Modern Art Was Used As a Torture Technique in Prison Cells During the Spanish Civil War

We’ve all got those friends or fam­i­ly mem­bers who con­sid­er “mod­ern art” a form of tor­ture. Next time they com­plain about an exhi­bi­tion you bring them to, just tell them how relieved they should feel that they did­n’t fight in the Span­ish Civ­il War — not just for the obvi­ous rea­sons; they could have found them­selves sub­ject not just to actu­al tor­ture, but tor­ture direct­ly inspired by mod­ernist aes­thet­ic prin­ci­ples. “A Span­ish art his­to­ri­an has found evi­dence that sug­gests some Civ­il War jail cells were built like 3‑D mod­ern art paint­ings in order to tor­ture pris­on­ers,” reports BBC News. “The cells were built in 1938 for the repub­li­can forces fight­ing Gen­er­al Fran­co’s Fas­cist Nation­al­ist army, who even­tu­al­ly won pow­er.” The find­ing comes from his­to­ri­an Jose Milicua, who dis­cov­ered ref­er­ences to these mod­ern-art cells among court papers from “the 1939 tri­al of French anar­chist Alphonse Lau­ren­cic, a repub­li­can, by a Fran­co-ist mil­i­tary court.”

“Dur­ing the tri­al,” the BBC arti­cle con­tin­ues, “Lau­ren­cic revealed he was inspired by mod­ern artists, such as sur­re­al­ist Sal­vador Dali and Bauhaus artist Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky” to cre­ate the six-foot-by-four-foot cells placed secret­ly in Barcelona (see a re-cre­ation above), which fea­tured “slop­ing beds at a 20-degree angle that were almost impos­si­ble to sleep on,” “irreg­u­lar­ly shaped bricks on the floor that pre­vent­ed pris­on­ers from walk­ing back­wards or for­wards,” walls “cov­ered in sur­re­al­ist pat­terns designed to make pris­on­ers dis­tressed and con­fused,” and light­ing effects “to make the art­work even more dizzy­ing.” Evi­dence also indi­cates that, else­where in Spain, Nation­al­ist pris­on­ers “were forced to watch Sal­vador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s film Un Chien Andalou,” espe­cial­ly an end­less loop of its “graph­ic sequence of an eye­ball being cut open” (at the top of the post).


Iron­i­cal­ly, those impris­oned in such cells would have wound up there in the name of their fas­cist cause, which like the Fran­co-back­ing Nazi regime in Ger­many, con­sid­ered mod­ernism “degen­er­a­tive.” Pre­sum­ably, they did­n’t leave their impris­on­ment with any more sym­pa­thet­ic idea of mod­ern art than the one they’d gone in with. “A sub­cur­rent of shock and provo­ca­tion has always lurked with­in avant-garde art, which delib­er­ate­ly sets out to chal­lenge bour­geois con­ven­tion and to elic­it a strong response” writes the New York Times’ John Rock­well. “My own expe­ri­ence has been that oppo­nents of new art are much too quick to pre­sume provo­ca­tion, let alone provo­ca­tion intend­ed lit­er­al­ly to tor­ture. Still, there can be no doubt that out­rage was and is a goal of some artists, even if they rarely pushed it to the log­i­cal extreme that Lau­ren­cic took it.” You can learn more about this unusu­al­ly artis­tic form of war­fare in this All Things Con­sid­ered inter­view with art his­to­ri­an Vic­to­ria Com­balia. (Lis­ten below.) And do try to sup­press those fan­tasies of throw­ing your more Philis­tine acquain­tances in there for an hour or two.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Restored Ver­sion of Un Chien Andalou: Luis Buñuel & Sal­vador Dalí’s Sur­re­al Film (1929)

