Hear Classic Readings of Poe’s “The Raven” by Vincent Price, James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Neil Gaiman & More

It can seem that the writ­ing of lit­er­a­ture and the the­o­ry of lit­er­a­ture occu­py sep­a­rate great hous­es, Game of Thrones-style, or even sep­a­rate coun­tries held apart by a great sea. Per­haps they war with each oth­er, per­haps they stu­dious­ly ignore each oth­er or oblique­ly inter­act at tour­na­ments with acronymic names like MLA and AWP. Like Thomas Pynchon’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the polit­i­cal right and left, schol­ars and writ­ers rep­re­sent oppos­ing poles, the hot­house and the street. That rare beast, the aca­d­e­m­ic poet, can seem like some­thing of a uni­corn, or drag­on.

…Or like the omi­nous talk­ing raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous of poems.

The divide between the­o­ry and prac­tice is a recent devel­op­ment, a prod­uct of state bud­get­ing, polit­i­cal brinks­man­ship, the relent­less pub­lish­ing mills of acad­e­mia that force schol­ars to find a pigeon­hole and stay there.… In days past, poets and scholar/theorists fre­quent­ly occu­pied the same place at the same time—Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge, Per­cy Shel­ley, and, of course, Poe, whose peren­ni­al­ly pop­u­lar “The Raven” serves as a point-by-point illus­tra­tion for his the­o­ry of com­po­si­tion just as thor­ough­ly as Eliot’s great works bear out his notion of the “objec­tive cor­rel­a­tive.”

Poe’s object, the tit­u­lar crea­ture, is an “arche­typ­al sym­bol,” writes Dana Gioia, in a poem that aims for what its author calls a “uni­ty of effect.” In his 1846 essay “The Phi­los­o­phy of Com­po­si­tion,” Poe the poet/theorist tells us in great detail how “The Raven” sat­is­fies all of his oth­er cri­te­ria for lit­er­a­ture as well, such as achiev­ing its intent in a sin­gle sit­ting, using a repeat­ed refrain, and so on.

Should we have any doubt about how much Poe want­ed us to see the poem as the delib­er­ate out­come of a con­cep­tu­al scheme, we find him three years lat­er, in 1849, the year of his death, deliv­er­ing a lec­ture on the “Poet­ic Prin­ci­ple,” and con­clud­ing with a read­ing of “The Raven.”

John Mon­cure Daniel of the Rich­mond Semi-Week­ly Exam­in­er remarked after attend­ing one of these talks that “the atten­tion of many in this city is now direct­ed to this sin­gu­lar per­for­mance.” At that point, Poe, who hard­ly made a dime from “The Raven,” had to suf­fer the indig­ni­ty of hav­ing all of his work go out of print dur­ing his brief, unhap­py life­time. Mon­cure and the Exam­in­er there­by fur­nished read­ers “with the only cor­rect copy ever pub­lished,” pre­vi­ous appear­ances, it seems, hav­ing con­tained punc­tu­a­tion errors.

Nonethe­less, for all of Poe’s pedantry and penury, “The Raven“ ‘s first appear­ances made him semi-famous. His read­ings were a sen­sa­tion, and it’s a sure bet that his audi­ences came to hear him read the poem, not deliv­er a lec­ture on its prin­ci­ples. Oh, for some pro­to-Edi­son in the room with an ear­ly record­ing device. What would it be like to hear the mourn­ful, grief-strick­en, alco­holic genius—master of the macabre and inven­tor of the detec­tive story—intone the raven’s enig­mat­ic “Nev­er­more”?

While Poe’s speak­ing voice has reced­ed irre­triev­ably into his­to­ry, his poet­ic voice may live close to for­ev­er. So mes­mer­iz­ing are his meter and dic­tion that many great actors known espe­cial­ly for their voic­es have become pos­sessed by “The Raven.”

Like­ly when we think of the poem, what first comes to the mind’s ear is the voice of Vin­cent Price, or James Earl Jones, Christo­pher Lee, or Christo­pher Walken, all of whom have giv­en “The Raven” its due.

And so have many oth­er nota­bles, such as the great Stan Lee, Poe suc­ces­sor Neil Gaiman, orig­i­nal Gomez Addams actor John Astin, and ven­er­a­ble Beat poet/scholar Anne Wald­man (lis­ten here). You will find those recita­tions here at this round-up of notable “Raven” read­ings, and if this some­how doesn’t sati­ate you, then check out Lou Reed’s take on the poem, the Grate­ful Dead’s musi­cal trib­ute, “Raven Space,” or a read­ing in 100 dif­fer­ent celebri­ty impres­sions.

