“Like most people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht to cruise the Med,” Banksy wrote on Instagram when introducing the Louise Michel, a vessel tasked with a somewhat different mission than an arriviste party boat: picking up refugees from countries like Libya and Turkey lost at sea. Anyone who’s followed Banksy’s art career knows he possesses a well-developed instinct for catching and keeping public attention, and it has hardly deserted him in this venture. Why sponsor a refugee rescue boat, after all, when you can sponsor a bright pink feminist refugee rescue boat, emblazoned with a piece of original art?
Despite having been named for the 19th-century feminist anarchist Louise Michel, the motor yacht’s operations encompass an even wider variety of causes: The Guardian‘s Lorenzo Tondo and Maurice Stierl quote “Lea Reisner, a nurse and head of mission for the first rescue operation,” saying that the project is also “meant to bring together a variety of struggles for social justice, including for women’s and LGBTIQ rights, racial equality, migrants’ rights, environmentalism and animal rights.” This multidirectional activism would seem to suit the artistic sensibility of Banksy, whose work strikes out in as many critical directions as both his admirers and detractors can interpret.
The Louise Michel, as Tondo and Stierl reported last Thursday, “set off in secrecy on 18 August from the Spanish seaport of Burriana, near Valencia, and is now in the central Mediterranean where on Thursday it rescued 89 people in distress, including 14 women and four children.” After picking up the first group of refugees, reports the Washington Post‘s Miriam Berger, “it then encountered a ship traveling from North Africa to Europe with 130 people aboard and some bodies of people who had died during the journey,” and as a result “quickly became overcrowded and could not properly steer, its Twitter posts said.” All this happened “at sea around 55 miles southeast of Lampedusa, an Italian island off the North African coast that has become a migration transit point.”
Hours later two other vessels, one operated by the Italian coast guard and one by a German nongovernmental organization, came to take on passengers. Though hardly smooth sailing, the Louise Michel‘s first rescue mission proceeded more favorably than some: “A vessel named the Talia, which rescued 52 people almost two months ago, wasn’t allowed into the port for 5 days,” says Dazed. “Now, a boat named the Etienne is in the longest record stand-off between authorities and rescuers ever, having spent three weeks at sea being denied disembarkation in Malta.” Banksy publicized the Louise Michel, which he sponsors without involvement in its operations, only after it had set sail. But for anyone with an interest in showing the world the dire circumstances of refugees today, the highly visible boat’s highly visible difficulties certainly aren’t bad publicity.
Trauma is repetition, and the United States seems to inflict and suffer from the same deep wounds, repeatedly, unable to stop, like one of the ancient Biblical curses of which Bob Dylan was so fond. The Dylan of the early 1960s adopted the voice of a prophet, in various registers, to tell stories of judgment and generational curses, symbolic and historical, that have beset the country from its beginnings.
The verses of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, enact this repetition, both traumatic and hypnotic. In its dual refrains—“how many times…?” and “the answer is blowin’ in the wind” (ephemeral, impossible to grasp)—the song cycles between earnest Lamentations and the acute, world-weary resignation of Ecclesiastes. “This ambiguity is one reason for the song’s broad appeal,” as Peter Dreier writes at Dissent.
Just three months after its release, when Dylan performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become a massive civil rights anthem. But he had already ceded the song to Peter, Paul & Mary, who played their version that day. Dylan ignored his sophomore album entirely to play songs from the upcoming The Times They Are a-Changing—songs that stand out for their indictments of the U.S. in some very specific terms.
Dylan played three songs from the new album: “When the Ship Comes In” with Joan Baez, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “With God on Our Side.” (He also played the popular folk song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”) In contrast to his vaguely allusive popular anthems, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”—about the murder of Medgar Evers—isn’t coy about the culprits and their crimes. We might say the song offers an astute analysis of institutional racism, white supremacy, and stochastic terrorism.
A bullet from the back of a bush
Took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game
These lyrics have far too much relevance to current events, and they’re indicative of the changing tone of Dylan’s muse. His refrains drip with irony. The killer of Medgar Evers “can’t be blamed”—an evasion of responsibility that becomes a powerful force all its own.
