An Animated Introduction to Cynicism, the Anti Conformist Philosophy That Originated in Ancient Greece

The word “cynical,” like “stoic,” has come to have a very specific meaning in English, one that bears only a partial resemblance to the ancient Greek philosophy from which it came. “Cynics,” writes psychiatrist Neel Burton, “often come across as contemptuous, irritating, and dispiriting.” They are bitter, unhappy people, defined by thoroughgoing pessimism, summed up in the Oscar Wilde quote about those who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This characterization is partly the result of ancient slander.

As with many movements of the past, the first Cynics were named by their enemies. Diogenes of Sinope, often credited as the first Cynic (though there were others before him), was “an individual well known for dog-like behavior,” notes Emory University professor Julie Piering at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “As such, the term [Cynic, from kunikos, or “dog-like”] may have begun as an insult referring to Diogenes’ style of life, especially his proclivity to perform all of his activities in public.” His shamelessness and exile from Greek civil society for the crime of counterfeiting made him unwelcome in polite company.

But Diogenes turned his public humiliation into experimental philosophy. Like many who have insults hurled at them regularly, the early Cynics “embraced their title: they barked at those who displeased them, spurned Athenian etiquette, and lived from nature…. What may have originated as a disparaging label became the designation of a philosophical vocation.” Of what did their philosophy consist? In the TED-Ed video above, scripted by Maynooth University professor of Ancient Classics William Desmond, we learn the basics.

Like the Stoics who came after them, Cynics valued simplicity and self-sufficiency. But unlike many a famed Stoic philosopher—such as Nero’s advisor Seneca or the Emperor Marcus Aurelius—Diogenes and his disciples cared nothing for material comforts or political power. The Cynics were vagrant exhibitionists by choice. Diogenes “did not go about his new existence quietly but is said to have teased passersby and mocked the powerful, eating, urinating, and even masturbating in public.”

If the philosopher lived like a dog, this does not mean that he had abandoned all human values, only redefined them. Dogs aren’t bitter, angry pessimists. “They’re happy creatures,” Desmond’s lesson points out, “free from abstractions like wealth and reputation.” The “dog philosophers” were a serious irritation, living examples of a social alternative in which money, fame, and power meant nothing. Their contentment posed a challenge to the established order of things.

Cynics followed Diogenes’ example for almost a thousand years after his death—and even far longer, we might argue, if we consider them forerunners of hobos, hippies, and every intentionally homeless wanderer who decides to rid themselves of property and society and live fully on their own terms.

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

Roman Statues Weren’t White; They Were Once Painted in Vivid, Bright Colors

The idea of the classical period—the time of ancient Greece and Rome—as an elegantly unified collection of superior aesthetic and philosophical cultural traits has its own history, one that comes in large part from the era of the Neoclassical. The rediscovery of antiquity took some time to reach the pitch it would during the 18th century, when references to Greek and Latin rhetoric, architecture, and sculpture were inescapable. But from the Renaissance onward, the classical achieved the status of cultural dogma.

One tenant of classical idealism is the idea that Roman and Greek statuary embodied an ideal of pure whiteness—a misconception modern sculptors perpetuated for hundreds of years by making busts and statues in polished white marble. But the truth is that both Greek statues and their Roman counterparts—as you’ll learn in the Vox video above—were originally brightly painted in riotous color.

This includes the 1st century A.D. Augustus of Prima Porta, the famous figure of the Emperor standing triumphantly with one hand raised. Rather than left as blank white marble, the statue would have had bronzed skin, brown hair, and a fire-engine red toga. “Ancient Greece and Rome were really colorful,” we learn. So how did everyone come to believe otherwise?

It’s partly an honest mistake. After the fall of Rome, ancient sculptures were buried or left out in the open air for hundreds of years. By the time the Renaissance began in the 1300s, their paint had faded away. As a result, the artists unearthing, and copying ancient art didn’t realize how colorful it was supposed to be.

But white marble couldn’t have become the norm without some willful ignorance. Even though there was a bunch of evidence that ancient sculpture was painted, artists, art historians and the general public chose to disregard it. Western culture seemed to collectively accept that white marble was simply prettier.