Final­ly, we would be remiss not to men­tion The Simp­sons’ James Earl Jones-nar­rat­ed par­o­dy, a wor­thy teach­ing tool for dis­tract­ed young visu­al learn­ers. Is it a shame that we now think of “The Raven” as a Hal­loween yarn fit for the Tree­house of Hor­ror or any num­ber of enjoy­able exer­cis­es in spooky oratory—rather than the the­o­ret­i­cal thought exper­i­ment its author seemed to intend? Does Poe rotis­serie in his grave as Homer snores in a wing­back chair? Prob­a­bly. But as the author told us him­self at length, the poem works! It still nev­er fails to excite our mor­bid curios­i­ty, enchant our goth­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty, and maybe send a chill or two down the spine. Maybe we nev­er real­ly need­ed Poe to explain it to us.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2017. We’re bring­ing it back for Hal­loween.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

The Raven: a Pop-up Book Brings Edgar Allan Poe’s Clas­sic Super­nat­ur­al Poem to 3D Paper Life

A Read­ing of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in 100 Celebri­ty Voic­es

Edgar Allan Poe’s the Raven: Watch an Award-Win­ning Short Film That Mod­ern­izes Poe’s Clas­sic Tale

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

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Meet the Man Who Created the Iconic Emblem of the Day of the Dead: José Guadalupe Posada

Odds are you’re acquaint­ed with the lady pic­tured above.

She’s called La Cat­ri­na, and her like­ness adorns count­less t‑shirts and tote bags.

She is a pop­u­lar Hal­loween cos­tume and a main­stay of Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions.

She pops up in the ani­mat­ed fam­i­ly fea­ture, Coco, to guide its young hero to the Land of the Dead. 

She’s spent the bet­ter part of a cen­tu­ry mak­ing cameos in numer­ous artists works, most famous­ly Diego Rivera’s sur­re­al 1947 mur­al, Sueño de una Tarde Domini­cal en la Alame­da Cen­tral, a fever dream that places her front and cen­ter, arm in arm with a dis­tin­guished-look­ing, mus­ta­chioed gent in a bowler hat.

That gent is her orig­i­nal cre­ator, José Guadalupe Posa­da, a hard­work­ing print­mak­er and polit­i­cal car­toon­ist who pro­duced over 20,000 images dur­ing his life­time, on sub­jects rang­ing from the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and oth­er events, both cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal, to pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment and the dai­ly lives of aver­age men and women. 

The artist fre­quent­ly ham­mered his point home by depict­ing the par­ties in his works as calav­eras - exu­ber­ant skele­tons seem­ing­ly unaware they had lost all flesh and blood. 

Posa­da was still a teenag­er in 1871 when a home­town paper picked up his first car­toons. One report­ed­ly enraged a local politi­cian to such a degree that the paper was forced to cease pub­li­ca­tion.

La Cat­ri­na was pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 1913, as a broad­sheet illus­tra­tion accom­pa­ny­ing a satir­i­cal poem about chick­pea ven­dors. It’s believed that Posa­da intend­ed his image to be a jab at upper class Mex­i­can women obsessed with Euro­pean fash­ions.

(Rivera was the one who changed her name from La Cucaracha — the cock­roach — to the much more lyri­cal La Cat­ri­na. He also plant­ed the seed that Posa­da, who died pen­ni­less and large­ly for­got­ten, had been a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. The Mex­i­can pro­gres­sive print­mak­ing col­lec­tive El Taller Grafi­ca Pop­u­lar took graph­ic inspi­ra­tion from his calav­eras, while embrac­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing this myth.

What’s that they say about imi­ta­tion being the sin­cer­est form of flat­tery?

After Posada’s death, his col­leagues at the pub­lish­ing firm of Anto­nio Vane­gas Arroy­or, saved time and mon­ey by con­tin­u­ing to pro­duce work from his blocks and plates. 

As Jim Nikas, found­ing direc­tor of the Posa­da Art Foun­da­tion told Atlas Obscu­ra “If the image was neu­tral enough, you could change the text and use it as an illus­tra­tion for any sto­ry.”

