What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Provoking Reading of David’s Philosophical & Political Painting

When we think of political propaganda, we do not typically think of French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. There’s something debased about the term—it stinks of insincerity, staginess, emotional manipulation, qualities that cannot possibly belong to great art. But let us put aside this prejudice and consider David’s 1787 The Death of Socrates. Created two years before the start of the French Revolution, the painting “gave expression to the principle of resisting unjust authority,” and—like its source, Plato’s Phaedo—it makes a martyr of its hero, who is the soul of reason and a thorn in the side of dogma and tradition.

Nonetheless, as Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, shows us in the short video above, The Death of Socrates situates itself firmly within the traditions of European art, drawing heavily on classical sculptures and friezes as well as the greatest works of the Renaissance. There are echoes of da Vinci’s Last Supper in the number of figures and their placement, and a distinct reference of Raphael’s School of Athens in Socrates’ upward-pointing finger, which belongs to Plato in the earlier painting. Here, David has Plato, already an old man, seated at the foot of the bed, the scene arranged behind him as if “exploding from the back of his head.”




Socrates, says Puschak, “has been discussing at length the immortality of the soul, and he doesn’t even seem to care that he’s about to take the implement of his death in hand. On the contrary, Socrates is defiant… David idealizes him… he would have been 70 at the time and somewhat less muscular and beautiful than painted here.” He is a “symbol of strength over passion, of stoic commitment to an abstract ideal,” a theme David articulated with much less subtlety in an earlier painting, The Oath of the Horatii, with its Roman salutes and bundled swords—a “severe, moralistic canvas,” with which the artist “effectively invented the Neoclassical style.”

In The Death of Socrates, David refines his moralistic tendencies, and Puschak ties the composition loosely to a sense of prophecy about the coming Terror after the storming of the Bastille. The Nerdwriter summation of the painting’s angles and influences does help us see it anew. But Puschak’s vague historicizing doesn’t quite do the artist justice, failing to mention David’s direct part in the wave of bloody executions under Robespierre.

David was an active supporter of the Revolution and designed “uniforms, banners, triumphal arches, and inspirational props for the Jacobin Club’s propaganda,” notes a Boston College account. He was also “elected a Deputy form the city of Paris, and voted for the execution of Louis XVI.” Historians have identified over “300 victims for whom David signed execution orders.” The severity of his earlier classical scenes comes into greater focus in The Death of Socrates around the central figure, a great man of history, one whose heroic feats and tragic sacrifices drive the course of all events worth mentioning.

Indeed, we can see David’s work as a visual precursor to philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle’s theories of “the heroic in history.” (Carlyle also happened to write the 19th century’s definitive history of the French Revolution.) In 1793, David took his visual great man theory and Neoclassical style and applied them for the first time to a contemporary event, the murder of his friend Jean-Paul Marat, Swiss Jacobin journalist, by the Girondist Charlotte Corday. (Learn more in the Khan Academy video above.) This is one of three canvases David made of “martyrs of the Revolution”—the other two are lost to history. And it is here that we can see the evolution of his political painting from classical allegory to contemporary propaganda, in a canvas widely hailed, along with The Death of Socrates, as one of the greatest European paintings of the age.

We can look to David for both formal mastery and didactic intent. But we should not look to him for political constancy. He was no John Milton—the poet of the English Revolution who was still devoted to the cause even after the restoration of the monarch. David, on the other hand, "could easily be denounced as a brilliant cynic," writes Michael Glover at The Independent. Once Napoleon came to power and began his rapid ascension to the self-appointed role of Emperor, David quickly became court painter, and created the two most famous portraits of the ruler.

We’re quite familiar with The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, in which the subject stands in an awkward pose, his hand thrust into his waistcoat. And surely know Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, above. Here, the finger pointing upward takes on an entirely new resonance than it has in The Death of Socrates. It is the gesture not of a man nobly prepared to leave the world behind, but of one who plans to conquer and subdue it under his absolute rule.