White statuary symbolized a classical ideal that “depends highly on the greatest possible decontextualization,” writes James I. Porter, professor of Rhetoric and Classics at the University of California, Berkeley. “Only so can the values it cherishes be isolated: simplicity, tranquility, balanced proportions, restraint, purity of form… all of these are features that underscore the timeless quality of the highest possible expression of art, like a breath held indefinitely.” These ideals became inseparable from the development of racial theory.

Learning to see the past as it was requires us to put aside historically acquired blinders. This can be exceedingly difficult when our ideas about the past come from hundreds of years of inherited tradition, from every period of art history since the time of Michelangelo. But we must acknowledge this tradition as fabricated. Influential art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, for example, extolled the value of classical sculpture because, in his opinion, “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is.”

Winckelmann also, Vox notes, “went out of his way to ignore obvious evidence of colored marble, and there was a lot of it.” He dismissed frescos of colored statuary found in Pompeii and judged one painted sculpture discovered there as “too primitive” to have been made by ancient Romans. “Evidence wasn’t just ignored, some of it may have been destroyed” to enforce an ideal of whiteness. While many statues were denuded by the elements over hundreds of years, the first archaeologists to discover the Augustus of Prima Porta in the 1860s described its color scheme in detail.

Critiques of classical idealism don’t originate in a politically correct present. As Porter shows at length in his article “What Is ‘Classical’ About Classical Antiquity?,” they date back at least to 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who called Winckelmann’s ideas about Roman statues “an empty figment of the imagination.” But these ideas are “for the most part taken for granted rather than questioned,” Porter argues, “or else clung to for fear of losing a powerful cachet that, even in the beleaguered present, continues to translate into cultural prestige, authority, elitist satisfactions, and economic power.”

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

Download Beautiful Free Posters Celebrating the Achievements of Living Female STEM Leaders

Remember the posters that decorated your childhood or teenaged bedroom?

Of course you do.

Whether aspirational or inspirational, these images are amazingly potent.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit what hung over my bed, especially in light of a certain CGI adaptation…

No such worries with a set of eight free downloadable posters honoring eight female trailblazers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

These should prove evergreen.

Commissioned by Nevertheless, a podcast that celebrates women whose advancements in STEM fields have shaped—and continue to shape—education and learning, each poster is accompanied with a brief biographical sketch of the subject.

Nevertheless has taken care that the featured achievers are drawn from a wide cultural and racial pool.

No shame if you’re unfamiliar with some of these extraordinary women. Their names may not possess the same degree of household recognition as Marie Curie, but they will once they’re hanging over your daughter’s (or son’s) bed.

It’s worth noting that with the exception of the undersung mother of DNA Helix Rosalind Franklin, these are living role models. They are:

Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison

Robotics pioneer Dr. Cynthia Breazeal

Mathematician Gladys West

Tech innovator Juliana Rotich

Pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou

Biopharmacist and women rights advocate Maria da Penha

Biotechnologist Dr. Hayat Sindi

Kudos, too, to Nevertheless for including biographies of the eight female illustrators charged with bringing the STEM luminaries to aesthetically cohesive graphic life: Lidia Tomashevskaya,Thandiwe TshabalalaCamila RosaXu HuiKarina PerezJoana NevesGeneva B, and Juliette Brocal

Listen to Nevertheless’ episode on STEM Role Models here.

Download Nevertheless’ free posters in English here. You can also download zipped folders containing all eight posters translated into Brazilian PortugueseFrenchFrench CanadianGermanItalianSpanish, and Simplified Chinese.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates Cape-Coddities (1920) by Roger Livingston Scaife. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Watch Annie Leibovitz Photograph and Get Scolded by Queen Elizabeth: “What Do You Think This Is?”

No matter how many cultural icons you’ve met, Annie Leibovitz has almost certainly met more of them. Not only has she met them, she’s talked with them, spent long stretches of time with them, told them what to do, and even looked into the nature of their very being — which is to say, she’s photographed them. Having put in her crosshairs the likes of John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Christopher Hitchens, and Barack Obama, one would assume Leibovitz has lost entirely the ability to be intimidated by any personage, no matter how august. But then, she didn’t have to address any of the aforementioned figures as “Your Majesty.”

