Charles Darwin & Charles Dickens’ Four-Hour Work Day: The Case for Why Less Work Can Mean More Productivity

We all oper­ate at dif­fer­ent lev­els of ambi­tion: some just want to get by and enjoy them­selves, while oth­ers strive to make achieve­ments with as long-last­ing an impact on human­i­ty as pos­si­ble. If we think of can­di­dates for the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry, Charles Dar­win may well come to mind, at least in the sense that the work he did as a nat­u­ral­ist, and more so the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion that came out of it, has ensured that we remem­ber his name well over a cen­tu­ry after his death and will sure­ly con­tin­ue to do so cen­turies hence. But research into Dar­win’s work­ing life sug­gests some­thing less than worka­holism — and indeed, that he put in a frac­tion of the num­ber of hours we asso­ciate with seri­ous ambi­tion.

“After his morn­ing walk and break­fast, Dar­win was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half,” writes Nau­tilus’ Alex Soo­jung-kim Pang. “At 9:30 he would read the morn­ing mail and write let­ters. At 10:30, Dar­win returned to more seri­ous work, some­times mov­ing to his aviary, green­house, or one of sev­er­al oth­er build­ings where he con­duct­ed his exper­i­ments. By noon, he would declare, ‘I’ve done a good day’s work,’ and set out on a long walk.” After this walk he would answer let­ters, take a nap, take anoth­er walk, go back to his study, and then have din­ner with the fam­i­ly. Dar­win typ­i­cal­ly got to bed, accord­ing to a dai­ly sched­ule drawn from his son Fran­cis’ rem­i­nis­cences of his father, by 10:30.

“On this sched­ule he wrote 19 books, includ­ing tech­ni­cal vol­umes on climb­ing plants, bar­na­cles, and oth­er sub­jects,” writes Pang, and of course not fail­ing to men­tion “The Ori­gin of Species, prob­a­bly the sin­gle most famous book in the his­to­ry of sci­ence, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and our­selves.” Anoth­er tex­tu­al­ly pro­lif­ic Vic­to­ri­an Eng­lish­man named Charles, adher­ing to a sim­i­lar­ly non-life-con­sum­ing work rou­tine, man­aged to pro­duce — in addi­tion to tire­less let­ter-writ­ing and cam­paign­ing for social reform — hun­dreds of short sto­ries and arti­cles, five novel­las, and fif­teen nov­els includ­ing Oliv­er Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expec­ta­tions

“After an ear­ly life burn­ing the mid­night oil,” writes Pang, Charles Dick­ens “set­tled into a sched­ule as ‘method­i­cal or order­ly’ as a ‘city clerk,’ his son Charley said. Dick­ens shut him­self in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his nov­els were seri­al­ized in mag­a­zines, and Dick­ens was rarely more than a chap­ter or two ahead of the illus­tra­tors and print­er. Nonethe­less, after five hours, Dick­ens was done for the day.” Pang finds that may oth­er suc­cess­ful writ­ers have kept sim­i­lar­ly restrained work sched­ules, from Antho­ny Trol­lope to Alice Munro, Som­er­set Maugh­am to Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, Saul Bel­low to Stephen King. He notes sim­i­lar habits in sci­ence and math­e­mat­ics as well, includ­ing Hen­ri Poin­caré and G.H. Hardy.

Research by Pang and oth­ers into work habits and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty have recent­ly drawn a great deal of atten­tion, point­ing as it does to the ques­tion of whether we might all con­sid­er work­ing less in order to work bet­ter. “Even if you enjoy your job and work long hours vol­un­tar­i­ly, you’re sim­ply more like­ly to make mis­takes when you’re tired,” writes the Har­vard Busi­ness Review’s Sarah Green Carmichael. What’s more, “work too hard and you also lose sight of the big­ger pic­ture. Research has sug­gest­ed that as we burn out, we have a greater ten­den­cy to get lost in the weeds.” This dis­cov­ery actu­al­ly dates back to Dar­win and Dick­ens’ 19th cen­tu­ry: “When orga­nized labor first com­pelled fac­to­ry own­ers to lim­it work­days to 10 (and then eight) hours, man­age­ment was sur­prised to dis­cov­er that out­put actu­al­ly increased – and that expen­sive mis­takes and acci­dents decreased.”