The Nazi’s Philis­tine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

H.P. Lovecraft Gives Five Tips for Writing a Horror Story, or Any Piece of “Weird Fiction”

lovecraft hp

Image by Lucius B. Trues­dell, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Though the term “weird fic­tion” came into being in the 19th century—originally used by Irish goth­ic writer Sheri­dan Le Fanu—it was picked up by H.P. Love­craft in the 20th cen­tu­ry as a way, pri­mar­i­ly, of describ­ing his own work. Love­craft pro­duced copi­ous amounts of the stuff, as you can see from our post high­light­ing online col­lec­tions of near­ly his entire cor­pus. He also wrote in depth about writ­ing itself. He did so in gen­er­al­ly pre­scrip­tive ways, as in his 1920 essay “Lit­er­ary Com­po­si­tion,” and in ways spe­cif­ic to his cho­sen mode—as in the 1927 “Super­nat­ur­al Hor­ror in Lit­er­a­ture,” in which he defined weird fic­tion very dif­fer­ent­ly than Le Fanu or mod­ern authors like Chi­na Miéville. For Love­craft,

The true weird tale has some­thing more than secret mur­der, bloody bones, or a sheet­ed form clank­ing chains accord­ing to rule. A cer­tain atmos­phere of breath­less and unex­plain­able dread of out­er, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seri­ous­ness and por­ten­tous­ness becom­ing its sub­ject, of that most ter­ri­ble con­cep­tion of the human brain–a malign and par­tic­u­lar sus­pen­sion or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safe­guard against the assaults of chaos and the dae­mons of unplumbed space.

Here we have, broad­ly, the tem­plate for a very Love­craft­ian tale indeed. Ten years lat­er, in a 1937 essay titled “Notes on Writ­ing Weird Fic­tion,” Love­craft would return to the theme and elab­o­rate more ful­ly on how to pro­duce such an arti­fact.

Weird Fic­tion, wrote Love­craft in that lat­er essay, is “obvi­ous­ly a spe­cial and per­haps a nar­row” kind of “sto­ry-writ­ing,” a form in which “hor­ror and the unknown or the strange are always close­ly con­nect­ed,” and one that “fre­quent­ly emphasize[s] the ele­ment of hor­ror because fear is our deep­est and strongest emo­tion.” Although Love­craft self-dep­re­cat­ing­ly calls him­self an “insignif­i­cant ama­teur,” he nonethe­less sit­u­ates him­self in the com­pa­ny of “great authors” who mas­tered hor­ror writ­ing of one kind or anoth­er: “[Lord] Dun­sany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M.R. James, Alger­non Black­wood, and Wal­ter de la Mare.” Even if you only know the name of Poe, it’s weighty com­pa­ny indeed.

But be not intimidated—Lovecraft wasn’t. As our tra­di­tion­al hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tion of fear approach­es, per­haps you’d be so inclined to try your hand at a lit­tle weird fic­tion of your own. You should cer­tain­ly, Love­craft would stress, spend some time read­ing these writ­ers’ works. But he goes fur­ther, and offers us a very con­cise, five point “set of rules” for writ­ing a weird fic­tion sto­ry that he says might be “deduced… if the his­to­ry of all my tales were ana­lyzed.” See an abridged ver­sion below:

  1. Pre­pare a syn­op­sis or sce­nario of events in the order of their absolute occur­rence—not the order of their nar­ra­tions.

This is a prac­tice adhered to by writ­ers from J.K. Rowl­ing and William Faulkn­er to Nor­man Mail­er. It seems an excel­lent gen­er­al piece of advice for any kind of fic­tion.

  1. Pre­pare a sec­ond syn­op­sis or sce­nario of events—this one in order of nar­ra­tion (not actu­al occur­rence), with ample full­ness and detail, and with notes as to chang­ing per­spec­tive, stress­es, and cli­max.
  1. Write out the story—rapidly, flu­ent­ly, and not too critically—following the sec­ond or nar­ra­tive-order syn­op­sis. Change inci­dents and plot when­ev­er the devel­op­ing process seems to sug­gest such change, nev­er being bound by any pre­vi­ous design.

