When Plato defined humans as two-legged animals without feathers, I suspect he was only half serious. Or if he was as humorless as some suppose, his antagonist Diogenes the Cynic certainly picked up on the joke, pointing out that the description sounds pretty much like a plucked chicken. The ancient back and forth illustrates a question that has occupied philosophers for many thousands of years: what separates humans from animals? Is it a soul? Rationality? Tool-making? Most accounts, especially most modern accounts, settle on one crucial difference—language. Although animals can communicate with each other perfectly well, they do so without this amazingly sophisticated faculty we so often take for granted.
In the animated video at the top, part of the BBC and Open University’s A History of Ideas series, Gillian Anderson, in her British rather than American accent, explains the well-known theory of language acquisition proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky in the 60s. Chomsky argued for what is known as a “universal grammar,” a kind of template in the structure of the brain that allows every person of normal ability to learn their native language with relative ease as a child. Chomsky referred to these structures as a “language acquisition device” that organizes grammar and syntax independently of experience or outside stimuli, of which we have precious little in our formative years. Doubtless Chomsky’s theory would have persuaded Plato, though probably not the British empiricists of the 17th century, who argued that the human mind has no innate ideas—that all of our abilities are learned.
Such was the argument, much simplified, of John Locke, physician, philosopher, and political theorist. In his far-ranging philosophical text An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the more focused and digestible Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke discussed in depth his theories of human cognition and identity, proposing not only that the mind could be written upon like a tabula rasa—or “blank slate”—but that the key to human identity, that which makes us the same person from moment to moment, is memory. We are—and are responsible for, Locke argued—what we remember. Conversely, we are not responsible for what we don’t remember. Locke’s theory presents us with some very thorny ethical problems, which the video above mostly avoids, but like Chomsky’s intervention into debates about human vs. animal intelligence, Locke’s discussion of the nature of human “personhood” remains a timely concern, and an endlessly contentious one.
Once again drawing on the skilled work of animator Andrew Park and scripts by independent philosopher Nigel Warburton, this latest series of videos offers a number of fascinating appetizers in the ways philosophy, science, and religion have approached life’s biggest questions. Like any starter course, however, these are but a taste of the complexity and richness on offer in Western philosophical history. To become a true intellectual gourmand, browse our menu of free philosophy courses and dig in to the work of thinkers like Chomsky, Locke, Marx, and so many more.
Having just begun rewatching season 3 of the always-relevant The Wire—the season to first introduce Reg E. Cathey’s super-smooth character, mayoral aide Norman Wilson—I was delighted to find an episode of Studio 360 that features the actor reading a text by jazz great Charles Mingus. Even more delightful is the subject of his text: instructions for toilet training your cat. I cannot testify to their efficacy; it seems like a labor-intensive process, and my own cats seem pretty content with their litterbox. But if anyone could accomplish such a feat, it was Mingus, a man who once ripped the strings from a piano with his bare hands (so it’s said in the documentary 1959: The Year that Changed Jazz), and who won a Grammy for an essay defining jazz, written just a few years after he helped redefine it.
Mingus may have had a notoriously short temper, but as a composer, he was infinitely patient. Apparently this also goes for his role as a cat trainer. He spent weeks teaching his cat, Nightlife, to use human facilities, and detailed the process in a pamphlet, The Charles Mingus CAT-alogue for Toilet Training Your Cat, available for cat fanciers and Mingus fans by mail order. Hear Cathey read the instructions in part in the video at the top and in full in the audio above. Studio 360 describes this odd document as “full of charming advice and meticulous pedagogical detail.” It is indeed that. In four concise steps, Mingus lays out the program, simple as can be—or so he makes it seem.
Mingus writes, “It took me about three or four weeks to toilet train my cat, Nightlife.” He also admits that aspiring trainers may need to modify the program somewhat, “in case your cat is not as smart as Nightlife was.” One can imagine less gifted cats struggling with this unusual method. One can also imagine more ornery, less cooperative breeds simply refusing to play along. Like Mingus himself, cats have a well-deserved reputation for doing their own thing. Should you be intrepid enough to attempt the Mingus method with your own feline companion, all I can say to you is what Mingus says at the end of his instructions—Good Luck.
I hope Orson Welles got used to seeing his name on top-ten-films-of-all-time lists. He became a mainstay as soon as critical consensus declared his debut Citizen Kane probably the most important motion picture ever made, and some cinephiles give special notice to his subsequent works, such as The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, F for Fake, and — for true contrarians only — The Trial. So what does a man whose projects appear on so many top-ten lists from critics and other filmmakers alike put on his own?