This goes just as much for aca­d­e­mics, whose work­weeks, “as long as they are, are not near­ly as lengthy as those on Wall Street (yet),” writes Times High­er Edu­ca­tion’s David Matthews in a piece on the research of Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­fes­sor (and ex-Gold­man Sachs banker) Alexan­dra Michel. “Four hours a day is prob­a­bly the lim­it for those look­ing to do gen­uine­ly orig­i­nal research, she says. In her expe­ri­ence, the only peo­ple who have avoid­ed burnout and achieved some sort of bal­ance in their lives are those stick­ing to this kind of sched­ule.” Michel finds that “because aca­d­e­mics do not have their hours strict­ly defined and reg­u­lat­ed (as man­u­al work­ers do), ‘oth­er con­trols take over. These con­trols are peer pres­sure.’ ” So at least we know the first step on the jour­ney toward viable work habits: regard­ing the likes of Dar­win and Dick­ens as your peers.

via Nau­tilus

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

John Updike’s Advice to Young Writ­ers: ‘Reserve an Hour a Day’

Thomas Edison’s Huge­ly Ambi­tious “To-Do” List from 1888

Leonar­do Da Vinci’s To Do List (Cir­ca 1490) Is Much Cool­er Than Yours

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Franz Kafka Agonized, Too, Over Writer’s Block: “Tried to Write, Virtually Useless;” “Complete Standstill. Unending Torments” (1915)

No one sings as pure­ly as those who inhab­it the deep­est hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song.

- Franz Kaf­ka, 1920

Poor Kaf­ka, born too ear­ly to blame his writer’s block on 21st-cen­tu­ry dig­i­tal excus­es:  social media addic­tion, cell phone addic­tion, stream­ing video… 

Would The Meta­mor­pho­sis have turned out dif­fer­ent­ly had its author had access to a machine that would have allowed him to self-pub­lish, com­mu­ni­cate face­less­ly, and dis­pense entire­ly with typ­ists, pens and paper? 

Had Kaf­ka had his way, his friend and fel­low writer, Max Brod, would have car­ried out instruc­tions to burn his unpub­lished work—including let­ters and jour­nal entries—upon his death

Instead Brod pub­lished them.

How hor­ri­fied would their author be to read The New Yorker’s opin­ion that his jour­nals should be regard­ed as one of his major lit­er­ary achieve­ments? A Kaf­ka-esque response might be the mildest reac­tion war­rant­ed by the sit­u­a­tion:

His life and per­son­al­i­ty were per­fect­ly suit­ed to the diary form, and in these pages he reveals what he cus­tom­ar­i­ly hid from the world.

These once-pri­vate pages (avail­able in book for­mat here) reveal a not-unfa­mil­iar writer­ly ten­den­cy to ago­nize over a per­ceived lack of out­put:

JANUARY 20, 1915: The end of writ­ing. When will it take me up again?

JANUARY 29, 1915: Again tried to write, vir­tu­al­ly use­less.

JANUARY 30, 1915: The old inca­pac­i­ty. Inter­rupt­ed my writ­ing for bare­ly ten days and already cast out. Once again prodi­gious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapid­ly than that which sinks in advance of you.

FEBRUARY 7, 1915: Com­plete stand­still. Unend­ing tor­ments.

MARCH 11, 1915: How time flies; anoth­er ten days and I have achieved noth­ing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is suc­cess­ful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am pow­er­less.

MARCH 13, 1915: Lack of appetite, fear of get­ting back late in the evening; but above all the thought that I wrote noth­ing yes­ter­day, that I keep get­ting far­ther and far­ther from it, and am in dan­ger of los­ing every­thing I have labo­ri­ous­ly achieved these past six months. Pro­vid­ed proof of this by writ­ing one and a half wretched pages of a new sto­ry that I have already decid­ed to dis­card…. Occa­sion­al­ly I feel an unhap­pi­ness that almost dis­mem­bers me, and at the same time am con­vinced of its neces­si­ty and of the exis­tence of a goal to which one makes one’s way by under­go­ing every kind of unhap­pi­ness.