It may be that the sec­ond rule is made just to be bro­ken, but it pro­vides the weird fic­tion prac­ti­tion­er with a begin­ning. The third stage here brings us back to a process every writer on writ­ing, such as Stephen King, will high­light as key—free, unfet­tered draft­ing, fol­lowed by…

  1. Revise the entire text, pay­ing atten­tion to vocab­u­lary, syn­tax, rhythm of prose, pro­por­tion­ing of parts, niceties of tone, grace and con­vinc­ing­ness of tran­si­tions…

And final­ly….

  1. Pre­pare a neat­ly typed copy—not hes­i­tat­ing to add final revi­so­ry touch­es where they seem in order.

You will notice right away that these five “rules” tell us noth­ing about what to put in our weird fic­tion, and could apply to any sort of fic­tion at all, real­ly. This is part of the admirably com­pre­hen­sive qual­i­ty of the oth­er­wise suc­cinct essay. Love­craft tells us why he writes, why he writes what he writes, and how he goes about it. The con­tent of his fic­tion­al uni­verse is entire­ly his own, a method of visu­al­iz­ing “vague, elu­sive, frag­men­tary impres­sions.” Your mileage, and your method, will indeed vary.

Love­craft goes on to describe “four dis­tinct types of weird sto­ry” that fit “into two rough categories—those in which the mar­vel or hor­ror con­cerns some con­di­tion or phe­nom­e­non, and those in which it con­cerns some action of per­sons in con­nec­tion with a bizarre con­di­tion or phe­non­menon.” If this doesn’t clear things up for you, then per­haps a care­ful read­ing of Lovecraft’s com­plete “Notes on Writ­ing Weird Fic­tion” will. Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, “there is no one way” to write a sto­ry. But with some practice—and no small amount of imagination—you may find your­self join­ing the com­pa­ny of Poe, Love­craft, and a host of con­tem­po­rary writ­ers who con­tin­ue to push the bound­aries of weird fic­tion past the some­times parochial, often pro­found­ly big­ot­ed, lim­its that Love­craft  set out.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

H.P. Lovecraft’s Clas­sic Hor­ror Sto­ries Free Online: Down­load Audio Books, eBooks & More

Love­craft: Fear of the Unknown (Free Doc­u­men­tary)

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

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

Maya Angelou Tells Studs Terkel How She Learned to Count Cards & Hustle in a New Animated Video

Blank on Blank returns with anoth­er one of their visu­al­ly-dis­tinc­tive ani­mat­ed videos. This one lets us time trav­el back to 1970 when Studs Terkel, the great Amer­i­can author, his­to­ri­an, and radio broad­cast­er, sat down with acclaimed poet Maya Angelou. The inter­view took place short­ly after Angelou pub­lished her 1969 auto­bi­og­ra­phy, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the con­ver­sa­tion turns, amus­ing­ly, to her child­hood years, when she learned how to hus­tle and count cards from her step father, Dad­dy Clidell. I bet Bukows­ki is applaud­ing wher­ev­er he is. Blank on Blank made this video in part­ner­ship with the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which we fea­tured on our site late last year.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Maya Angelou Reads “Still I Rise” and “On the Pulse of the Morn­ing”

Studs Terkel Inter­views Bob Dylan, Shel Sil­ver­stein, Maya Angelou & More in New Audio Trove

Blank on Blank Ani­ma­tions Revive Lost Inter­views with David Fos­ter Wal­lace, Jim Mor­ri­son & Dave Brubeck

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Watch Luis Buñuel’s Surreal Travel Documentary A Land Without Bread (1933)

You don’t get the warm fuzzies from a Luis Buñuel movie. The most famous moment from his first film — Un Chien andalou, co-direct­ed with Sal­vador Dalí — is a woman get­ting her eye slashed with a straight razor. While on clos­er inspec­tion the gut­ted eye is from a dead don­key, the image still has the pow­er to shock 85 years lat­er. Though the movie was a col­lab­o­ra­tion, you can dis­cern Buñuel’s vision in this ear­ly work — shots of ants com­ing out of bod­i­ly ori­fices is pure Dalí; the caus­tic satire against the cler­gy is pure Buñuel. Dalí’s images are strange and beau­ti­ful. Buñuel’s are sub­ver­sive.

