Sample line: “With your next deep breath in, notice the sweet smell of the yummy frosting.”
  • For pain management for teens, listen to “Climbing a Ladder.” Sample line: “Let’s have a look at the first step. As you put your foot on it, you begin to remember a time when you realize that you can have control over your body.”
  • For anxiety, listen to “The Magic Kite.” Sample line: “All of the uncomfortable feelings or sadness or anger or pain or worry are all on the ground and you are flying away from it.”

As kids listen to audio, Woo writes, “have them notice how their body feels—their breathing may slow and their muscles might relax.” And hey, there’s no reason guided imagery can’t work for grown-ups too. Try it if you’re feeling stressed and let us know how it works for you.

via Lifehacker

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Roger Waters Adapts and Narrates Igor Stravinsky’s Theatrical Piece, The Soldier’s Story

Roger Waters has always had an ego to match the size of his musical ambitions, a character trait that didn’t help him get along with his Pink Floyd bandmates. But it gave him the confidence to write daring operatic albums like The Wall and stage the massive theatrical shows for which the band became well-known. He's a natural storyteller, eager to use music to communicate not only trenchant political critique, but the emotional lives of characters caught up in the machinations of warmongers and profiteers.

Throughout the autobiographical The Wall runs a narrative of wartime trauma, a thread that turned into The Final Cut, essentially a solo album that brought together Waters' critique of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War with a memorial for WWII British servicemen, so many of whom, like his father, gave their lives for a country Waters felt betrayed their memory. While his solo career and activism have focused squarely on anti-war messages, he has shown much sympathy for the common soldier.

Waters’ latest project, then, is fittingly called The Soldier’s Story, but this time, he is neither author nor composer. Rather, the piece comes from 100 years ago, adapted by Igor Stravinsky from an old Russian folk tale. In Stravinsky's version, a WWI soldier relinquishes his violin—and his musical ability—to the devil in exchange for a book that predicts the future economy. The soldier uses the book to get rich, then gives up his fortune to regain his talent, heal a dying princess, and beat the devil, for a time.

In its timeless, archetypal way, the story evokes some of the sprawling themes Waters has taken on many times, with a similarly sardonic tone. But unlike the rock star's big theatrical productions, Stravinsky's piece is a simple morality play, full of humor and an innovative use of jazz and ragtime elements in a classical setting. There are three speaking parts—the soldier, the devil, and the narrator. Waters has added others to this updated version: "the bloke in the pub" and the king, who remains mute in the original. He not only narrates the piece, but plays all of the characters as well.

Working with “seven musicians associated with the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival,” reports Consequence of Sound. The ensemble seeks to “honor Stravinsky’s work while reinterpreting it for a new audience.” Stravinsky himself recorded the piece three times, “first in 1932,” notes James Leonard at AllMusic, “then again in 1954, and finally in 1961.” The last recording saw a re-release in 2007 with Jeremy Irons dubbed in as narrator. Other famous actors who have recorded it include John Gielgud as the narrator in a set of performances from the early 70s and Dame Harriet Walter in the role in a 2017 release.

These are huge dramatic shoes to fill. A press release for the new adaptation, displaying Waters’ characteristic self-confidence (or maybe hubris), assures us that he felt up to the task: “He has wanted for a long time to engage more deeply with the work of a composer whose weight and occasional inaccessibility may perhaps have much in common” with his own, we’re told. Whatever affinities might exist between Waters’ progressive rock operas and the radical modernist symphonies of Stravinsky, The Soldier’s Story seems like a natural fit for Waters' literary sensibilities.

See the official trailer above, and pre-order the album here. (Consequence of Sound reports a release date of October 26th, but Amazon gives the date as November 9th.)

via Consequence of Sound

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Why Read Waiting For Godot?: An Animated Case for Samuel Beckett’s Classic Absurdist Play

Iseult Gillespie’s latest literature themed TED-Ed lesson—Why should you read Waiting For Godot?—poses a question that’s not too difficult to answer these days.

The meaning of this surprisingly sturdy Absurdist play is famously open for debate.