Psy­chol­o­gy Today iden­ti­fies five pos­si­ble under­ly­ing caus­es for such inac­tiv­i­ty, and tips for sur­mount­ing them. It seems like­ly the fas­tid­i­ous, self-absorbed Kaf­ka would have reject­ed them on their breezy tone alone, but per­haps oth­er less per­snick­ety indi­vid­u­als will find some­thing of use: 

1. You’ve Lost Your Way

If you’re stalled because you lost your way, try the oppo­site of what you usu­al­ly do—if you’re a plot­ter, give your imag­i­na­tion free rein for a day; if you’re a freewriter or a pantser, spend a day cre­at­ing a list of the next 10 scenes that need to hap­pen. This gives your brain a chal­lenge, and for this rea­son you can take heart, because your bil­lions of neu­rons love a chal­lenge and are in search of synaps­es they can form.

2. Your Pas­sion Has Waned

Remem­ber, your writ­ing brain looks for and responds to pat­terns, so be care­ful that you don’t make suc­cumb­ing to bore­dom or sur­ren­der­ing projects with­out a fight into a habit. Do your best to work through the rea­sons you got stalled and to fin­ish what you start­ed. This will lay down a neu­ronal path­way that your writ­ing brain will mer­ri­ly trav­el along in future work.

3. Your Expec­ta­tions Are Too High

Instead of set­ting your sights too high, give your­self per­mis­sion to write any­thing, on top­ic or off top­ic, mean­ing­ful or trite, use­ful or fol­ly. The point is that by attach­ing so much impor­tance to the work you’re about to do, you make it hard­er to get into the flow. Also, if your inner crit­ic sticks her nose in (which often hap­pens), tell her that her role is very impor­tant to you (and it is!) and that you will sum­mon her when you have some­thing wor­thy of her atten­tion.

4. You Are Burned Out

You aren’t blocked; you’re exhaust­ed. Give your­self a few days to real­ly rest. Lie on a sofa and watch movies, take long walks in the hour just before dusk, go out to din­ner with friends, or take a mini-vaca­tion some­where rest­ful. Do so with the inten­tion to give yourself—and your brain—a rest. No think­ing about your nov­el for a week! In fact, no heavy think­ing for a week. Lie back, have a mar­gari­ta, and chill.

5. You’re Too Dis­tract­ed

Take note that, unless you’re just one of those rare birds who always write no mat­ter what, you will expe­ri­ence times in your life when it’s impos­si­ble to keep to a writ­ing sched­ule. Peo­ple get sick, peo­ple have to take a sec­ond job, chil­dren need extra atten­tion, par­ents need extra atten­tion, and so on. If you’re in one of those emer­gency sit­u­a­tions (rais­ing small chil­dren counts), by all means, don’t berate your­self. Some­times it’s sim­ply nec­es­sary to put the actu­al writ­ing on hold. It is good, how­ev­er, to keep your hands in the water. For instance, in lieu of writ­ing your nov­el:

Read works sim­i­lar to what you hope to write.

Read books relat­ed to the sub­ject you’re writ­ing about.

Keep a des­ig­nat­ed jour­nal where you jot down ideas for the book (and oth­er works).

Write small vignettes or sketch­es relat­ed to the book

When­ev­er you find time to med­i­tate, envi­sion your­self writ­ing the book, bring­ing it to full com­ple­tion.

Make writ­ing the book a pri­or­i­ty.

Addi­tion­al­ly, you may find some mer­it in enlist­ing a friend to pub­lish, I mean, burn the above-men­tioned jour­nals posthu­mous­ly. Just don’t write any­thing you would­n’t want the pub­lic to see.

Read author Susan Reynolds’ com­plete Psy­chol­o­gy Today advice for blocked writ­ers here.

Have a peek at Kafka’s Diaries: 1910–1923 here.

via Austin Kleon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters

Franz Kaf­ka: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to His Lit­er­ary Genius

Meta­mor­fo­s­is: Franz Kafka’s Best-Known Short Sto­ry Gets Adapt­ed Into a Tim Bur­tonesque Span­ish Short Film

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine, cur­rent­ly appear­ing onstage in New York City in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Google Uses Artificial Intelligence to Map Thousands of Bird Sounds Into an Interactive Visualization

If you were around in 2013, you may recall that we told you about Cor­nel­l’s Archive of 150,000 Bird Calls and Ani­mal Sounds, with Record­ings Going Back to 1929. It’s a splen­did place for ornithol­o­gists and bird lovers to spend time. And, it turns out, the same also applies to com­put­er pro­gram­mers.