“I don’t like cinema,” goes one perhaps-apocryphal Welles quote. “I like making cinema.” (Sometimes-heard variation: “I don’t like cinema unless I shoot it.”) But even if he actually said and believed that, he still managed to put together the following list of favorites in the early 1950s, about a decade after having entered the filmmaking game but with most of the cinema he would make still to come:
If Citizen Kane opened up the possibilities of cinema — and to get an idea of just how much influence it has had from its release to this day, simply watch any film made before it — the pictures Welles puts onto his list, in large part a classicist’s even in the 50s, gave cinema its form in the first place. If you plan on doing a self-administered course in film history, you could do much worse than beginning with the favorite films of Orson Welles — then moving on, of course, to the films of Orson Welles.
I can well remember the first time I read Mad Magazine. I was probably around Bart Simpson’s age, but nowhere near his degree of wiseass-ness. I found the humor of the adult world mostly mystifying and also pretty tame, given my rather sheltered existence. It was my discovery of Mad—stacks and stacks of old Mads, to be precise, in the rec room of a family acquaintance—that cracked the shell, one of those formative loss-of-innocence moments that are ultimately edifying. At the time, I couldn’t tell sophisticated satire from puerile parody, and the average issue of Mad was no Gulliver’s Travels. Nonetheless, its gleeful skewering of the American civil religion of politics, celebrity, professional sports, commerce, and middle class comfort hooked me instantly, and taught me about the value of freethought before I’d ever heard the name Jonathan Swift.
Founded as a comic book by editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines in 1952, Mad and its gap-toothed mascot Alfred E. Newman (still active today!) pioneered populist satire and inspired many lesser imitators. One distinctive feature of the magazine for almost its entire existence was its ability to run without advertising, allowing it to tear apart materialist culture without fear of biting the hands that fed it. Instead, for decades, the magazine ran fake spoof ads like those you see here. At the top, for example, see a 1963 ad for the “1963 ¾ Edsel,” an update of the “1963 ½ models—which made all ’63 models obsolete.” The text goes on to state frankly, “we’re taking the first steps toward “Planned Monthly Obsolescence—when every car owner will be shamed into trading in his old June ’64 car for a brand new shiny July ’64 model.” Apple, take note.
In the 1960 spoof ad above, military culture gets a send-up with “Aspire Boot-Lick Polish,” made for “The Man in Command: Pompous… Pig-headed… Pathological.” The flavored boot polish—“licorice, caviar, chocolate, caramel, molasses, borscht, halavah, and Moxie in a base of chicken fat”—is said to make “boot-licking a little more tasty when you gotta do it.” A clever inset links the U.S. chain of command with previous empires, showing a cartoon European naval officer of centuries past getting his boots licked by a subordinate sailor.
Just above, the disturbing 1969 fake ad for “Cemetery Filler Cigarettes” predates the tobacco trials of the 1990s by decades. Long promoted for their health benefits, calming effects, sophistication, and taste—as in that memorable first episode of Mad Men—cigarettes are exposed for the mass killers they are by none other than “Adolph Hitler”. (Another 1970 fake ad for “Winsom Cigarettes” uses an actual cemetery to similar effect.)
While cigarette companies were a frequent target of Mad’s fake ads, just as often they took on the inanity of the entire ad industry itself, as in the above 1965 meta-ad for “Let’s Kill Off Ridiculous Ad Campaigns.” The text reads, “If you advertisers have to blow your own horns, why tie your products to unrelated activities? Mainly, what’s eating a Breakfast Cereal got to do with playing a musical instrument? Boy… we just can’t swallow that!” Another regular feature was “Mad’s Great Moments in Advertising,” a kind of highlight blooper reel of ads gone wrong. The example below, also from 1965, spoofs the promises of cleaning product ads to make the lives of housewives easier with a product that works just a little too well.
Image by Luigi Novi. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Making the rounds today on the Internet is a poignant letter from Oliver Sacks, announcing that he has terminal cancer. An NYU professor of neurology who has published several bestselling books (including one that became the basis for the 1990 film, Awakenings, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro) Sacks first developed ocular melanoma nine years ago, and it apparently, sadly, metastasized to the liver.
Perhaps mortality is something you think about fairly often; or maybe you haven’t reached that point in life yet. Either way, I’d recommend giving his letter a read, and then maybe tucking it away. Because when — as is inevitable — you find yourself facing mortality head on, Sacks’ thoughts and outlook may help guide you through. His letter concludes:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
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Toward the end of 2013, we featured a series of video essays by Matt Zoller Seitz on the films of Wes Anderson. They first came out to accompany The Wes Anderson Collection, the critic’s coffee-table retrospective of that auteur of whimsical handcrafted films’ career to date — to the date of late 2013, anyway. Even then, fans had already geared themselves up in anticipation of the then-imminent release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s eighth and latest picture, which at the moment has resurfaced in awards-season buzz.