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

Google’s Free Photo Editing Software, the Nik Collection, Has Been Acquired by DxO & Will Live Another Day

In March of 2016, readers thrilled when Google announced that it made the Nik Collection, its professional photo editing software, free to download and use. Previously priced at $149, the now-free software gives users access to "seven desktop plug-ins that provide a powerful range of photo editing capabilities -- from filter applications that improve color correction, to retouching and creative effects."

If there was cause for celebration, it didn't last that long. Earlier this year, Google followed up with another announcement--that it planned to discontinue development of the Nik Collection, and essentially let it wither on the vine.




Now here's the latest chapter in the story. A seemingly good one. The image processing company DxO has acquired the Nik Collection from Google. Jérôme Ménière, DxO's founder and CEO, declared in a press release, “DxO revolutionized the image processing market many times over the years with its innovative solutions, and we will continue to do so with Nik’s tools, which offer new creative opportunities to millions of photographers.” Apparently the Nik Collection gets to live another day.

If you head over to DxO's website, you can still download the current Nik Collection for free. You simply need to provide your email address, and they'll send a download link to your inbox.

Also on the DxO website they've announced plans for a future iteration of the Nik Collection, saying "The new 'Nik Collection 2018 Edition' will be released mid-2018, please leave your email below to be informed when it's available." Whether that 2018 edition will stay free remains to be seen.

via Petapixel

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New Documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold Now Streaming on Netflix

Quick note: Netflix just launched a new documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. It's a portrait (naturally) of the now 82-year-old literary icon, Joan Didion, that's directed by her own nephew Griffin Dunne. If you have a Netflix account, you can start streaming the 90 minute documentary here. If you don't, you could always sign up for Netflix's 30-day free trial.

If you read the reviews of the film (at the New Yorker, New York Times, NPR, etc), you'll hear echoes of what Godfrey Cheshire has to say over at RogerEbert.com:

A fond and appreciative portrait of one of American journalism’s superstars, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” may not contain any revelations that will surprise those who’ve followed Didion’s eloquent, often autobiographical writing over the years. But the fact that it was made by her nephew, actor/filmmaker Griffin Dunne, gives it a warmth and intimacy that might not have graced a more standard documentary.

Again, you can start streaming here...

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How the CIA Funded & Supported Literary Magazines Worldwide While Waging Cultural War Against Communism

Over the course of this tumultuous year, new CIA director Mike Pompeo has repeatedly indicated that he would move the Agency in a “more aggressive direction.” In response, at least one person took on the guise of former Chilean president Salvador Allende and joked, incredulously, “more aggressive”? In 1973, the reactionary forces of General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende, the first elected Marxist leader in Latin America. Pinochet then proceeded to institute a brutal 17-year dictatorship characterized by mass torture, imprisonment, and execution. The Agency may not have orchestrated the coup directly but it did at least support it materially and ideologically under the orders of President Richard Nixon, on a day known to many, post-2001, as “the other 9/11.”

The Chilean coup is one of many CIA interventions into the affairs of Latin America and the former European colonies in Africa and Asia after World War II. It is by now well known that the Agency “occasionally undermined democracies for the sake of fighting communism,” as Mary von Aue writes at Vice, throughout the Cold War years. But years before some of its most aggressive initiatives, the CIA “developed several guises to throw money at young, burgeoning writers, creating a cultural propaganda strategy with literary outposts around the world, from Lebanon to Uganda, India to Latin America.” The Agency didn’t invent the post-war literary movements that first spread through the pages of magazines like The Partisan Review and The Paris Review in the 1950s. But it funded, organized, and curated them, with the full knowledge of editors like Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen, himself a CIA agent.




The Agency waged a cold culture war against international Communism using many of the people who might seem most sympathetic to it. Revealed in 1967 by former agent Tom Braden in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, the strategy involved secretly diverting funds to what the Agency called “civil society” groups. The focal point of the strategy was the CCF, or "Congress for Cultural Freedom,” which recruited liberal and leftist writers and editors, oftentimes unwittingly, to “guarantee that anti-Communist ideas were not voiced only by reactionary speakers,” writes Patrick Iber at The Awl. As Braden contended in his exposé, in "much of Europe in the 1950s, socialists, people who called themselves ‘left’—the very people whom many Americans thought no better than Communists—were about the only people who gave a damn about fighting Communism.”