Whether increas­ing pub­lic aware­ness of harm­ful agri­cul­tur­al pes­ti­cides, protest­ing Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion poli­cies, or, uh, sell­ing tequi­la, 21st cen­tu­ry artists, activists, and entre­pre­neurs con­tin­ue to har­ness Posada’s vision for their own pur­pos­es.

Nikas, who sam­pled Posada’s La Calav­era de Don Quixote for an Occu­py Wall Street col­lab­o­ra­tion with Art Hazel­wood and Mar­sha Shaw writes that “the calav­era is some­thing we all have bio­log­i­cal­ly in com­mon and, accord­ing­ly, may be used to con­vey mes­sages:

Posa­da and his pub­lish­ers used depic­tions of calav­eras not only to remind us of our col­lec­tive mor­tal­i­ty but also to shed light. His illus­tra­tions were often satir­i­cal car­i­ca­tures uproot­ed from the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate and used to poke fun at our human con­di­tion. This use was evo­lu­tion­ary, occur­ring over time, and as applic­a­ble today as it was over a cen­tu­ry ago.

See more of José Guadalupe Posada’s calav­eras in the Library of Con­gress’ Prints and Pho­tographs Divi­sion col­lec­tion.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Jerry Garcia Explains How Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Changed His Life (1995)

If you’re look­ing for a clas­sic mon­ster movie to watch this Hal­loween, and one that will also give you a few non-iron­ic laughs along the way, you’d do well to put on Abbott and Costel­lo Meet Franken­stein. But don’t take this rec­om­men­da­tion from me: take it from the Grate­ful Dead­’s own Jer­ry Gar­cia, who recalls his own for­ma­tive view­ing expe­ri­ence in the clip above from a 1995 broad­cast of AMC’s The Movie that Changed My Life. When Abbott and Costel­lo Meet Franken­stein came out, in 1948, he was just six years old: too ten­der an age, it seems, to appre­ci­ate the mon­strous spec­ta­cle to which his moth­er had tak­en him. “I most­ly hid behind the seats,” he remem­bers. “It was just pure pan­ic.”

Unaware even of who Abbott and Costel­lo were, the young Gar­cia could hard­ly have per­ceived the out­ward­ly hor­rif­ic pic­ture’s light­heart­ed com­ic inten­tions. Yet it com­pelled him nev­er­the­less, and even res­onat­ed with him on oth­er emo­tion­al lev­els not hav­ing to do with fear.

“My father had died the pre­vi­ous year, in ’47, so that also made it kind of a heavy time in my life, emo­tion­al­ly,” he says, and one that per­haps gave him a cer­tain recep­tive­ness to the notion of “a dead thing brought to life.” Abbott and Costel­lo Meet Franken­stein fea­tures not just the tit­u­lar doc­tor’s mon­ster, played by Glenn Strange, but also Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi as Drac­u­la. “This was a juicy cast, and it was the last time these char­ac­ters had dig­ni­ty.”

For Gar­cia, these Hol­ly­wood mon­sters “became fig­ures of tremen­dous fas­ci­na­tion,” which led him to dis­cov­er cul­tur­al move­ments like Ger­man expres­sion­ist the­ater and film. While they cast a spell of pri­mal fear — “I think there was some desire on my part to embrace that, to not let that con­trol me” — Abbott and Costel­lo, for their part, sug­gest­ed to him the great promise of com­e­dy: “It’s a smart strat­e­gy to get by in life. If you’re not pow­er­ful, if you’re not huge, if you’re not mus­cu­lar, if intim­i­da­tion is too much work for you, it works good at dis­arm­ing pow­er­ful adver­saries.” Gar­ci­a’s “gen­er­al fas­ci­na­tion with the bizarre” also orig­i­nat­ed with Abbott and Costel­lo Meet Franken­stein, which showed him that “there are things in this world that are real­ly weird” — a fact of which we could all stand to remind our­selves each and every Hal­loween.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Very First Film Adap­ta­tion of Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein, a Thomas Edi­son Pro­duc­tion (1910)

New Jer­ry Gar­cia Web Site Fea­tures 5,000 Hours of Free Music, Plus Some Fan­tas­tic Archival Mate­r­i­al

Read­ing Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein on Its 200th Anniver­sary: An Ani­mat­ed Primer to the Great Mon­ster Sto­ry & Tech­nol­o­gy Cau­tion­ary Tale

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

Bela Lugosi Dis­cuss­es His Drug Habit as He Leaves the Hos­pi­tal in 1955

Stream a Mas­sive Archive of Grate­ful Dead Con­certs from 1965–1995

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.