Dylan revisits the themes of generational trauma and murder in “With God on Our Side” (hear him sing it with Baez at Newport, above). The song is a sharp satire of his historical education, with its inevitable repetitions of war and slaughter. Here, Dylan presents the exponentially gross, existentially dreadful, consequences of a national abdication of blame for historical violence.
Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side
Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side
War had its day
And the Civil War, too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I was made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side
The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side
The Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And then we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now, too
Have God on their side
I’ve learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side
But now we got weapons
Of chemical dust
If fire them, we’re forced to
Then fire, them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side
Through many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.
So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war
Dylan’s race/class analysis in “Only a Pawn in the Game” and his succinct People’s History of Christian Nationalism in “With God on Our Side” stand out as interesting choices for the March for several reasons. For one thing, it’s as though he had written these songs expressly to take the political, economic, and religious mechanisms and mythologies of racism apart. This was radical speech in an event that was policed by its organizers to tone down inflammatory rhetoric for the cameras.
23-year-old John Lewis, for example, was forced to temper his speech, in which he meant to say, “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.… the revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.” As a popular white artist, rather than a potentially seditious Black organizer, Dylan had far more license and could “use his privilege,” as they say, to describe the systems of political and economic oppression Lewis had wanted to name.
Dylan’s performance was one of a handful of memorable musical appearances. Most of the singers made a far bigger impression, like Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, and Baez herself, whose “We Shall Overcome” created a legendary moment of harmony. No one sang along to Dylan’s new songs—they wouldn’t have known the words. But Dylan was never careless. He chose these words for the moment, hoping to have some impact in the only way he could.
The 1963 March’s purpose has been overshadowed by a few passages in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, co-opted by everyone and reduced to meme-able quotes. But the protest “remains one of the most successful mobilizations ever created by the American Left,” historian William P. Jones writes. “Organized by a coalition of trade unionists, civil rights activists, and feminists–most of them African American and nearly all of them socialists.”
Dylan sang stories of how the country got to where it was, through a history of violence still playing out before the marchers’ eyes. Whatever political tensions there were among the various organizers and speakers did not distract them from pushing through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment Practices clause banning discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex—protections that have been broadened since that time, and also challenged, threatened, and stripped away.
Fifty-seven years later, as the RNC convention ends and another March on Washington happens, we might reflect on Dylan’s small but prescient contributions in 1963, in which he aptly characterized the traumatic repetitions we’re still convulsively experiencing over half a century later.
When did you last hear live music? Granted, this isn’t an ideal time to ask, what with the ongoing pandemic still canceling concerts the world over. But even before, no matter how enthusiastic a show-goer you considered yourself, your life of music consumption almost certainly leaned toward the recorded variety. This is just as John Philip Sousa feared. In 1906, when recorded music itself was still more or less a novelty, the composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” published an essay in Appleton’s Magazine prophesying a world in which, thanks to “the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines,” humanity has lost its ability, feel, and appreciation for the art itself.
“Heretofore, the whole course of music, from its first day to this, has been along the line of making it the expression of soul states,” writes Sousa. “Now, in this the twentieth century, come these talking and playing machines, and offer again to reduce the expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, disks, cylinders,” all “as like real art as the marble statue of Eve is like her beautiful, living, breathing daughters.” With music in such easy reach, who will bother learning to perform it themselves? “What of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink? When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?”
In 1906 a famous composer warned recorded music would end lullabies and turn kids in human phonographs “without soul or expression”
The grandiloquence of Sousa’s writing, which you can hear performed in the clip from the Pessimists ArchivePodcastabove, encourages us to enjoy a knowing chuckle, but some of his points may give us pause. He foresees the decline of “domestic music,” and indeed, how many households do we know whose members all share in the making of music, or for that matter the listening? “Before you dismiss Sousa as a nutty old codger,” writes New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, “you might ponder how much has changed in the past hundred years.” With more music at our command than ever before, music itself “has become a radically virtual medium, an art without a face. In the future, Sousa’s ghost might say, reproduction will replace production entirely. Zombified listeners will shuffle through the archives of the past, and new music will consist of rearrangements of the old.”