Late last year, Google launched an exper­i­ment where, draw­ing on Cor­nel­l’s sound archive, they used machine learn­ing (arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence that lets com­put­ers learn and do tasks on their own) to orga­nize thou­sands of bird sounds into a map where sim­i­lar sounds are placed clos­er togeth­er. And it result­ed in this impres­sive inter­ac­tive visu­al­iza­tion. Check it out. Or head into Cor­nel­l’s archive and do your own old-fash­ioned explo­rations.

Note: You can find free cours­es on machine learn­ing and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence in the Relat­eds below.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cor­nell Launch­es Archive of 150,000 Bird Calls and Ani­mal Sounds, with Record­ings Going Back to 1929 

Neur­al Net­works for Machine Learn­ing: A Free Online Course 

A Free Course on Machine Learn­ing & Data Sci­ence from Cal­tech

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Going to Concerts and Experiencing Live Music Can Make Us Healthier & Happier, a New Psychology Study Confirms

Image by Niels Ept­ing, via Flickr Com­mons

It can some­times seem like so much qual­i­ta­tive sci­ence con­firms what we already know through expe­ri­ence and folk wis­dom. But that does not make such research redun­dant. Instead, it sets the stage for more detailed inves­ti­ga­tions into spe­cif­ic caus­es and effects, and can lead to more refined under­stand­ing of gen­er­al phe­nom­e­na. For exam­ple, “a new study out of Aus­tralia,” reports CNN, “con­firms what we prob­a­bly already knew,” by con­clud­ing that if you want to be hap­pi­er, you should get out more.

Specif­i­cal­ly, you should get out to con­certs and music fes­ti­vals and dance your you-know-what off. The Aus­tralian researchers found that “peo­ple who active­ly engaged with music through danc­ing and attend­ing events like con­certs and musi­cals report­ed a high­er lev­el of sub­jec­tive well­be­ing.” The March, 2017 study, cheek­i­ly titled “If You’re Hap­py and You Know It: Music Engage­ment and Sub­jec­tive Well­be­ing,” defines the lat­ter phrase as “the sci­en­tif­ic psy­cho­log­i­cal term for gen­er­al mood ‘hap­pi­ness,’ which is pos­i­tive, sta­ble, and con­sis­tent over time.”

Sub­jec­tive well­be­ing (SWB), although a self-report­ed mea­sure, helps psy­chol­o­gists iden­ti­fy effec­tive ther­a­pies for depres­sion and mood dis­or­ders. Engag­ing mean­ing­ful­ly with music is one of them, and one needn’t be a musi­cian to reap the ben­e­fits. While “pro­duc­ing music and per­form­ing encour­age self-explo­ration, emo­tion­al expres­sion, self-esteem and con­fi­dence,” the study’s authors write, inter­act­ing with music as a fan is also “asso­ci­at­ed with high­er mood when con­sid­ered in terms of acti­va­tion and valence.”

Sim­ply con­sum­ing record­ed music, how­ev­er, will not have the same ben­e­fits. While “recent tech­no­log­i­cal advances” and stream­ing ser­vices have “increased the avail­abil­i­ty of and acces­si­bil­i­ty to music… engag­ing with music extends beyond just pas­sive lis­ten­ing.” In large part, the active par­tic­i­pa­tion in a music scene—as part of a fan com­mu­ni­ty or fes­ti­val audi­ence, for example—shows pos­i­tive out­comes because of the “social com­po­nent of music engage­ment.” Lis­ten­ing by one­self “may improve phys­i­cal health and emo­tion­al well­be­ing.” Lis­ten­ing “in the com­pa­ny of oth­ers is asso­ci­at­ed with stronger pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences.”