The Writing Systems of the World Explained, from the Latin Alphabet to the Abugidas of India

The Kore­an alpha­bet, hangul, is “the most sci­en­tif­ic writ­ing sys­tem.” One often hears that in South Korea, a soci­ety that has tak­en to heart Asia schol­ar Edwin O. Reis­chauer’s descrip­tion of hangul as “per­haps the most sci­en­tif­ic sys­tem of writ­ing in gen­er­al use in any coun­try.” But what­ev­er their sci­en­tif­ic cre­den­tials, all the oth­er writ­ing sys­tems in use (and indeed out of use) have fas­ci­nat­ing qual­i­ties of their own, a range of which are explained in the Use­fulCharts video above on the writ­ing sys­tems of the world — not just the alpha­bets of the world, mind you, but also the abjads, the syl­labaries, the logo-syl­labaries, and the abugi­das.

The sym­bols used in an abjad, like that of Hebrew or Ara­bic (or ancient Egypt­ian hiero­glyphs), rep­re­sent only con­so­nants; as for vow­els, “the read­ers are expect­ed to add them in on their own, based on con­text.” In a syl­labary, like the hira­gana and katakana used in Japan­ese, each char­ac­ter rep­re­sents a syl­la­ble: に for “ni,” ほ for “ho,” ん for “n” (though lin­guists no doubt argue about whether that last should real­ly count as a syl­la­ble).

But most of the Japan­ese writ­ing is adapt­ed from the Chi­nese one, a logo-syl­labary in which “a sin­gle char­ac­ter can stand for a unique syl­la­ble or an entire word or idea,” which results in “thou­sands of char­ac­ters that need to be learned for basic lit­er­a­cy.”

Abugi­das, pri­mar­i­ly used in Indi­an and south­east Asian lan­guages (but also to write Amhar­ic, the lan­guage of Ethiopia), “have unique char­ac­ters both for vow­els and for con­so­nants. How­ev­er, these vow­el let­ters are gen­er­al­ly only used in sit­u­a­tions where a word begins with a vow­el.” Oth­er­wise, a “small change” made to a con­so­nant char­ac­ter indi­cates which vow­el fol­lows. How­ev­er mechan­i­cal­ly or aes­thet­i­cal­ly diverse they may appear, none of these writ­ing sys­tems (all pic­tured on a poster from Use­fulCharts, avail­able for $19.95 USD) are so fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent that they can’t be mas­tered by a non-native with time and effort. Not that they’re all as easy as hangul, which — as its com­mis­sion­er King Sejong the Great put it, in anoth­er quotable quote — a wise man can learn before the morn­ing is over, and a stu­pid man can learn in ten days.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Writ­ing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Ani­mat­ed Map

The Evo­lu­tion of the Alpha­bet: A Col­or­ful Flow­chart, Cov­er­ing 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

How to Read Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs: A British Muse­um Cura­tor Explains

The Atlas of Endan­gered Alpha­bets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Pre­serve Writ­ing Sys­tems That May Soon Dis­ap­pear

Dis­cov­er Nüshu, a 19th-Cen­tu­ry Chi­nese Writ­ing Sys­tem That Only Women Knew How to Write

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

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.


Stephen King’s 22 Favorite Movies, Packed with Horror & Suspense

In 1999, Stephen King found him­self con­fined to a hos­pi­tal room “after a care­less dri­ver in a mini­van smashed the shit out of me on a coun­try road.” There, “roar­ing with pain from top to bot­tom, high on painkillers,” and sure­ly more than a lit­tle bored, he popped a movie into the room’s VCR. But it did­n’t take long before its cin­e­mat­ic pow­er got the bet­ter of him: “I asked my son, who was watch­ing with me, to turn the damn thing off. It may be the only time in my life when I quit a hor­ror movie in the mid­dle because I was too scared to go on.”

The movie on King’s boot­leg tape (“How did I get the boot­leg? Nev­er mind how I got it”) was The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick and Eduar­do Sánchez’s ultra-low-bud­get hor­ror pic­ture that sent shock­waves through the inde­pen­dent film world at the end of the mil­len­ni­um.