The aesthetic half of Sousa’s argument has its descendants today in narratives of rock’s ruination by computers, diagnoses of popular culture’s addiction to its own past, and “DRUM MACHINES HAVE NO SOUL” stickers. The commercial half will also sound familiar: “The composer of the most popular waltz or march of the year must see it seized, reproduced at will on wax cylinder, brass disk, or strip of perforated paper, multiplied indefinitely, and sold at large profit all over the country, without a penny of remuneration to himself for the use of this original product of his brain,” Sousa writes. 114 years later, the relative entitlement of composers, lyricists, and performers (not to mention labels, distributors, and other business entities) to profits from recordings remains a hotly debated matter, due in no small part to the rise of streaming music services like Spotify. That probably wouldn’t surprise Sousa — nor would the longing, felt by increasingly many of us, to experience live music once again.
The art of drawing is not the art of observing forms and objects alone, it is not mere mimicry of these objects; it is the art of knowing how far and wherein, and with what just limitations, those forms and objects can be reproduced in a picture, or in a decorative work. – Eugène Grasset, 1896
Twenty-four flowering plants were selected for consideration, from humble specimens like dandelions and thistle to such Art Nouveau heavy hitters as poppies and irises.
Each flower is represented by a realistic botanical study, with two additional color plates in which its form is flattened out and mined for its decorative, stylistic elements.
The plates were rendered by Grasset’s students at the École Guérin, young artists whom he had “forbidden to condescend to the art of base and servile imitation”:
The art of drawing is not the art of observing forms and objects alone, it is not mere mimicry of these objects; it is the art of knowing how far and wherein, and with what just limitations, those forms and objects can be reproduced in a picture, or in a decorative work.
He also expected students to hone their powers of observation through intense study of the organic structures that would provide their inspiration, becoming intimately acquainted with the character of petal, leaf, and stem:
Beautiful lines are the foundation of all beauty. In a work of art, whatever it be, apparent or hidden symmetry is the visible or secret cause of the pleasure we feel. Everything that is created must have some repetition in its parts to be understood, retained in the memory, and perceived as a whole
When it came to adorning household implements such as vases and plates, Grasset insisted that decorative elements exist in harmony with their hosts, sniping that any artist who would distort form with ill considered flourishes should make a bas-relief instead.
Thusly do chrysanthemum stems provide logical-looking ballast for a chandelier, and a dandelion’s curved leaves hug the contours of a table leg.
Grasset’s best known student, Maurice Pillard Verneuil, whose career spanned Art Nouveau to Art Deco, absorbed and articulated the master’s teachings:
It is no longer the nature (artists) see that they represent, that they transcribe, but the nature that they aspire to see; nature more perfect and more beautiful and of which they have the interior vision.
Ask an American film student to name the masterpieces of Russian cinema, and you will get a selection of Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker, The Mirror) and a soupcon of Eisenstein. And no doubt those are true, reverential classics. But what do Russians consider their best-loved films? That’s a completely different matter.
This list from the Russian Film Hub presents 20 films rated by Kinopoisk, the country’s version of imdb.com–movies that hold a special place in their hearts, ones that have affected the culture, the ones that people can quote by heart. There’s not one Tarkovsky here at all.
Better yet, all these films are available to watch on the Russian Film Hub site, and with English subtitles. (Most are YouTube embeds from the MosFilm channel, but not all).
Now, there are a few films on the list that art house fans will recognize. The Cranes Are Flying won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958, one of the highest accolades a Russian film had received in the post-war period. Mikhail Kalatozov’s film is set before and after World War II, and lead actress Tatyana Samoylova’s Veronika is as iconic a role as Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, guarantee to make an audience weep at the end. (The film is available to screen to American viewers, as you can watch in on Criterion Channel and HBO Max.)
Similarly Grigory Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is a well-loved war drama, directed by a man who had fought in World War II himself. Despite a series of problems during production, it has gone on to be internationally recognized. (It too is only available to American viewers through Criterion.)
However, the rest of these titles will be new to a vast majority of non-Russians. The top three on the list and number seven are by Leonid Gaidai, Russia’s best known comedy director, similar to a Blake Edwards or a Harold Ramis. Gaidai’s plots usually center around conmen and mistaken identity, and the number one film in the list–Ivan Vasilyevich Changes His Profession, from 1973, is a time travel caper where an apartment manager and a bungling burglar are transported back to the 16th century, while Tsar Ivan the Terrible is brought into 1973. It gets compared to Monty Python, Napoleon Dynamite, and Hanna-Barbera cartoons on Letterboxd, and while the word play might not make it through the translation, it is considered hilarious regardless. (All four of Gaidai’s films were huge box office hits.)