The diminishing number of you who have proven still impervious to Anderson’s peculiar brand of movie magic might, actually, feel you’ve heard a bit too much about The Grand Budapest Hotel over the past year or so. What, pray tell, is the big deal? Here to answer that question, we have Zoller Seitz’s brand new video essay on Anderson’s tale of that titular once-grand mountain hotel and the 20th-century Europe of the imagination (eventually giving way to the 20th-century Europe of history) that swirls around and through it.
“All of Wes Anderson’s films are comedies,” says Zoller Seitz, “and none are.” Throughout the following fifteen minutes, he analyzes exactly how, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson climbs to the top of both of his personal twin peaks of frivolity and seriousness — or seriousness expressed through frivolity, or vice versa. In the director’s “most structurally ambitious film,” we see not just layers of comedy and melancholy but of history, literature, artistry, and anxiety, all tied in with the Andersonian characters’ endless quest to master their own sense of loss by mastering the world around them — which Anderson shows us, to a fuller extent in The Grand Budapest Hotel, than in any of his live-action movies before, with his own mastery of the world he and his collaborators create.
For another look into what this requires in filmmaking terms, see also “Here’s How Wes Anderson Uses Matte Paintings in His Incredible Set Designs” by The Creators Project’s Beckett Mufson. That interview with Grand Budapest Hotel matte painter Simone de Salvatore reveals, by looking at just one aspect of the whole, how much goes into the design of a Wes Anderson production. Viewers who love Anderson’s pictures, of course, love them in large part for exactly that, and even viewers who hate them have to concede their impeccability on that count. Both groups now have only to wait for this Sunday to see how the Academy feels about it.
The art of the album cover is ground we cover here often enough, from the jazz deco creations of album art inventor Alex Steinweiss to the bawdy burlesques of underground comix legend R. Crumb. We could add to these American references the iconic covers of European graphic artists like Peter Saville of Joy Divisions’ Unknown Pleasures and Storm Thorgerson of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.These names represent just a small sampling of the many renowned designers who have given popular music its distinctive look over the decades, and without whom the experience of record shopping—perhaps itself a bygone art—would be a dreary one. Though these creative personalities work in a primarily commercial vein, there’s no reason not to call their products fine art.
But in a great many cases, the images that grace the covers of records we know well come directly from the fine art world—whether appropriated from pieces that hang on museum walls or commissioned from famous artists by the bands. Such, of course, was the case with the much-ballyhooed cover of Lady Gaga’s Artpop, a candy-colored collaboration with pop art darling Jeff Koons, who gets a namecheck in the Gaga single “Applause.” Gaga has put a unique spin on the mélange of pop and pop art, but she hardly pioneered such collaborations.
Long before Artpop, there was Warhol, whose promotion of the Velvet Underground included his own design of their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The cover originally featured a yellow banana record buyers could peel away, as Flavorwire writes, “to reveal a suggestively pink flesh-toned banana.” The “saucy covers” required “special machinery, extra costs, and the delay of the album release,” but Warhol’s name persuaded MGM the added overhead was worth it. It’s a gamble that hardly paid off for the label, but pop music is infinitely better off for Warhol’s promotion of Lou Reed and company’s dark, droning art rock.
Of the many millions of bands inspired by that first Velvets’ release, The Smiths also looked to Warhol for inspiration when it came to the even more suggestive album cover (above) for their first, self-titled record in 1984. This time, the image comes not from the pop artist himself, but from his protégée Paul Morrissey—a still from his salacious, Warhol-produced film Flesh. Just one of many savvy uses of monochromatic film stills and photographs by the image-conscious Steven Patrick Morrissey and band.
Ten years earlier, another Smith, Patti, posed for the photograph above, a Polaroid taken by her close friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. At the time, the two were roommates and “just kids” struggling jointly in their starving artisthood. In her National Book Award-winning memoir of their time together, Smith describes the “exquisitely androgynous image” as deliberately posed in a “Frank Sinatra style,” writing, “I was full of references.” Mapplethorpe, of course, would go on to infamy as the focus of a conservative congressional campaign against “obscene” art in 1989, which tended to make his name synonymous with sensationalism and scandal and obscured the breadth of his work.