“Back in 2007, Leibovitz was hired to shoot a set of portraits of the Queen at Buckingham Palace in preparation for a state visit to the United States,” writes Petapixel’s Michael Zhang. “The photographer and her 11 assistants spent 3 weeks preparing for the 30-minute photo shoot.” For the Queen’s part, preparation included “the full regalia of the ancient Order of the Garter, complete with tiara,” putting on all of which took 15 minutes longer than planned.

But when she got the Queen seated, Leibovitz — perhaps figuring that, if a casual manner works with pop stars and presidents, it might work even better with royalty — suggested that “it will look better without the crown.” It would look better, she suggested, “less dressy.” “Less dressy?” the Queen snaps back in a kind of irritated astonishment. “What do you think this is?”

Leibovitz, to her credit, remains unfazed, even when informed that the tiara can’t go back on once it’s been taken off. You can see it happen in the Dutch TV clip above, which takes its footage from the BBC documentary A Year with the Queen. Despite the pressure, the portraits came out well, as did the second series Leibovitz shot of the Queen in 2016. These more recent photographs were taken under less strict conditions. “I was told how relaxed she was at Windsor, and it was really true,” says Leibovitz in the accompanying Vanity Fair story. “You get the sense of how at peace she was with herself, and very much enthralled with her family.” At the Queen’s request, the pictures included her family members both human and corgi, all arranged according to her own ideas. If she tires of her current job, she may have a promising future in portrait photography ahead of her.

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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.

Hear Every Sample on the Beastie Boys’ Acclaimed Album, Paul’s Boutique–and Discover Where They Came From

How would the Beastie Boys follow their debut, Licensed to Ill, wondered critics when the album rose to number one after its 1986 release. The cross-over appeal of their hip hop/frat rock solidified a fan base whose devotion often mirrored their parents’ revulsion. Like many of their later imitators, the Beastie Boys could have played overgrown delinquents till their fans aged out of the act.

Few critics expected more from them. “Rolling Stone entitled their review ‘Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece’ and gave more credit to producer Rick Rubin,” writes Colleen Murphy at Classic Album Sundays. Three years later, they far surpassed expectations with their experimental second album, 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, though it took a little while for the fans to catch up.

It’s a record so dense with allusions both musical and lyrical, so original in its verbal interplay and comic storytelling, that the Beastie Boys were suddenly hailed as serious artists. As Murphy puts it:

Paul’s Boutique gave the Beastie Boys the critical acclaim they desperately desired. Rolling Stone maneuvered a U-turn and brazenly called it, “the Pet Sounds / The Dark Side of the Moon of hip hop.” But more importantly, it also earned the group respect with their peers and idols. Miles Davis claimed he never got tired of listening to it, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D even said, ‘The dirty secret among the Black hip hop community at the time of the release was that Paul’s Boutique had the best beats.”

They spat absurdly hilarious rhymes by the dozen in mock epic narratives brimming with rhythmic and melodic complexity, thanks to the high-concept production by the Dust Brothers. The two producers pieced the album’s soundscape together from an estimated 150-odd samples, a method that “would be prohibitively expensive if not impossible” today, notes Kottke. In the video above, you can hear every sample on the album, “from the soundtrack to Car Wash to the Sugarhill Gang to the Eagles to the Ramones to the Beatles.”

For legal and creative reasons, nothing has ever sounded quite like Paul’s Boutique (except, perhaps, De La Soul’s Three-Feet High and Rising, a similarly groundbreaking, sample-heavy album released the same year). Thirty years after it came out, “it’s still not out of the ordinary to discover something you never heard before across this 15-track odyssey into a thrift story rack full of weird vinyl,” Billboard points out in a list of 10 deep cuts sampled on the record.