Though nobody seems to talk much about it any­more, let alone watch it, King’s appre­ci­a­tion has endured: he wrote the essay about it quot­ed here in 2010, and you can read it in full at Bloody Dis­gust­ing. That same site has also pub­lished a list of fif­teen hor­ror movies King has per­son­al­ly rec­om­mend­edBlair Witch and beyond.

The list below com­bines King’s picks at Bloody Dis­gust­ing, which lean toward recent films, with a dif­fer­ent selec­tion of favorites, with a stronger focus on clas­sics, pub­lished at the British Film Insti­tute. “I am espe­cial­ly par­tial – this will not sur­prise you – to sus­pense films,” the author of Car­rieCujo, and It writes by way of intro­duc­tion,” but “my favorite film of all time – this may sur­prise you — is Sor­cer­er, William Friedkin’s remake of the great Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Some may argue that the Clouzot film is bet­ter; I beg to dis­agree.”

  • The Autop­sy of Jane Doe (André Øvredal, 2016)  “Vis­cer­al hor­ror to rival Alien and ear­ly Cro­nen­berg”
  • The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduar­do Sánchez, 1999)
  • The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)
  • Crim­son Peak (Guiller­mo del Toro, 2015)
  • Dawn of the Dead (Zack Sny­der, 2004) “Snyder’s zom­bies are, it seems to me: fast-mov­ing ter­ror­ists who nev­er quit.”
  • Deep Blue Sea (Ren­ny Har­lin, 1999)
  • The Descent (Neil Mar­shall, 2005)
  • Duel (Steven Spiel­berg, 1971) “His most inven­tive film, and stripped to the very core.”
  • Les Dia­boliques (Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) “He out-Hitch­cocked Hitch­cock.”
  • Final Des­ti­na­tion (James Wong, 2000)
  • Event Hori­zon (Paul W.S. Ander­son, 1997) “Basi­cal­ly a Love­craft­ian ter­ror tale in out­er space with a The Quater­mass Exper­i­ment vibe, done by the Brits.”
  • The Hitch­er (Robert Har­mon, 1986 and Dave Mey­ers, 2007) “Rut­ger Hauer in the orig­i­nal will nev­er be topped, but this is that rar­i­ty, a reimag­in­ing that actu­al­ly works.”
  • The Last House on the Left (Den­nis Iliadis, 2009)
  • The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
  • Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) “The hor­ror here is pret­ty under­stat­ed, until the very end.”
  • The Ruins (Carter Smith, 2008)
  • Sor­cer­er (William Fried­kin, 1977)
  • Step­fa­ther (Joseph Ruben, 1986)
  • Stir of Echoes (David Koepp 1999) “An unset­tling explo­ration of what hap­pens when an ordi­nary blue-col­lar guy (Kevin Bacon) starts to see ghosts.”
  • The Strangers (Bryan Berti­no, 2008)
  • Vil­lage of the Damned (Wolf Ril­la, 1960) As far as “British hor­ror (wrapped in an SF bow), you can’t do much bet­ter.”
  • The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

Though clear­ly a movie fan, King also shows a will­ing­ness to advo­cate where many a cineaste fears to tread, for instance in his selec­tion of not just Sor­cer­er but sev­er­al oth­er remakes besides (and in the case of The Hitch­er, both the remake and the orig­i­nal). He even choos­es the 2004 Dawn of the Dead — direct­ed by no less an object of crit­i­cal scorn than Zack Sny­der — over the 1978 George A. Romero orig­i­nal.

But then, King has always seemed to pride him­self in his under­stand­ing of and root­ed­ness in unpre­ten­tious, work­ing-class Amer­i­ca, which you can see in his nov­els, the var­i­ous film adap­ta­tions of his nov­els that have come out over the years, and the sole movie he wrote and direct­ed him­self: 1986’s Max­i­mum Over­drive, about machines turn­ing against their human mas­ters at a North Car­oli­na truck stop. King now describes that project as a “moron movie,” but as he clear­ly under­stands, even a moron movie can make a pow­er­ful impact.

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!