Though Dalí and Buñuel worked togeth­er again on the scorch­ing­ly anti-Catholic L’Age d’or, their col­lab­o­ra­tion fell apart in pre-pro­duc­tion. Dalí just want­ed to tweak those in pow­er. Buñuel, a com­mit­ted left­ist, want­ed to under­mine the whole bour­geoisie.

Land With­out Bread (Las Hur­des: Tier­ra Sin Pan) is Buñuel’s first movie with­out Dalí. Though lack­ing many of the overt sur­re­al­ist flour­ish­es of his ear­li­er movies – no ocu­lar muti­la­tion here – this 1933 film is much more unset­tling. Osten­si­bly a doc­u­men­tary about the Las Hur­des region locat­ed in a remote cor­ner of Spain, the film is in fact a lac­er­at­ing par­o­dy of trav­el doc­u­men­taries. Nov­el­ist Gra­ham Greene, in a review of the movie for Night and Day mag­a­zine, called it “an hon­est and hideous pic­ture.” You can watch it above.

Las Hur­des is poor but not as com­i­cal­ly awful as Buñuel depicts it. He paints the pic­ture of unleav­ened wretched­ness. Dis­ease, depri­va­tion and grind­ing despair are in just about every frame of the movie. And if the images weren’t mis­er­able enough, Buñuel had no prob­lem with cre­at­ing a lit­tle of his own mis­ery. In one noto­ri­ous scene, a don­key is stung to death by a swarm of angry bees. Buñuel accom­plished this by hav­ing the doomed beast slathered with hon­ey and placed next to a cou­ple of downed hives. Anoth­er scene sought to illus­trate that the moun­tain pass­es in Las Hur­des were treach­er­ous by show­ing a moun­tain goat tum­bling off a crag­gy slope to cer­tain death. Only the goat wasn’t clum­sy, it was wound­ed. If you look close­ly at the low­er right of the frame in that scene, you can see a puff of smoke from a crewmember’s gun. Buñuel, obvi­ous­ly, was not a mem­ber of PETA.

He jux­ta­pos­es these grim images with a monot­o­ne voice over that heaps dis­dain and con­de­scen­sion onto its sub­ject. Yet the nar­ra­tion is so height­ened, so pre­pos­ter­ous, so cru­el that you find your­self ques­tion­ing its verac­i­ty. Below is a par­tic­u­lar­ly infa­mous pas­sage of the movie’s nar­ra­tion.

Dwarfs and morons are very com­mon in the upper Hur­danos moun­tains. Their fam­i­lies employ them as goat herders if they’re not too dan­ger­ous. The ter­ri­ble impov­er­ish­ment of this race is due to the lack of hygiene, under nour­ish­ment and con­stant inter­mar­riage. The small­est one of these crea­tures is 28 years old. Words can­not express the hor­ror of their mirth­less grins as they play a sort of hide and go seek.

All this places the view­er into a very uncom­fort­able posi­tion. Buñuel’s por­tray­al of the locals makes them seem so alien that empa­thy is all but impos­si­ble. All that you are left with is, aside from revul­sion, an abstract­ed form of pity. It’s not all that dif­fer­ent from the Oh Dearism you get from watch­ing a news report on a par­tic­u­lar­ly blight­ed cor­ner of the Third World. The dif­fer­ence is that Buñuel, unlike the news, makes you acute­ly, uncom­fort­ably aware of your priv­i­leged posi­tion in rela­tion to the movie’s sub­ject.