Like every classic album, Paul’s Boutique repays endless re-listens, both for its surreal lyrical playfulness and library of musical references. Hearing the breadth of samples that built the album drives home how much those two features are interwoven. Head over to Kottke for more Paul’s Boutique goodies, including a remix with source tracks and audio commentary and a Spotify playlist of all the sampled songs.

via Laughing Squid/Kottke

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

A Simple, Down-to-Earth Christmas Card from the Great Depression (1933)

The Smithsonian sets the scene for this Christmas card sent in 1933, a few years into the Great Depression. They write:

Despite the glum economic situation, the Pinero family used a brown paper bag to fashion an inexpensive holiday greeting card. They penned a clever rhyme and added some charming line drawings of Mom, Dad, and the kids with the message: “Oh, well—in spite of it all—here’s a Merry Christmas from the Pineros.” On December 19, 1933, they mailed it from Chicago to friends in Massachusetts, using a one-and-a-half-cent stamp. For a minimal outlay of cash, they were able to keep in touch with friends and comment on their reduced circumstances with wit and humor.

This hand-lettered poem is a delightful example of light verse, a whimsical form of poetry intended to entertain or amuse, even if treating a serious subject in a humorous manner. In the poem, the Pineros suggest that they had struggled economically for some time, but now, due to the continuing Depression, others shared their financial plight, which enabled them to be more open and candid about their situation.

Like many families, the Pineros probably had lots of bills for necessities including rent, groceries, utilities, milk, and ice. Because not every family had electric refrigeration in 1933, many relied on regular deliveries of ice to keep their perishable foods cold. These bills for milk and ice were separate; they were not part of the grocery account. Local dairies supplied milk and other products on a daily basis. Both the Ice Man and the Milk Man would cometh, as long as they were paid!

It’s a historical case of when less is indeed more…

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via The Smithsonian

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Hear Neil Gaiman Read A Christmas Carol Just as Dickens Read It

gaiman dickens

Image by New York Public Library

Last Christmas, we featured Charles Dickens’ hand-edited copy of his beloved 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. He did that hand editing for the purposes of giving public readings, a practice that, in his time, “was considered a desecration of one’s art and a lowering of one’s dignity.” That time, however, has gone, and many of the most prestigious writers alive today take the reading aloud of their own work to the level of art, or at least high entertainment, that Dickens must have suspected one could. Some writers even do a bang-up job of reading other writers’ work: modern master storyteller Neil Gaiman gave us a dose of that on Monday when we featured his recitation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” from memory. Today, however, comes the full meal: Gaiman’s telling of A Christmas Carol straight from that very Dickens-edited reading copy.

Gaiman read to a full house at the New York Public Library, an institution known for its stimulating events, holiday-themed or otherwise. But he didn’t have to hold up the afternoon himself; taking the stage before him, BBC researcher and The Secret Museum author Molly Oldfield talked about her two years spent seeking out fascinating cultural artifacts the world over, including but not limited to the NYPL’s own collection of things Dickensian. You can hear both Oldfield and Gaiman in the recording above. But perhaps the greatest gift of all came in the form of the latter’s attire for his reading: not only did he go fully Victorian, he even went to the length of replicating the 19th-century literary superstar’s own severe hair part and long goatee. And School Library Journal has pictures.

The story really gets started around the 11:25 mark. Gaiman’s reading will be added to our list of Free Audio Books. You can find the text of Dickens’ classic in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in December 2014.

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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.

Bob Ross’ Christmas Special: Celebrate, Relax, Nod Off

I don’t know if you got everything you wanted on Christmas, but we here at Open Culture have what you need. And that’s a very special Bob Ross Christmas Special. No special guests, no musical numbers. Just Bob, his palette filled with phthalo blue, Van dyke Brown, and other favorite paints, and a solid black canvas which Bob turns into a Christmas Eve snow scene. (In 2018, Ross’ official YouTube Channel posted all 31 seasons of The Joy of Painting online, a total of 403 episodes.)

While watching (and maybe following along at home), consider that Bob Ross accidentally invented ASMR with his shows, all those years ago. His pleasant, slightly gruff southern accent complements the sound of the swishing brush and scraping knife on canvas. Consider also the percentage of people who watch these not to paint, but to meditate or go to sleep. (There’s an app for that.)

Bob Ross *is* the sound of a Christmas Eve nocturne, a moment when the air is crisp and clean, a little bit of peace falls over the world, and there’s a chance to reflect. It’s time to start a new canvas. The possibilities are endless, and you can always change as you go. Heed Ross’ famous words: “We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.”

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

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