Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Introductions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picasso & More

Can great art be explained? Isn’t it a little like explaining a joke? Yet this can be worthwhile when the joke is in a foreign language or an unfamiliar idiom, a long-forgotten dialect or an alien idiolect. Consider, for example, the most common response to Mark Rothko’s monochromatic rectangles: “I don’t get it.”

Will perplexed viewers better understand Rothko’s Seagram murals when they learn that “he was found in a pool of blood six by eight feet wide, roughly the size of one of his paintings,” as James Payne writes, hours after he sent the nine canvasses to the Tate Modern gallery in London in 1970? “His suicide would change everything and shape the way we respond to his work,” adding a darker edge to comments of his like “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on.”

Last summer, Payne launched his series Great Art Explained in Fifteen Minutes, “a brilliant new addition to YouTube art history channels,” Forbes enthused — “entertaining and informative short films [that] present a fresh look at familiar artworks.” There’s much more to Rothko than his tragic death at 66. We learn of his love for Mozart, a composer who was “always smiling through his tears,” the painter said.

An artist who seems to embody the opposite of Rothko’s troubled passion, Andy Warhol gets an explainer, above, in which Payne takes on the artist’s Marilyn Diptych. He opens with 30 seconds of audio from an interview with Warhol, who gives characteristically disinterested yes or no responses: “Andy, do you think that Pop Art has reached the point where it’s becoming repetitious now?” “Uh, yes.”

Pop Art’s repetitions were the point. Warhol elevated the unremarkable mass product to the level of high art, becoming the biggest-selling artist in the world. Payne draws a parallel between Marilyn Monroe’s transformation from “abused foster child from the rural midwest” to Hollywood royalty, and Warhol’s move from a shy, sickly child of immigrants to an international art star.

Even if Payne is explaining things you already knew about famous artworks like Monet’s Water Lilies, you’ll still enjoy his presentation, with its clever editing and compelling narration. “I want to present art in a jargon free, entertaining, clear and concise way,” he writes. Each video covers one famous artwork, not all of them modern. (We recently featured Payne’s take on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.)

Payne’s work as an art consultant, guide, “and art and film writer,” Forbes writes, “make him the ideal presenter of this excellent new art history series.” Craving some context on your lunch break? Head over the Great Art Explained in Fifteen Minutes and catch a few excellent mini-art history lectures, each one 15 minutes or less, for free.

Related Content: 

60-Second Introductions to 12 Groundbreaking Artists: Matisse, Dalí, Duchamp, Hopper, Pollock, Rothko & More

An Introduction to 100 Important Paintings with Videos Created by Smarthistory

Free Course: An Introduction to the Art of the Italian Renaissance

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

Harrison Ford Gets Delightfully Dumbfounded by David Blaine’s Card Trick

Originally recorded back in 2014, this clip of David Blaine performing a card trick for Harrison Ford went viral this week. (Can we still use this expression in the age of COVID?) Hang with it until the end. It’s worth the 1:50 of your time.

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via Clarisse Loughrey

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Invisible People: Watch Poignant Mini-Documentaries Where Homeless People Tell Their Stories

Over the past year, the story of evictions during COVID has often risen above the muck. It’s made headlines in major newspapers and TIME magazine, and received serious attention from the government, with stop-gap eviction moratoriums put in effect and renewed several times, and likely due to be renewed again. Stopping evictions is not enough. “For many landlords,” notes the United Way, “the order created a financial burden of housing renters with no payments,” and without income, they have no way to pay. But these measures have kept many thousands of vulnerable adults and children from experiencing homelessness.

And yet moratoriums aside, the number of people losing their homes is on the rise during the pandemic, with a disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, and shelters have been forced to close or lower capacity. Framing increasing homelessnes solely as a crisis driven by the virus misses the fact that it has been growing since 2016, though it is down from pre-2007 levels. “Even before the current health/economic crisis,” notes a Homelessness Research Institute report, “the older adult homeless population was projected to trend upwards until 2030.”

Indeed, homelessness has seemed like a sad, inevitable fact of American life for decades. Rather than accept the situation, organizations like Invisible People have worked to end it. “The first step to solving homelessness,” they write, “is acknowledging that its victims are people. Regular people. Fathers. Mothers. Veterans. Whole families. Folks who fell on hard times and lost their core foundation of being human — their homes.” No one asks to be in the situation, and the longer a person goes unhoused, the harder it is for them to rebuild their lives.

Invisible People offers action steps and publishes well-researched journalism on the problems, and solutions, for the millions of people experiencing homelessness at any given time. But as their name suggests, their primary aim is to make the lives of unhoused people visible to those of us who tend to walk right by them in our haste. We can feel overwhelmed by the intractable scale of the problem, which tends to turn individuals into statistics. Invisible People asks us to “change the story,” and to start by approaching homelessness one person, or one family, at a time.