Like the Velvets and Patti Smith, the members of Sonic Youth have had a long and fruitful relationship with the art world, pursuing several art projects of their own and collaborating frequently with famous fine artists. The relationship between their noisy art rock and the visual arts crystalizes in their many iconic album covers. My personal favorite, and perhaps the most recognizable of the bunch, is Raymond Pettibon’s cover for 1990’s Goo, inspired from a photograph of two witnesses to a serial killer case. Pettibon, brother to Black Flag founder and guitarist Greg Ginn, is much better known in the punk rock world than the fine art world, but Sonic Youth has also collaborated with established high art figures like Gerhard Richter, whose painting Kerze (“Candle”) graces the cover of their acclaimed 1988 album Daydream Nation (above).
Another example of a band using already existing artwork—this time from a painter long dead—the cover of New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies comes from the still life A Basket of Roses by 19th century French realist Henri Fantin-Latour. Designer Peter Saville, who, as noted above, created the look of New Order’s previous incarnation, chose the image on a whim. Writes Artnet, “the art director for the post-punk band… had originally planned to use a Renaissance portrait of a dark prince to tie in with the Machiavellian theme of the title, but failed to find anything he liked. While visiting [the National Gallery in London], Saville picked up a postcard of the Fantin-Latour work, and his girlfriend joked that he should use it as the cover.” Saville thought it was “a wonderful idea.” As Saville explains his choice, “Flowers suggested the means by which power, corruption and lies infiltrate our lives. They’re seductive.”
Another art-rock band, the Talking Heads—formed at the Rhode Island School of Design and originally called “The Artistics”—went in a very high art direction for 1983’s new wave masterpiece Speaking in Tongues, their fifth album. Though we’re probably more familiar with frontman David Byrne’s cover art for the album, the band also produced a limited edition LP featuring the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg, which you can see above. Byrne, writes Artnet, approached Rauschenberg “after seeing his work at the Leo Castelli Gallery” and Rauschenberg agreed on the condition that he could “do something different.” He certainly did that. The cover is a “transparent plastic case with artwork and credits printed on three 12 inch circular transparent collages, one per primary color. Only by rotating the LP and the separate plastic discs could one see—and then only intermittently—the three-color images included in the collage.” The artist won a Grammy for the design.
You can see many more fine art album covers by painters like Banksy, Richard Prince, and Fred Tomaselli and photographers like Duane Michaels and Nobuyoshi Araki at Artnet and Flavorwire. The selection of enticing album covers above will hopefully also propel you to revisit, or hear for the first time, some of the finest art-pop of the last four decades. Finally, we leave you with a bizarre and seemingly unlikely collaboration, above, between pop-surrealist Salvador Dalí and Honeymooners comedian Jackie Gleason for Gleason’s 1955 album Lonesome Echo. No weirder, perhaps, than Dalí’s work with Walt Disney, it’s still a rather unexpected look for the comedian, in his role here as a kitschy easy listening composer. Gleason’s many album covers tended toward the Mad Men-esque cheap and tawdry. Here, he gets conceptual. Dalí himself explained the work thus:
The first effect is that of anguish, of space, and of solitude. Secondly, the fragility of the wings of a butterfly, projecting long shadows of late afternoon, reverberates in the landscape like an echo. The feminine element, distant and isolated, forms a perfect triangle with the musical instrument and its other echo, the shell.
Make of that what you will. I’d say it’s the one album on this list with a cover much more interesting by far than the music inside.
In 1983, the Harvard economic historian David Landes wrote an influential book called Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. There, he argued that timepieces (more than steamships and power looms) drove the economic development of the West, leading it into the Industrial Revolution and eventually into an advanced form of capitalism. Timepieces allowed us to measure time in accurate, uniform ways. And, once we had that ability, we began to look at the way we live and work quite differently. Landes wrote:
“The mechanical clock was self-contained, and once horologists learned to drive it by means of a coiled spring rather than a falling weight, it could be miniaturized so as to be portable, whether in the household or on the person. It was this possibility of widespread private use that laid the basis for ‘time discipline,’ as against ‘time obedience.’ One can … use public clocks to simon people for one purpose or another; but that is not punctuality. Punctuality comes from within, not from without. It is the mechanical clock that made possible, for better or worse, a civilization attentive to the passage of time, hence to productivity and performance.”
It’s all part of the logic that eventually gets us to Benjamin Franklin offering this famous piece of advice to a young tradesman, in 1748, “Remember that Time is Money.”
You can find similar arguments at the core of this newly-released video called “A Briefer History of Time: How technology changes us in unexpected ways.” The video brings us back to the 1650s — to a turning point when Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock, which remained the world’s most precise and widespread timekeeping device for the next three centuries. He wasn’t alone. But certainly Huygens did much to make us masters of time. And certainly also slaves to it.
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