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2017.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen King Rec­om­mends 96 Books for Aspir­ing Writ­ers to Read

Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Mar­tin Scors­ese Names the 11 Scari­est Hor­ror Films

Time Out Lon­don Presents The 100 Best Hor­ror Films: Start by Watch­ing Four Hor­ror Clas­sics Free Online

How The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari Invent­ed Psy­cho­log­i­cal Hor­ror Film & Brought Expres­sion­ism to the Screen (1920)

Watch the Cult Clas­sic Hor­ror Film Car­ni­val of Souls (1962)

How the CIA Secretly Used Jackson Pollock & Other Abstract Expressionists to Fight the Cold War

What’s the dif­fer­ence between the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca and a cup of yogurt? If you leave the cup of yogurt alone for 200 years, it devel­ops a cul­ture. So goes one of many jokes long in cir­cu­la­tion about the sup­posed Amer­i­can ten­den­cy toward low-mind­ed, expe­di­ent philis­tin­ism. I grant, as an Amer­i­can myself, that such humor sur­rounds at least a grain of truth. But there was a time when the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment of the U.S., an orga­ni­za­tion not often accused of exces­sive high-mind­ed­ness, took an active role in pro­mot­ing the coun­try’s home-grown avant-garde — an appro­pri­ate term, notes Lucie Levine at JSTOR Dai­ly, since it “began as a French mil­i­tary term to describe van­guard troops advanc­ing into bat­tle,” and Amer­i­can mod­ern art had become a con­tin­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics by oth­er means.

“Up until World War II, Amer­i­ca had nev­er pro­duced large, influ­en­tial art move­ments like in Europe,” says the nar­ra­tor of the Con­spir­a­cy of Art video above. After the war, “some­thing unex­pect­ed hap­pened: a brood of rad­i­cal Amer­i­can painters helped make New York City the cen­ter of the art world.”

Mark Rothko, Willem de Koon­ing, and Jack­son Pol­lock: they and oth­er artists “cap­tured the world’s atten­tion with large-scale works of pure col­or and form.” This move­ment came to be known as abstract expres­sion­ism, and in the eyes of the new­ly estab­lished Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency, it came to show promise as pro­pa­gan­da. If shown abroad, it could func­tion as pro­pa­gan­da, high­light­ing “the dif­fer­ences between Amer­i­can and Sovi­et pol­i­tics”  — and more specif­i­cal­ly, “the appeal of Amer­i­can cul­ture over Sovi­et Cul­ture.”

“Was Jack­son Pol­lock a weapon in the Cold War?” asks the New York­er’s Louis Menand. While Pol­lock was indeed pro­mot­ed abroad with CIA mon­ey (usu­al­ly pro­vid­ed through lay­ers of orga­ni­za­tion­al mis­di­rec­tion), you don’t look at a paint­ing like Laven­der Mist and “think about ‘artis­tic free enter­prise’ or the CIA, or the cul­tur­al pol­i­tics of Par­ti­san Review. You think about how a painter could have tak­en all he had expe­ri­enced across a cre­ative thresh­old that no one had crossed before, and pro­duced this par­tic­u­lar thing.” But its “impor­tance for a cer­tain strand of Cold War cul­tur­al pol­i­tics is part of the sto­ry of how it got to us, a gen­er­a­tion or more lat­er, and that his­to­ry is worth know­ing.” It’s also worth ask­ing, should the Unit­ed States once again find itself face-to-face with a for­mi­da­ble polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al adver­sary, whether it will be pre­pared to draft a few Pol­locks back into ser­vice.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch “Jack­son Pol­lock 51,” a His­toric Short Film That Cap­tures Pol­lock Cre­at­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ist Art on a Sheet of Glass

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Watch Por­trait of an Artist: Jack­son Pol­lock, the 1987 Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed by Melvyn Bragg

How the CIA Fund­ed & Sup­port­ed Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zines World­wide While Wag­ing Cul­tur­al War Against Com­mu­nism

Was Jack­son Pol­lock Over­rat­ed? Behind Every Artist There’s an Art Crit­ic, and Behind Pol­lock There Was Clement Green­berg

How the CIA Helped Shape the Cre­ative Writ­ing Scene in Amer­i­ca

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.