Invisible People was founded in Los Angeles by Mark Horvath, a former TV executive who became homeless after drug and alcohol addiction in 1995. After recovering, he lost his home again during the 2008 Recession. Horvath began interviewing people he met on the streets of L.A. and posting the videos to YouTube and Twitter. Soon, the project became a global one, incorporated as a non-profit, and Horvath has traveled across the U.S. and to Canada, Peru, and the UK to interview people living without homes.

The project, says Horvath is designed to foster  “a conversation about solutions to end homelessness [that] gives homeless people a chance to tell their own story.” Those stories are moving, human, unforgettable, and usually not at all what you might expect. You can see some of them here, and many more at the Invisible People YouTube channel. Connect with the organization and find out what you can do here.

via BoingBoing

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The New York Public Library Lets Patrons Check Out Ties, Briefcases & Handbags for Job Interviews

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

Nerves of Steel!: Watch People Climb Tall Buildings During the 1920s.

Thrillseekers! Are you girding your loins to rejoin the amusement park crowds this summer?

No worries if you don’t feel quite ready to brave the socially distanced rollercoaster lines. Indulge in some low-risk vertigo, thanks to British Pathé‘s vintage newsreels of steeplejacks, steelworkers, and window cleaners doing their thing.

While these tradespeople were called in whenever an industrial chimney required repair or a steel beam was in need of welding, many of the newsreels feature iconic locations, such as New York City’s Woolworth Building, above, getting a good stonework cleaning in 1931.

In 1929, some “workmen acrobats” were engaged to adorn St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican with thousands of lamps when Pope Pius XI, in his first official act as pope, revived the public tradition of Urbi et Orbi, a papal address and apostolic blessing for the first time in fifty-two years.

Some gender boundaries got smashed in the aftermath of WWII, but “steeplejills” were novelty enough in 1948 that the scriptwriter predictably milks it by having the announcer crack wise to and about the unidentified woman ready to climb all the way to the rim of a very tall smokestack.

“There it is! That long thing pointing up there, it’s all yours!”

These days such a jib might constitute workplace harassment.

Did she get the job?

We don’t know. We hope so, whoever she is — presumably one of twenty female Londoners responding to the help wanted ad described in the Lethbridge Herald, below:

Watch more scenes of vintage steeplejacks — and jills — at work in a British Pathé “Nerves of Steel” playlist here.

Related Content: 

The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph of 11 Construction Workers Lunching 840 Feet Above New York City (1932)

Watch the Completely Unsafe, Vertigo-Inducing Footage of Workers Building New York’s Iconic Skyscrapers

Watch 85,000 Historic Newsreel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910-2008)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’s had a terrible fear of heights since a near miss in the Trogir Bell Tower some 14 years ago. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Short Animation Explores the Nature of Creativity & Invention, with Characters That Look Like Andrei Tarkovsky & Sergei Eisenstein

A gentleman goes to the movies, only to find a marquee full of retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. He demands to know why no one makes original films anymore, a reasonable question people often ask. But it seems he has run directly into a graduate student in critical theory behind the glass. The ticket-seller rattles off a theory of unoriginality that is difficult to refute but also, it turns out, only a word-for-word recitation of the Wikipedia page on “Plagiarism.”

This is one of the ironies in “Allergy to Originality” every English teacher will appreciate. In the short, animated New York Times Op-Doc by Drew Christie, an official Sundance selection in 2014, “two men discuss whether anything is truly original — especially in movies and books,” notes the Times. The question leads us to consider what we might mean by originality when every work is built from pieces of others. “In creating this Op-Doc animation,” Christie writes, “I copied well-known images and photographs, retraced innumerable drawings, then photocopied them as a way to underscore the un-originality of the entire process.”

From William Burroughs’ cut-ups to Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” moderns have only been re-discovering what ancients accepted with a shrug — no one can take credit for a story, not even the author. Barthes argued that “literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”

In Christie’s short, the smartass theater employee continues quoting sources, now from the “Originality” Wikipedia, now from Mark Twain, who had many things to say about originality. Twain once wrote to Helen Keller, for example, outraged that she had been accused of plagiarism. He came to her defense with an earnest conviction: “The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterance — is plagiarism.”

Postmodern sophistry from Mark Twain? Maybe. We haven’t had much opportunity to verbally spar in public like this lately, unmasked and in search of entertainment in a public square. If you find yourself exasperated with the streaming choices on offer, if the books you’re reading all start to feel too familiar, consider the infinite number of creative possibilities inherent in the art of quotation — and remember that we’re always repeating, replaying, and remixing what came before, whether or not we cite our sources.