Land With­out Bread will be added to our col­lec­tion 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Two Vin­tage Films by Sal­vador Dalí and Luis Buñuel: Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or

The Seashell and the Cler­gy­man: The World’s First Sur­re­al­ist Film

Read Film­mak­er Luis Buñuel’s Recipe for the Per­fect Dry Mar­ti­ni, and Then See Him Make One

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

Free: Stream Songs from Bob Dylan’s Upcoming Release, The Basement Tapes Complete

basement tapes

As his loy­al fans already know, Bob Dylan will release next week a six-CD col­lec­tion called The Base­ment Tapes Com­plete: The Boot­leg Series, Vol. 11, which fea­tures 139 songs record­ed dur­ing the late 1960s, when, Dylan, recov­er­ing from a motor­cy­cle acci­dent, holed him­self up in a base­ment in Sauger­ties, NY and began play­ing music casu­al­ly with The Band. The sto­ry behind the mak­ing of The Base­ment Tapes gets nice­ly told by Sasha Frere-Jones in the lat­est edi­tion of The New York­er, and over at NPR you can now stream a selec­tion of songs from the upcom­ing Base­ment Tapes release. Just thought you might want to know.…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bob Dylan Reads From T.S. Eliot’s Great Mod­ernist Poem The Waste Land

Bob Dylan and The Grate­ful Dead Rehearse Togeth­er in Sum­mer 1987. Lis­ten to 74 Tracks.

The 1969 Bob Dylan-John­ny Cash Ses­sions: 12 Rare Record­ings

The Fall of the House of Usher: Poe’s Classic Tale Turned Into 1928 Avant Garde Film, Scripted by e.e. cummings

Last week, in def­er­ence to the approach of Hal­loween, we fea­tured the com­plete works of Edgar Allan Poe as Free eBooks and Free Audio Books. If you give them a read, a lis­ten, or both, you’ll dis­cov­er that few cre­ators, using noth­ing more than the writ­ten word, can dis­turb quite so effec­tive­ly as Poe. But his writ­ten words have also pro­vid­ed inspi­ra­tion to fright­en­ing works in oth­er media, includ­ing the pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured 1953 British ani­ma­tion of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and, today, the short-film ver­sion of “The Fall of the House of Ush­er.” That 1839 sto­ry per­haps most per­fect­ly (and most vis­cer­al­ly) real­izes such pet themes of Poe’s as ill­ness, dread, and live bur­ial, and as such has served as mate­r­i­al to a great many film­mak­ers as defi­ant­ly low­brow as Roger Cor­man and as uncom­pro­mis­ing­ly idio­syn­crat­ic as Jan Švankma­jer. But here we offer you one of the most inter­est­ing cin­e­mat­ic “Usher“s ever made: James Sib­ley Wat­son and Melville Web­ber’s 13-minute avant-garde adap­ta­tion, script­ed in part by poet e.e. cum­mings.

“Despite their impor­tance as lead­ing fig­ures in the film world,” writes Tara Trav­isano, “Wat­son and Web­ber’s work is often over­looked and not giv­en suf­fi­cient cred­it.” Though they got their shoot­ing script from the mod­ernist-influ­enced cum­mings, the film­mak­ers, “not fans of mod­ernism,” “pre­ferred to have their films described as ama­teur.” Their Fall of the House of Ush­er, the best-known work they ever pro­duced, “hard­ly fol­lows a nar­ra­tive, but is val­ued for its cre­ative use of rep­e­ti­tion and vari­a­tion and for the film’s dra­mat­ic light­ing.” And don’t wor­ry if you haven’t read the orig­i­nal sto­ry in a while; accord­ing to Trav­isano, Wat­son and Web­ber chose to film it because they them­selves had­n’t read it in a while, and thus “would be free of its influ­ence.” But after expe­ri­enc­ing the brief but unset­tling cin­e­mat­ic dream they man­aged to make out of this half-remem­bered Poean mate­r­i­al, you may want to seek out its influ­ence by going back and read­ing it again — or lis­ten­ing to it, or try­ing to sleep and re-dream it for your­self.