The Talking Heads Reunite on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and Revisit Their Early Days as a Band

Late this sum­mer, the Talk­ing Heads released a remas­tered ver­sion of their con­cert film, Stop Mak­ing Sense. Although the film has already left some the­aters, the band has­n’t stopped pro­mot­ing it. Above, David Byrne, Jer­ry Har­ri­son, Chris Frantz and Tina Wey­mouth join Stephen Col­bert and rem­i­nisce about their adven­tures at RISD, CBG­Bs, and tour­ing with The Ramones. It’s great see­ing the band shar­ing a stage (and a laugh) again, even if there are no instru­ments in sight. Find Part 1 above, and parts 2 and 3 below…

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Relat­ed Con­tent 

David Byrne Explains How the “Big Suit” He Wore in Stop Mak­ing Sense Was Inspired by Japan­ese Kabu­ki The­atre

Watch David Byrne Prac­tice His Dance Moves for Stop Mak­ing Sense in New­ly Released Behind-the-Scenes Footage

The Talk­ing Heads’ First TV Appear­ance Was on Amer­i­can Band­stand, and It Was a Lit­tle Awk­ward (1979)

Talk­ing Heads Per­form The Ramones’ “I Wan­na Be Your Boyfriend” Live in 1977 (and How the Bands Got Their Start Togeth­er)

A Brief His­to­ry of Talk­ing Heads: How the Band Went from Scrap­py CBGB’s Punks to New Wave Super­stars

Behold Gustave Doré’s Illustrations for Rabelais’ Grotesque Satirical Masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel

When François Rabelais came up with a cou­ple of giants to put at the cen­ter of a series of inven­tive and rib­ald works of satir­i­cal fic­tion, he named one of them Gar­gan­tua. That may not sound par­tic­u­lar­ly clever today, gar­gan­tu­an being a fair­ly com­mon adjec­tive to describe any­thing quite large. But we actu­al­ly owe the word itself to Rabelais, or more specif­i­cal­ly, to the near­ly half-mil­len­ni­um-long lega­cy of the char­ac­ter into whom he breathed life. But there’s so much more to Les Cinq livres des faits et dits de Gar­gan­tua et Pan­ta­gru­el, or The Five Books of the Lives and Deeds of Gar­gan­tua and Pan­ta­gru­el, whose endur­ing sta­tus as a mas­ter­piece of the grotesque owes much to its author’s wit, lin­guis­tic vir­tu­os­i­ty, and sheer brazen­ness.

Nor has it hurt that the books have inspired vivid illus­tra­tions from a host of artists, one of whom in par­tic­u­lar stands out: Gus­tave Doré, whom Richard Smyth calls “one of the most pro­lif­ic — and most suc­cess­ful — book illus­tra­tors of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.”

Here at Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured the art he cre­at­ed to accom­pa­ny the work of Dante, Cer­vantes, and Poe, each a writer pos­sessed of a high­ly dis­tinc­tive set of lit­er­ary pow­ers, and each of whom thus received a dif­fer­ent but equal­ly lav­ish and evoca­tive treat­ment from Doré.

For Rabelais, says the site of book deal­er Herib­ert Ten­schert, the 22-year-old artist pro­duced (in 1854) “100 images that oscil­late between the whim­si­cal and the uncan­ny, between real­ism and fan­ta­sy,” a count he would expand to 700 in anoth­er edi­tion two decades lat­er.

You can see a great many of Doré’s illus­tra­tions for Gar­gan­tua and Pan­ta­gru­el at Wiki­me­dia Com­mons. The simul­ta­ne­ous extrav­a­gance and repug­nance of the series’ medieval France may seem impos­si­bly dis­tant to us, but it can hard­ly have felt like yes­ter­day to Doré either, giv­en that he was work­ing three cen­turies after Rabelais.

As sug­gest­ed by Herib­ert Ten­schert, per­haps these imag­i­na­tive visions of the Mid­dle Ages — like Balza­c’s Rabelaisian Les con­tes dro­la­tiques, which he also illus­trat­ed — “res­onat­ed with Doré because they remind­ed him of the mys­te­ri­ous atmos­phere of his child­hood, which he had spent in the mid­dle of the medieval city of Stras­bourg.” What­ev­er his con­nec­tion, Doré cre­at­ed images that still bring to mind a whole range of descrip­tors: somber­ly joc­u­lar, rig­or­ous­ly volup­tuous, com­pelling­ly repel­lent, and above all pan­ta­gru­elist. (Look it up.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Exquis­ite Engrav­ings of Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote

The Adven­tures of Famed Illus­tra­tor Gus­tave Doré Pre­sent­ed in a Fantasic(al) Cutout Ani­ma­tion

Gus­tave Doré’s Dra­mat­ic Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

The Dro­lat­ic Dreams of Pan­ta­gru­el: 120 Wood­cuts Envi­sion the Grotesque Inhab­i­tants of Rabelais’ World (1565)

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.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.