As the site Live for Live Music puts it, “live music uni­ver­sal­ly low­ers stress lev­elsincreas­es social bonds while decreas­ing lev­els of pain, and can even phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly cause peo­ple to get “skin-gasms.” And if that’s not rea­son enough to get tick­ets to see your favs, I don’t know what is. One would also hope the study makes a con­vinc­ing case for fund­ing live music as a men­tal health ini­tia­tive. Unless you live in a city with lots of free con­certs, the expense of such events can be pro­hib­i­tive. At least in Aus­tralia, the researchers note, “attend­ing musi­cal events is cost­ly, and may be a priv­i­lege afford­ed to those who earn a high­er income.”

Susan Per­ry at Min­npost sums up a few oth­er lim­i­ta­tions of the study, such as its lack of data on fre­quen­cy of atten­dance, and that it does not “dif­fer­en­ti­ate between peo­ple who are musi­cal­ly tal­ent­ed and those who aren’t.” Nonethe­less, one par­tic­u­lar find­ing should have you shed­ding inhi­bi­tions to increase your SWB. “Dancers,” Per­ry sum­ma­rizes, were “more like­ly than non-dancers to be hap­py,” as were those who sing along.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Punk & Heavy Met­al Music Makes Lis­ten­ers Hap­py and Calm, Not Aggres­sive, Accord­ing to New Aus­tralian Study

Play­ing an Instru­ment Is a Great Work­out For Your Brain: New Ani­ma­tion Explains Why

Music in the Brain: Sci­en­tists Final­ly Reveal the Parts of Our Brain That Are Ded­i­cat­ed to Music

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

A Light Show on The Empire State Building Gets Synced to the Dead’s Live Performance of “Touch of Grey” (6/24/2017)

Some of my favorite things come togeth­er…

Last night, Dead & Com­pa­ny played a huge show at Citi Field in New York City. And when they per­formed “Touch of Grey” dur­ing their encore, a light show on the Empire State Build­ing got under­way, com­plete­ly syn­chro­nized with the song. Accord­ing to Jam Band, the lights were “con­trolled by vet­er­an light­ing design­er Marc Brick­man, who has worked on tour with Pink Floyd, Paul McCart­ney, Hans Zim­mer and many more.” Enjoy the visu­al dis­play above. And see the scene on the stage below:

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

via Live for Music

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Long Strange Trip, the New 4‑Hour Doc­u­men­tary on the Grate­ful Dead, Is Now Stream­ing Free on Ama­zon Prime

Bob Dylan & The Grate­ful Dead Rehearse Togeth­er in Sum­mer 1987: Hear 74 Tracks

The Night When Miles Davis Opened for the Grate­ful Dead in 1970: Hear the Com­plete Record­ings

Jer­ry Gar­cia Talks About the Birth of the Grate­ful Dead & Play­ing Kesey’s Acid Tests in New Ani­mat­ed Video

The Grate­ful Dead Play at the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids, in the Shad­ow of the Sphinx (1978)

Herbie Hancock to Teach His First Online Course on Jazz

FYI: If you sign up for a Mas­ter­Class course by click­ing on the affil­i­ate links in this post, Open Cul­ture will receive a small fee that helps sup­port our oper­a­tion.

Mas­ter­Class is on fire these days. In recent months, the new online course provider has announced the devel­op­ment of online cours­es taught by lead­ing fig­ures in their fields. And cer­tain­ly some names you’ll rec­og­nize: Dr. Jane Goodall on the Envi­ron­mentDavid Mamet on Dra­mat­ic Writ­ingSteve Mar­tin on Com­e­dyAaron Sorkin on Screen­writ­ing, Gor­don Ram­say on Cook­ing, Christi­na Aguil­era on Singing, and Wern­er Her­zog on Film­mak­ing. Now add this to the list: Her­bie Han­cock on Jazz.

Writes Mas­ter­Class:

Her­bie Hancock’s jazz career start­ed in his family’s liv­ing room, lis­ten­ing to his favorite records and try­ing to play along. Now, he’s one of the most cel­e­brat­ed musi­cians in the world. Join Her­bie at the piano as he shares his approach to impro­vi­sa­tion, com­po­si­tion, and har­mo­ny.