You can find Fall of the House of Ush­er in our col­lec­tion, 285 Free Doc­u­men­taries Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load The Com­plete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Macabre Sto­ries as Free eBooks & Audio Books

Watch the 1953 Ani­ma­tion of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Nar­rat­ed by James Mason

James Earl Jones Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

Christo­pher Walken, Iggy Pop, Deb­bie Har­ry & Oth­er Celebs Read Tales by Edgar Allan Poe

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

David Lynch’s Photographs of Old Factories

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David Lynch’s break out movie, Eraser­head, is the sort of movie that will seep into your uncon­scious and stay with you for days or weeks – like a par­tic­u­lar­ly unnerv­ing night­mare. Shot in inky black and white, the film achieves its uncan­ny pow­er in part because of its set­ting — a rot­ting indus­tri­al moon­scape bereft of nature. Much of the film’s sound­track is filled with the clank­ing of dis­tant machines and the hiss­ing of steam escap­ing pipes.

Lynch’s obses­sion with the rem­nants of the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion have punc­tu­at­ed much of his work since — from the grimy, claus­tro­pho­bic Vic­to­ri­an streets in The Ele­phant Man to the open­ing titles of Twin Peaks to his 1990 avant-garde mul­ti­me­dia extrav­a­gan­za Indus­tri­al Sym­pho­ny No. 1.

“Well…if you said to me, ‘Okay, we’re either going down to Dis­ney­land or we’re going to see this aban­doned fac­to­ry,’ there would be no choice,” said Lynch once in an inter­view. “I’d be down there at the fac­to­ry. I don’t real­ly know why. It just seems like such a great place to set a sto­ry.”

Ear­li­er this year, Lynch exhib­it­ed at a Lon­don gallery a series of pho­tographs he shot of, yes, rot­ting fac­to­ries around New York, Eng­land and par­tic­u­lar­ly Poland. The sub­jects of the pho­tos are pret­ty mun­dane – a door, a win­dow, a wall – but he imbues them with this odd tone of fore­bod­ing and men­ace. In oth­er words, Lynch makes them seem Lynchi­an.

“It’s an incred­i­ble mood,” Lynch told Dazed Mag­a­zine. “I feel like I’m in a place that’s just mag­i­cal, where nature is reclaim­ing these derelict fac­to­ries. It’s very dreamy. Every place you turn, there’s some­thing so sen­sa­tion­al and sur­pris­ing – it’s the Bea­t­les’ Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour. All the cities are look­ing more and more the same. The real trea­sures are going away; the mood they cre­ate is going away.”

See more pho­tos below and, if you’re so inclined, you can buy the book to the exhib­it here.

A door in Lodz, Poland
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A win­dow and a real estate oppor­tu­ni­ty in Lodz

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A fac­to­ry. Lodz, Poland.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mas­ter­ful Polaroid Pic­tures Tak­en by Film­mak­er Andrei Tarkovsky

David Lynch Presents the His­to­ry of Sur­re­al­ist Film (1987)

David Lynch Lists His Favorite Films & Direc­tors, Includ­ing Felli­ni, Wilder, Tati & Hitch­cock

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Jazz Pho­tog­ra­phy and The Film He Almost Made About Jazz Under Nazi Rule

Young Stan­ley Kubrick’s Noirish Pic­tures of Chica­go, 1949

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.


A Quick Introduction to Literary Theory: Watch Animated Videos from the Open University

Just what is an author? It might seem like a sil­ly ques­tion, and an aca­d­e­m­ic dis­sec­tion of the term may seem like a need­less­ly pedan­tic exer­cise. But the very vari­abil­i­ty of the con­cept means it isn’t a sta­ble, fixed idea at all, but a shift­ing set of asso­ci­a­tions we have with notions about cre­ativ­i­ty, the social role of art, and that elu­sive qual­i­ty known as “genius.” Ques­tions raised in the Open Uni­ver­si­ty video above—part of a series of very short ani­mat­ed entrées into lit­er­ary crit­i­cism called “Out­side the Book”—make it hard to ignore the prob­lems we encounter when we try to define author­ship in sim­ple, straight­for­ward ways. Most of the ques­tions relate to the work of French post­struc­tural­ist Michel Fou­cault, whose crit­i­cal essay “What is an Author?”—along with struc­tural­ist thinker Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”—dis­turbed many a lit­er­ary critic’s com­fort­able assump­tions about the cre­ative locus behind any giv­en work.