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Everything is a Remix: A Video Series Exploring the Sources of Creativity

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

What Makes Citizen Kane a Great Film: 4 Video Essays Revisit Orson Welles’ Masterpiece on the 80th Anniversary of Its Premiere

To understand why Citizen Kane has for so long been referred to as the “greatest film of all time,” simply watch any film made before it. Glib though that often-made prescription may sound, it gets at a truth about Orson Welles’ tale of the rise and fall of an American media magnate, his first and by far his most highly regarded picture, now just days from the eightieth anniversary of its premiere. “Its impact on cinema was so profound, and its techniques became so ubiquitous, that its once-radical ideas now seem commonplace,” says the narrator of the Youtube series One Hundred Years of Cinema, whose episode on the year 1941 could hardly have focused on any other movie.

Among Citizen Kane‘s most visible innovations is cinematographer Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus, which allows Welles and his collaborators to make constant narrative use of every visual detail. This encourages the audience to “read the whole frame at once, much in the same way that one would read a painting, each layer adding an element to the story.”

More subtly, “what separated Citizen Kane from the kind of films that preceded it was the overall ambivalence of its tone. It’s a film about one of the wealthiest, most successful men in the world, and yet permeating the entire film is the gloom of failure.” The legacy of these and other daring artistic choices manifest in the work of subsequent generations of directors, including such names cited in the brief Fandor video essay above as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Steven Spielberg.

“The creators of Citizen Kane had the freedom to play and innovate,” says Michael Aranda in the episode of Crash Course Film Criticism above. “Many of their technical experiments changed the way film was being used as a storytelling medium — which, arguably, could be another way to define ‘greatness.'” Welles himself put it differently: “There is a great gift that ignorance has to bring to anything. That was the gift I brought to Kane, ignorance.” Of course, he had the good excuse of being 25 years old, although already more than established on the stage and the radio. When Hollywood came calling, he brought his creatively spirited Mercury Theatre Players within to make use of the relatively vast production resources available at RKO Pictures. One of Welles’ collaborators in particular has recently been back in the public eye: Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’d previously written scripts for Welles’ Campbell Playhouse series on CBS Radio.

David Fincher’s biographical drama Mank, which won a couple of Academy Awards last weekend, tells the story of the troubled screenwriter’s involvement with Citizen Kane. Originally written by Fincher’s father, Mank drew its first inspiration from “Raising Kane,” a 1971 essay by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael that famously depicted Mankiewicz, not Welles, as Citizen Kane‘s primary author. Subsequent scholarship, as explained in the Royal Ocean Film Society video above, has revealed that Kael was laboring under a misapprehension (if not a grudge). But the fact remains that all the participants in Citizen Kane did their bit to greatly advance the medium of cinema, and for the young Welles the picture became proof of his artistic maturity: a masterpiece, in the original sense.

Related Content:

Orson Welles Explains Why Ignorance Was His Major “Gift” to Citizen Kane

Jorge Luis Borges Reviews Citizen Kane — and Gets a Response from Orson Welles

Jean-Paul Sartre Reviews Orson Welles’ Masterwork (1945): “Citizen Kane Is Not Cinema”

When Ted Turner Tried to Colorize Citizen Kane: See the Only Surviving Scene from the Great Act of Cinematic Sacrilege

How Orson Welles’ F for Fake Teaches Us How to Make the Perfect Video Essay

What Makes Vertigo the Best Film of All Time? Four Video Essays (and Martin Scorsese) Explain

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Affinities, a Book of Images to Celebrate 10 Years of The Public Domain Review

In a similar way to how Open Culture aims to distill in one place the web’s high-quality free cultural and educational media, so The Public Domain Review aims to help readers explore the vast (and sometimes overwhelming!) sea of public domain works available online — like a small exhibition gallery at the entrance to an immense network of archives and storage rooms that lie beyond. Celebrating curious and beautiful public domain images is at the very heart of what we do, and so it seemed fitting to mark our 10th anniversary with a big and beautiful book of images. Ever since the project began back in 2011, readers have implored us to do one, and so finally here it is…  we are extremely excited to bring out into the world AFFINITIES.

Gathering over 500 prints, paintings, illustrations, sketches, photographs, doodles, and everything in between, the book is a carefully curated journey exploring echoes and connections across more than two millennia of visual culture. Assembled according to a dreamlike logic, the images unfurl in a single unbroken sequence, through a play of visual echoes and evolving thematic threads.

While it’s taken the best part of a year to create (a true lockdown baby), this has really been 10 years in the making — a book born from a decade of deep immersion in public domain archives.

A compelling object and experience in its own right, Affinities also acts as a launchpad for further discoveries and inventive engagements with the commons. It’s meticulous sourcing points to works, creators, and collections around the world, serving as a gateway for future forays into the digital public domain.