No doubt some literary scholars would find this claim tendentious, but it became agency doctrine not only because the CIA saw funding and promoting writers like James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway as a convenient means to an end, but also because many of the program's founders were themselves literary scholars. The CIA began as a World War II spy agency called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After the war, says Guernica magazine editor Joel Whitney in an interview with Bomb, “some of the OSS guys became professors at Ivy League Universities,” where they recruited people like Matthiessen.

The more liberal guys who were part of the brain trust that formed the CIA saw that the Soviets in Berlin were getting masses of people from other sectors to come over for their symphonies and films. They saw that culture itself was becoming a weapon, and they wanted a kind of Ministry of Culture too. They felt the only way they could get this paid for was through the CIA’s black budget. 

McCarthy-ism reigned at the time, and “the less sophisticated reactionaries,” says Whitney, “who represented small states, small towns, and so on, were very suspicious of culture, of the avant-garde, the little intellectual magazines, and of intellectuals themselves.” But Ivy League agents who fancied themselves tastemakers saw things very differently.

Whitney’s book, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, documents the Agency’s whirlwind of activity behind literary magazines like the London-based Encounter, French Preuves, Italian Tempo Presente, Austrian Forum, Australian Quadrant, Japanese Jiyu, and Latin American Cuadernos and Mundo Nuevo. Many of the CCF’s founders and participants conceived of the enterprise as “an altruistic funding of culture,” Whitney tells von Aue. “But it was actually a control of journalism, a control of the fourth estate. It was a control of how intellectuals thought about the US.”

While we often look at post-war literature as a bastion of anti-colonial, anti-establishment sentiment, the pose, we learn from researchers like Iber and Whitney, was often carefully cultivated by a number of intermediaries. Does this mean we can no longer enjoy this literature as the artistic creation of singular geniuses? “You want to know the truth about the writers and publications you love,” says Whitney, “but that shouldn’t mean they’re ruined.” Indeed, the Agency’s cultural operations went far beyond the little magazines. The Congress of Cultural Freedoms used jazz musicians like Louie Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Dizzy Gillespie as “goodwill ambassadors" in concerts all over the world, and funded exhibitions of Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and Willem de Kooning.

The motives behind funding and promoting modern art might mystify us unless we include the context in which such cultural warfare developed. After the Cuban Revolution and subsequent Communist fervor in former European colonies, the Agency found that "soft liners," as Whitney puts it, had more anti-Communist reach than "hard liners." Additionally, Communist propagandists could easily point to the U.S.'s socio-political backwardness and lack of freedom under Jim Crow. So the CIA co-opted anti-racist writers at home, and could silence artists abroad, as it did in the mid-60s when Louis Armstrong went behind the Iron Curtain and refused to criticize the South, despite his previous strong civil rights statements. The post-war world saw thriving free presses and arts and literary cultures filled with bold experimentalism and philosophical and political debate. Knowing who really controlled these conversations offers us an entirely new way to view the directions they inevitably seemed to take.

via The Awl

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

Three Huge Volumes of Stoic Writings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Ferriss

"The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today," wrote Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger. "You are arranging what is in Fortune's control and abandoning what lies in yours." That still much-quoted observation from the first-century Roman philosopher and statesman, best known simply as Seneca, has a place in a much larger body of work. Seneca's writings stand, along with those of Zeno, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, as a pillar of Stoic philosophy, a system of thinking which emphasizes the primacy of personal virtue and the importance of observing oneself objectively and mastering, instead of being mastered by, one's own emotions.

The Stoics found their way of life beneficial indeed in the harsh reality of more than 2,000 years ago, but Stoicism loses none of its value when practiced by those of us living today.

"At its core, it teaches you how to separate what you can control from what you cannot, and it trains you to focus exclusively on the former," writes self-improvement maven Tim Ferriss in his introduction to The Tao of Seneca, the three-volume collection of Seneca's letters, illustration and lined modern commentary, that he's just published free on the internet. (For instructions on how to upload them to your Kindle, see this page.)