In the 18th cen­tu­ry, at least in Europe, the author was a high­ly cel­e­brat­ed cul­tur­al fig­ure, a sta­tus epit­o­mized by Samuel Johnson’s rev­er­en­tial biog­ra­phy of John Dry­den and edi­tion of Shake­speare—and in turn Johnson’s own biog­ra­phy by his amanu­en­sis Boswell. The 19th cen­tu­ry began to see the author as a celebri­ty, with the hype and some­times tawdry spec­u­la­tion that accom­pa­nies that des­ig­na­tion. In the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, even as the idea of the film direc­tor as auteur—a sin­gu­lar cre­ative genius—gained ascen­dance, the inflat­ed role of the lit­er­ary author came in for a bruis­ing. With Fou­cault, Barthes, and oth­ers like W.K. Wim­satt and Mon­roe Beardsley—whose essay “The Inten­tion­al Fal­la­cy” more or less ruled out biog­ra­phy as a tool of the critic—the author reced­ed and the “text” gained pri­ma­cy as, in Foucault’s words, a “dis­cur­sive unit.”

This means that ques­tions of author­ship became insep­a­ra­ble from ques­tions of read­er­ship, inter­pre­ta­tion, and influ­ence; from ques­tions of his­tor­i­cal clas­si­fi­ca­tion and social con­struc­tion (i.e. how do we know any­thing about “Byron” except through biogra­phies, doc­u­men­taries, etc., them­selves cul­tur­al pro­duc­tions?); from ques­tions of trans­la­tion, pseude­pig­ra­phy, and pen names. Put in much plain­er terms, we once came to think of the author not sim­ply as the writer—a role pre­vi­ous­ly del­e­gat­ed to low­ly, usu­al­ly anony­mous “scribes” who sim­ply copied the words of gods, heroes, and prophets. Instead, the author became a god, a hero, and a prophet, a god­like cre­ator with a “lit­er­ary stamp of approval” that grants his or her every utter­ance on the page a spe­cial sta­tus; “that makes even the note on Shakespeare’s fridge a work of pro­found genius.” But that idea is any­thing but sim­ple, and the crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion around it any­thing but triv­ial.

Dit­to much of the above when it comes to that oth­er seem­ing­ly indi­vis­i­ble unit of lit­er­a­ture, the book. In the even short­er video guide above, Open Uni­ver­si­ty rapid­ly chal­lenges our com­mon­place ideas about book-hood and rais­es the now-com­mon­place ques­tion about the future of this “read­ing giz­mo.” For more “Out­side the Book,” see the remain­ing videos in the series: “Com­e­dy,” “Tragedy,” and “Two Styles of Love.” And for a much more sus­tained and seri­ous study of the art of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, delve into Pro­fes­sor Paul Fry’s Yale course below. It’s part of Open Cul­ture’s col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Intro­duc­tion to The­o­ry of Lit­er­a­ture – Free Online Video – Free iTunes Audio – Free iTunes Video – Course Mate­ri­als – Paul H. Fry, Yale

h/t Cather­ine

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Crash Course on Lit­er­a­ture: Watch John Green’s Fun Intro­duc­tions to Gats­by, Catch­er in the Rye & Oth­er Clas­sics

An Intro­duc­tion to World Lit­er­a­ture by a Cast Of Lit­er­ary & Aca­d­e­m­ic Stars (Free Course)

Michel Fou­cault: Free Lec­tures on Truth, Dis­course & The Self

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

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