Also of note is Welcome, or No Trespassing, a wacky kids’ camp comedy (think Wes Anderson’s Moonlight Kingdom) in which the young’uns get one over on their adult captors. Director Elem Klimov would go on, 20 yeas later, to direct Come and See, one of the most harrowing and brutal anti-war films out there.
Not every film is from the height of the Cold War, either. Brother, from 1997, is a gangster film set in the mean streets of St. Petersburg, and is considered one of the most popular post-Soviet Russian films.
And finally, the list has room for an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes that, according to reviewers on Letterboxd, rivals that of Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone.
We can spend a lifetime reading histories of ancient Rome without knowing what any of its emperors looked like. Or rather, without knowing exactly what they looked like: being the leaders of the mightiest political entity in the Western world, they had their likenesses stamped onto coins and carved into busts as a matter of course. But such artist’s renderings inevitably come with a certain degree of artistic license, a tendency to mold features into slightly more imperial shapes. Seeing the faces of the Roman Emperors as we would if we were passing them on the street is an experience made possible only by high technology, and high technology developed sixteen centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire at that.
“Using the neural-net tool Artbreeder, Photoshop and historical references, I have created photoreal portraits of Roman Emperors,” writes designer Daniel Voshart. “For this project, I have transformed, or restored (cracks, noses, ears etc.) 800 images of busts to make the 54 emperors of The Principate (27 BC to 285 AD).”
The key technology that enables Artbreeder to convincingly blend images of faces together is what’s called a “generative adversarial network” (GAN). “Some call it Artificial Intelligence,” writes Voshart, “but it is more accurately described as Machine Learning.” The Verge’s James Vincent writes that Voshart fed in “images of emperors he collected from statues, coins, and paintings, and then tweaked the portraits manually based on historical descriptions, feeding them back to the GAN.”
Into the mix also went “high-res images of celebrities”: Daniel Craig into Augustus, André the Giant into Maximinus Thrax (thought to have been given his “a lantern jaw and mountainous frame” by a pituitary gland disorder like that which affected the colossal wrestler). This partially explains why some of these uncannily lifelike emperors — the biggest celebrities of their time and place, after all — look faintly familiar. Though modeled as closely as possible after men who really lived, these exact faces (much like those in the artificial intelligence-generated modern photographs previously featured here on Open Culture) have never actually existed. Still, one can imagine the emperors who inspired Voshart’s Principate recognizing themselves in it. But what would they make of the fact that it’s also selling briskly in poster form on Etsy?
Even COVID-19 can’t stop NPR’s series of Tiny Desk Concerts, which has previously featured Yo-Yo Ma, Adele, Wilco, The Pixies, and many, many other talented musicians. As NPR explains below, the performance involved a little bit of technology and some magic. Enjoy:
It didn’t take long for Billie Eilish to become one of the biggest pop stars in the world, sweep the Grammy Awards’ major categories and release the latest James Bond theme. And today, at just 18, she and her brother, Finneas, have accomplished what no one has been able to do for five and a half months: perform a Tiny Desk concert in what certainly appears to be the NPR Music offices.
Of course, due to safety concerns, even the NPR Music staff can’t set foot in the building that houses Bob Boilen’s desk. But if you look over Eilish’s shoulder, there’s no mistaking the signs that she’s appearing at the Tiny Desk in its present-day form: On the last day before staff began working from home, I took home the Green Bay Packers helmet that sat on the top shelf — the one Harry Styles had signed a few weeks earlier — for safe keeping. In this performance, that spot is empty.
So how the heck did they do it?
Honestly, it’s best that you watch the whole video to experience the extent of the technical feat — which, in the spirit of Eilish’s Saturday Night Live performance, they’re willing to share with you. And thankfully, we still have our ways of photographing the desk, even if the room has fallen silent.
So settle in for a welcome jolt of Tiny Desk innovation, not to mention two of the excellent standalone singles Billie Eilish has released in the past year: “my future” and “everything i wanted.” And, seriously, be sure to watch until the very end.
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