Of all the Stoics, he continues, "Seneca stands out as easy to read, memorable, and surprisingly practical. He covers specifics ranging from handling slander and backstabbing, to fasting, exercise, wealth, and death." (Ferriss has also created audiobook versions of the texts, which you can buy through Audible. Or get a couple for free by signing up for Audible's 30-day free trial program.)

Ferris suggests making Seneca "part of your daily routine. Set aside 10–15 minutes a day and read one letter. Whether over coffee in the morning, right before bed, or somewhere in between, digest one letter." He also adds that "Stoicism has spread like wildfire throughout Silicon Valley and the NFL in the last five years, becoming a mental toughness training system for CEOs, founders, coaches, and players alike," evidencing a results-oriented approach that may divide Stoicism enthusiasts, many of whom believe that the true Stoic should never consider the product, which will always lie outside one's realm of control, but only the process. But even the ancients would surely agree that any prompt to action is worth taking, especially when it asks the cost of not a single coin — drachma, denarius, penny, or bit.

The Tao of Seneca will be added to our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

(via /r/stoicism)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

The Colors of Mister Rogers’ Hand-Knit Sweaters from 1979 to 2001: A Visual Graph Created with Data Science

Writer Owen Phillips may be a solid data analyst, but I suspect he’s not much of a knitter.

The software he used to run a scientific analysis of 22 years worth of Fred Rogers’ sweaters ultimately reduces the beloved children’s television host’s homey zip-front cardigans to a slick graphic of colorful bars.

A knitter would no doubt prioritize other types of patterns - stitch numbers, wool weight, cable variations…the sort of information Mister Rogers’ mother, Nancy, would have had at her fingertips.

As Mister Rogers reveals in the story of his sweaters, his mom was the knitter behind many of the on-air sweaters Phillips crunched with R code. Whether their subtly shifting palette reflects an adventurous spirit on the part of the maker or the recipient’s evolving taste is not for us to know.




After Mrs. Rogers’ death, producers had to resort to buying similar models. Many of her originals had worn through or been donated to charity events.

“Not an easy challenge in the 80’s and 90s,” Margy Whitmer, a producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood told Rewire. “It certainly wasn’t in style! But we found a company who made cotton ones that were similar, so we bought a bunch and dyed them.”

(A moment of silent gratitude that no one tried to shoehorn Fred Rogers into a Cosby Show sweater…)

It would be interesting to see what Phillips’ code could do with faulty viewer memories.

His input for the Mister Rogers’ Cardigans of Many Colors project was a chart on super fan Tim Lybarger’s Neighborhood Archive detailing the hue of every sweater Mister Rogers changed into on-camera from 1979 to 2001.

Without samples of the actual sweaters, Lybarger’s color chart could only be approximate, but unlike viewers’ fading memories, it’s rooted in his own visual observations of distinct episodes. Aging fans tend to jettison Rogers’ spectral reality in favor of a single shade, the bright red in which he greeted Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton in 1975, say, or the pleasant mouse-colored number he sported for a 1985 breakdancing session with a visiting 12-year-old.

For those who’d rather code than purl, Phillips shares MrRogers.R, the program he used to scrape the Neighborhood Archive for Mister Rogers daily sweater colors.

Then have a look at Rogers’ sweaters as rendered by Phillips’ fellow data geek, Alan Joyce, who tinkered with Phillips’ code to produce a gradient image.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her current project is Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division’s fast approaching production of Animal Farm at the Tank in New York City.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

2,800 JFK Assassination Documents Just Released by the National Archives

Moments ago, the National Archives released a trove of 2,800 documents that will shed more light on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. According to the Archives, the release includes "FBI, CIA, and other agency documents (both formerly withheld in part and formerly withheld in full) identified by the Assassination Records Review Board as assassination records." You can find the documents here.

This data dump was meant to include even more documents. But, according to The New York Times, Donald Trump "bowed to protests by the C.I.A. and F.B.I. by withholding thousands of additional papers pending six more months of review." If those ever see the light of day, we'll let you know.

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