As for the physical book itself, we wanted to create an object as stunning as the images within. It is large format (28 x 21.5cm / 11 x 8.5”), boasts a cloth-bound hardcover, with a foil stamped title and embossed inset image, and extends across a whopping 368 pages. To help get this beauty made and assure the highest quality production, we are very happy to have teamed up with specialist art book publisher Volume, an imprint of Thames & Hudson.

It’s being sold via a crowdfunder and delivery will be early next year. In addition to the standard edition of the book, we’ve worked with Volume to create a special Collector’s Edition (in a slipcase with limited edition poster) and also a set of limited edition prints. All of the offerings are only available during the campaign. 

Learn more, and order your copy, over on the crowdfunder page.

Adam Green is co-founder, creator, and main editor of The Public Domain Review and PDR Press.

How the Clash Embraced New York’s Hip Hop Scene and Released the Dance Track, “The Magnificent Dance” (1981)

“Before playing guitar for Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley,” John Kruth writes at the Observer, “Gary Lucas worked as a copywriter for CBS/Epic Records,” where he fell in love with a punk band called the Clash, just signed to the label in 1977. “They weren’t easy to work with,” he remembered. “Like Frank Zappa, they spoke about politics, government and corporate interference with radio. They were, as I said, when I came up with the slogan to promote the album: ‘The only group that matters.’”

The slogan stuck and has become something more than marketing hype. Of the slew of British punk bands who made their way to the US in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the Clash had more impact than most others in some unexpected ways. Their classic double album London Calling made Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine (the only 90s rap-rock band that matters) take notice and change direction. “It was music I could relate to lyrically,” he says, “much more than the dungeons-and-dragons type lyrics of my metal forebears.”

Moreover, godfathers of political rap Public Enemy found their catalyst in the Clash, and went on to create a raucous, militant sound that was the punk equivalent in hip hop, full of snarling guitars, strident declarations and sirens. The song that most had an impact on PE founder and chief lyricist Chuck D came from the band’s even more sprawling triple album Sandinista!. When Chuck heard “The Magnificent Seven,” the Clash’s attempt to incorporate Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang — six months before Blondie released “Rapture” — “that’s when I started to pay attention,” he says.

“Magnificent Seven” came out of the band’s increasing musical adventurousness in the recording of 1980’s Sandinista!, in which they soaked up influences from every place they toured. “When we visited places,” Mick Jones remembered, “we were affected by that… And for me, New York City was really happening at that moment.” Jones took to carrying a boom box around blasting the latest hip hop. “Joe looked at the graffiti artists,” he says, “and I was taking in things like breakdancing and rap.” The band, bassist Paul Simenon recalls, was “open for information” when they met “people like Futura and Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow.”

The Clash didn’t only take from hip hop, but they tried to give back as well. Their 1981 run at “an aging Times Square Disco,” Jeff Chang writes, proved to be a major opportunity for graffiti artists like Futura, who painted a huge banner that was unfurled onstage every night and got to deliver his own rap while the band backed him. When the Clash announced an additional 11 shows after the NYPD limited capacity, they showed what Chang calls a “naive act of solidarity,” booking Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as an opening act. White American punks sneered at the group; the Clash “responded by excoriating their own fans in interviews, and future Bronx-bred openers, The Treacherous Three and ESG, received marginally better treatment.”

Even more exciting was the fact that the B-side to “The Magnificent Seven,” a dub remix called “The Magnificent Dance,” had made it to New York hip hop radio and made the band unlikely stars among black American listeners. “The Clash were ecstatic to tune into WBLS and find that the DJs were not only playing ‘The Magnificent Dance’ up to five times a day, but also doing their own remixes of it,” writes Marcus Gray, “dubbing on samples from the soundtrack of Dirty Harry.” While the track, with its loping bass line played by Ian Drury and the Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy, primed dance floors for the success of the following year’s funk/disco “Rock the Casbah,” it was the lyrics that most grabbed listeners like Morello and Chuck D.

“They talked about important subjects,” says Chuck, “so therefore journalists printed what they said…. We took that from the Clash, because we were very similar in that regard. Public Enemy just did it 10 years later.” It may have taken that long for the barriers between punk and hip hop fans to come down, but to the extent that they did, it was in large part thanks to the musical adventurousness of the Clash and the early icons and fans who saw their revolutionary potential.

Related Content: 

“Stay Free: The Story of the Clash” Narrated by Public Enemy’s Chuck D: A New 8-Episode Podcast

The Story Behind the Iconic Bass-Smashing Photo on the Clash’s London Calling

Watch Audio Ammunition: A Documentary Series on The Clash and Their Five Classic Albums

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

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.