Author Samuel Beckett told Roger Blin, who directed and acted in its first production at the Théâtre de Babylon in 1953, that all he knew for certain was that the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wore bowler hats.

(Another thing he felt sure of was that they were male, and should only be brought to life by those in possession of a prostate gland, a specification that rankles female theater artists eager to take a crack at characters who now seem as universal as any in Shakespeare. The Beckett estate’s vigorous enforcement of the late playwright’s wishes is itself the subject of a play, The Underpants Godot by Duncan Pflaster.)

A “tragicomedy in two acts,” according to Beckett, Waiting for Godot emerged during a vibrant moment for experimental theater, as playwrights turned their backs on convention to address the devastation of WWII.

Comedy got darker. Boredom, religious dread, and existential despair were major themes.

Perhaps we are on the brink of such a period ourselves?

Critics, scholars, and directors have found Godot a meaningful lens through which to consider the Cold War, the French resistance, England’s colonization of Ireland, and various forms of apocalyptic near-future.

Perhaps THAT is why we should read (and/or watch) Waiting for Godot.


Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he received and I'll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can't go on! (Pause.) What have I said?

Gillespie’s lesson, animated by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat, above, includes a supplemental trove of resources and a quiz that educators can customize online.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot premiered in New York City in 2017. Join her in NYC on Monday, October 15 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Big Lebowski at 20: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman & Steve Buscemi Reunite to Discuss the Coen Brothers’ Beloved Film

The Big Lebowski came out 20 years ago. Statements of that kind are often preceded by the question of whether you want to feel old, but this one wouldn't have quite the same effect: on some level, The Big Lebowski feels as old as, or maybe even older than, cinema itself. In their half-hour conversation looking back at the film and its legacy, NBC's Harry Smith asks actors John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Jeff Bridges, better known to the movie's legions of fans as Walter Sobchak, Donny Kerabatsos, and of course Jeff Lebowski — also known as His Dudeness, Duder, El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, but above all as the Dude — whether it felt like 20 years have passed. More than one of them come right back with just the right response: "It does and doesn't."

The conversation touches on such subjects as what they first thought of the script ("Right on the page, it felt like it was improvisation," says Bridges), the spiritual implications of the story and characters (Bridges tells of the encounter with a Buddhist teacher that led to the book The Dude and the Zen Master in 2013), how many "F-bombs" the final product ended up containing (275), and what usually happens in the still extremely common event of an encounter with a Lebowski fan on the street.

All three actors evince great pleasure at the opportunity to remember working with Joel and Ethan Coen on what would become the directing brothers' most beloved film, one that has inspired its own festival, its own religion, and much more besides. But as many of the movie's current enthusiasts (perhaps due to their youth, perhaps due to their indulgence in memory-clouding substances) won't remember, The Big Lebowski didn't become a phenomenon right away.

"So you make a movie like this, you love the script, you love working together," as Smith puts it, "and then nobody goes to see it." Indeed, the moviegoing public of 1998 didn't quite know what to make of the fact that, as a follow-up to the Academy Award-winning Fargo, the Coen brothers served up what Goodman describes as "Philip Marlowe meets The Trip." As Buscemi remembers, "it took like five or six years before people started coming up to me and saying that they loved it." Then came the college kids, who would tell him not just that they loved it, but that they'd seen it eight, nine, ten times. The first time people saw The Big Lebowski they came out in bewilderment asking what it means, but "what the movie does so brilliantly is, once you know what it is, then you really enjoy, like, every moment of it."

Among the few viewers attuned enough to its frequency to enjoy it right away was Roger Ebert: "Some may complain The Big Lebowski rushes in all directions and never ends up anywhere," he wrote in his initial review. "That isn't the film's flaw, but its style." But even his appreciation grew over time, and in 2010 he anointed it one of his official Great Movies, describing it as involving "kidnapping, ransom money, a porno king, a reclusive millionaire, a runaway girl, the Malibu police, a woman who paints while nude and strapped to an overhead harness, and the last act of the disagreement between Vietnam veterans and Flower Power," all held together by "a plot and dialogue that perhaps only the Coen brothers could have devised." Hence Bridges' worries about getting the music of the script down cold before shooting: "Did I get the 'man' in the right place? Did I add another F-bomb?"