The course won’t get start­ed until this fall, but you can pre-enroll now. Priced at $90, the course will fea­ture:

  • 20+ video lessons where Her­bie teach­es you how to “impro­vise, com­pose, and devel­op your own sound.”
  • 10+ orig­i­nal piano tran­scrip­tions, includ­ing 5 exclu­sive solo per­for­mances.
  • A down­load­able class work­book.
  • And the chance to have the 14-time Gram­my win­ner cri­tique your work.

Appar­ent­ly this will be the first time Han­cock has ever taught a course online.

Learn more about Her­bie Han­cock Teach­es Jazz here. And find more Mas­ter­Class cours­es here.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Her­bie Han­cock Rock Out on an Ear­ly Syn­the­siz­er on Sesame Street (1983)

What Miles Davis Taught Her­bie Han­cock: In Music, as in Life, There Are No Mis­takes, Just Chances to Impro­vise 

Her­bie Han­cock Presents the Pres­ti­gious Nor­ton Lec­tures at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty: Watch Online

The First Avant Garde Animation: Watch Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel Opus 1 (1921)

Most visu­al art forms, like paint­ing, sculp­ture, or still pho­tog­ra­phy, take a while to get from rep­re­sen­ta­tion to abstrac­tion, but cin­e­ma had a head start, thanks in large part to the ground­break­ing efforts of a Ger­man film­mak­er named Wal­ter Ruttmann. He did it in the ear­ly 1920s, not much more than twen­ty years after the birth of the medi­um itself, with Licht­spiel Opus 1, which you can watch above. Licht­spiel Opus 23, and 4 fol­low it in the video, but though equal­ly enchant­i­ng on an aes­thet­ic lev­el, espe­cial­ly in their inte­gra­tion of imagery and music, none hold the impres­sive dis­tinc­tion of being the very first abstract film ever screened for the pub­lic that Licht­spiel Opus 1 does.

“Fol­low­ing the First World War, Ruttmann, a painter, had moved from expres­sion­ism to full-blown abstrac­tion,” writes Gre­go­ry Zin­man in A New His­to­ry of Ger­man Cin­e­ma. As ear­ly as 1917, “Ruttmann argued that film­mak­ers ‘had become stuck in the wrong direc­tion,’ due to their mis­un­der­stand­ing of cin­e­ma’s essence,’ ” which prompt­ed him to use “the tech­no­log­i­cal­ly derived medi­um of film to pro­duce new art, call­ing for ‘a new method of expres­sion, one dif­fer­ent from all the oth­er arts, a medi­um of time. An art meant for our eyes, one dif­fer­ing from paint­ing in that it has a tem­po­ral dimen­sion (like music), and in the ren­di­tion of a (real or styl­ized) moment in an event or fact, but rather pre­cise­ly in the tem­po­ral rhythm of visu­al events.”

To real­ize this new art form, Ruttmann came up with, and even patent­ed, a kind of ani­ma­tion tech­nique. Once a painter, always a painter, he found a way to make films using oils and brush­es. As exper­i­men­tal ani­ma­tions schol­ar William Moritz described it, Ruttmann cre­at­ed Licht­spiel Opus I with images “paint­ed with oil on glass plates beneath an ani­ma­tion cam­era, shoot­ing a frame after each brush stroke or each alter­ation because the wet paint could be wiped away or mod­i­fied quite eas­i­ly. He lat­er com­bined this with geo­met­ric cut-outs on a sep­a­rate lay­er of glass.”

The result still looks and feels quite unlike the ani­ma­tion we know today, and cer­tain­ly resem­bled noth­ing any of its first view­ers had even seen when it pre­miered in Ger­many in April 1921. This puts it ahead, chrono­log­i­cal­ly, of the work of Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, cre­ators of some of the ear­li­est mas­ter­pieces of abstract film in the ear­ly 1920s, not screened for the pub­lic until 1923. Alas, when Hitler came to pow­er and declared abstract art “degen­er­ate,” accord­ing to Ben­nett O’Bri­an at Pret­ty Clever Films, Ruttmann did­n’t flee but “remained in Ger­many and worked with Leni Riefen­stahl on The Tri­umph of the Will.” In wartime, he “was put to work direct­ing pro­pa­gan­da reels like 1940’s Deutsche Panz­er which fol­lows the man­u­fac­tur­ing process of armored tanks.”