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Make Orwell Fiction Again


via @DavidFrum

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Rembrandt’s Masterpiece, The Night Watch, Will Get Restored and You Can Watch It Happen Live, Online

Many of the world's most admired paintings don't look the same now as when the artists completed them. Time, especially when it adds up to centuries and centuries, takes its toll on paints and the canvases to which they're applied, or at least it changes them in ways humanity hasn't predicted or fully understood. Take Rembrandt's 1642 Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, much better known as The Night Watch — but only because a layer of varnish on top of the paint darkened over time, giving the scene an unintended nocturnal quality. The varnish came off in the 1940s, but much more work remains to return Rembrandt's masterpiece to the state in which Rembrandt himself beheld it.

Starting next summer, the Rijksmuseum will launch a multi-year, multimillion-dollar project to give The Night Watch its long-awaited thoroughgoing restoration. (The three restorations the painting received in the 20th century repaired damages inflicted by the occasional visitor bent, for reasons known only to themselves, on destroying it.)

The institution "plans to first study the painting for about eight months, using new scanning technologies that were not available during previous restorations, such as macro X-ray fluorescence scanning, which can explore different layers of the paint surface to determine what needs to be done." Throughout the whole process, "a transparent showcase will be built around the painting, the scientists and the restorers, so that visitors can view the progress."

Art conservators have traditionally done their meticulous work away from public eyes, but in the 21st century public restoration has become, as we now say, a thing. Earlier this month, Artnet's Janelle Zara wrote about various other museum projects that have put "a public face on this normally closed-door profession," even involving social media platforms like Instagram in the process. The Rijksmuseum, as its director Taco Dibbits announces in the video above, will take it a step further by streaming all the restoration work online, providing viewers around the world a closer look at the painting than they've ever had before, no matter how many times they've visited the Rijksmuseum's Night Watch Hall in person. The first stages of the process will determine how, exactly, The Night Watch has changed over the past 376 years. During it we'll no doubt find that Rembrandt, whose finest work seems to grow richer with each examination, still has a few surprises in store for us.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Behold Kurt Vonnegut’s Drawings: Writing is Hard. Art is Pure Pleasure.

I see hints of blueprints, tile work, leaded-glass windows, William Blake, Paul Klee, Saul Steinberg, Al Hirschfeld, Edward Gorey, my mother’s wasp waist, cats and dogs. I see my father, at age four, forty, and eighty-four, doodling his heart out.

—Nanette Vonnegut

Cartoonist, educator, and neurology buff Lynda Barry believes that doodling is good for the creative brain.

In support of that theory, we submit author Kurt Vonnegut, a very convincing case.

His daughter, Nanette, notes that he was drawn by the human face—his own and those of others.

Portraits include one of his best-known fictional characters, the unsuccessful science fiction author Kilgore Trout. It’s a revelation, especially to those of us who imagined Trout as something  closer to veteran character actor Seymour Cassel.

In addition to his humorous doodles, Vonnegut was known to chisel out a sculpture or two on the kitchen counter.

As a Cape Cod year-rounder, he painted seascapes.

He had a one-man show of his felt tip drawings in Greenwich Village in 1980 ("not because my pictures were any good but because people had heard of me").

But the doodles are what captured the public's imagination, from the illustrations of Breakfast of Champions to his numerous self portraits.

The son and grandson of architects, Vonnegut preferred to think of himself less as an artist than as a "picture designer." Working on a novel was a “nightmare,” but drawing was pure pleasure.

Perfection was not the goal. Vonnegut realized a sympathetic community would spring up around an artist struggling within his limitations, and acted accordingly.

To that end, he recommended that people practice art “no matter how badly because it’s known to make a soul grow.”


See a book of 145 Vonnegut drawings curated by his daughter, Nanette Vonnegut here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 15 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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