Alas, “his deci­sion to stay in Ger­many dur­ing the war would even­tu­al­ly cost Ruttmann his life,” which end­ed in 1944 with a mor­tal wound endured while film­ing a bat­tle in Rus­sia. But how­ev­er ide­o­log­i­cal­ly and moral­ly ques­tion­able his lat­er work, Ruttmann, with his pio­neer­ing jour­ney into abstract ani­ma­tion, opened up a cre­ative realm only acces­si­ble to film­mak­ers that, even as we approach an entire cen­tu­ry after Licht­spiel Opus I, film­mak­ers have far from ful­ly explored.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch “Geom­e­try of Cir­cles,” the Abstract Sesame Street Ani­ma­tion Scored by Philip Glass (1979)

The First Mas­ter­pieces of Abstract Film: Hans Richter’s Rhyth­mus 21 (1921) & Viking Eggeling’s Sym­phonie Diag­o­nale (1924)

Watch the Sur­re­al­ist Glass Har­mon­i­ca, the Only Ani­mat­ed Film Ever Banned by Sovi­et Cen­sors (1968)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Why Cartoon Characters Wear Gloves: A Curious Trip Through the History of Animation

It’s rare for Dis­ney to over­look a mar­ket­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty. For years, Mouse Ears were the film studio’s theme park sou­venir of choice, but recent­ly the gift shops have start­ed stock­ing white four-fin­gered gloves too.

Per­haps not the most sen­si­ble choice for dip­ping into a buck­et of jalapeño pop­pers or a $6 Mick­ey Pret­zel with Cheese Sauce, but the gloves have unde­ni­able reach when it comes to car­toon his­to­ry. Bugs Bun­ny wears them. So does Woody Wood­peck­er, Tom (though not Jer­ry), and Bet­ty Boop’s anthro­po­mor­phic dog­gie pal, Bim­bo.

As Vox’s Estelle Caswell points out above, the choice to glove Mick­ey and his ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry car­toon brethren was born of prac­ti­cal­i­ty. The lim­it­ed palette of black and white ani­ma­tion meant that most ani­mal char­ac­ters had black bodies—their arms dis­ap­peared against every inky expanse.

It also pro­vid­ed artists with a bit of relief, back when ani­ma­tion meant end­less hours of labor over hand drawn cells. Puffy gloves aren’t just a com­i­cal cap­per to bendy rub­ber hose limbs. They’re also way eas­i­er to draw than real­is­tic pha­langes.

As Walt Dis­ney him­self explained:

We did­n’t want him to have mouse hands, because he was sup­posed to be more human. So we gave him gloves. Five Fin­gers looked like too much on such a lit­tle fig­ure, so we took one away. That was just one less fin­ger to ani­mate.

Caswell digs deep­er than that, unearthing a sur­pris­ing cul­tur­al com­par­i­son. White gloves were a stan­dard part of black­face per­form­ers’ min­strel show cos­tumes. Audi­ences who packed the­aters for tour­ing min­strel shows were the same peo­ple lin­ing up for Steam­boat Willie.

Com­ic ani­ma­tion has evolved both visu­al­ly and in terms of con­tent over its near hun­dred year his­to­ry, but ani­ma­tors have a ten­den­cy to revere the his­to­ry of their pro­fes­sion.

Thus­ly do South Park’s ani­ma­tors bestow spot­less white gloves upon Mr. Han­key the Christ­mas Poo.

“Amer­i­ca’s favorite cat and mouse team,” the Simp­sons’  Itchy and Scratchy, mete out their hor­rif­i­cal­ly vio­lent pun­ish­ment in pris­tine white gloves.

Clear­ly some things are worth pre­serv­ing…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dis­ney Car­toon That Intro­duced Mick­ey Mouse & Ani­ma­tion with Sound (1928)

Disney’s 12 Time­less Prin­ci­ples of Ani­ma­tion Demon­strat­ed in 12 Ani­mat­ed Primers

Free Ani­mat­ed Films: From Clas­sic to Mod­ern 

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine, appear­ing onstage in New York City through June 26 in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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