David Byrne & Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain the Importance of an Arts Education (and How It Strengthens Science & Civilization)

Unless you’re a policy geek or an educator, you may never have heard of the “STEM vs. STEAM” debate. STEM, of course, stands for the formula of “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” as a baseline for educational curriculum. STEAM argues for the necessity of the arts, which in primary and secondary education have waxed and waned depending on prevailing theory and, perhaps more importantly, political will. Andrew Carnegie may have donated handsomely to higher education, but he frowned on the study of “dead languages” and other useless pursuits. Industrialist Richard Teller Crane opined in 1911 that no one with “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness… are those who are useful.”

It’s a long way from thinking of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Percy Shelley wrote in his “Defence of Poetry” 90 years earlier, but Shelley’s essay shows that even then the arts needed defending. By the time we get to STEM thinking, the arts have disappeared entirely from the conversation, become an afterthought, as venture capitalists, rather than wealthy industrialists, decide to trim them away from public policy and private investment. The situation may be improving, as more educators embrace STEAM, but “there’s tension,” as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says in the excerpt above from his StarTalk interview show on Nat Geo. In the kinds of funding crises most school districts find themselves in, “school boards are wondering, do we cut the art, do we keep the science?”




The choice is a false one, argues former Talking Heads frontman and sometimes Cassandra-like cultural theorist David Byrne. “In order to really succeed in whatever… math and the sciences and engineering and things like that,” Byrne tells Tyson above, “you have to be able to think outside the box, and do creative problem solving… the creative thinking is in the arts. A certain amount of arts education…” will help you “succeed more and bring more to the world… bringing different worlds together has definite tangible benefits. To kind of cut one, or separate them, is to injure them and cripple them.”

The idea goes back to Aristotle, and to the creation of universities, when medieval thinkers touted the Liberal Arts—the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy)—as models for a balanced education. Tyson agrees that the arts and sciences should not be severed: “Suppose they did that back in Renaissance Europe? What would Europe be without the support and interest in art?” He goes even further, saying, “We measure the success of a civilization by how well they treat their creative people.”

It’s a bold statement that emerges from a longer conversation Tyson has with Byrne, which you can hear in the StarTalk Radio podcast above. Tyson is joined by co-host Maeve Higgins and neuroscientist and concert pianist Dr. Mónica López-González—and later by Professor David Cope, who taught a computer to write music, and Bill Nye. Byrne makes his case for the equal value of the arts and sciences with personal examples from his early years in grade school and art college, and by building conceptual bridges between the two ways of thinking. One theme he returns to is the interrelationship between architecture and music as an example of how art and engineering co-evolve (a subject on which he previously delivered a fascinating TED talk).

You won’t find much debate here among the participants. Everyone seems to readily agree with each other, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Speaking anecdotally, all of the scientists I know affirm the value of the arts, and a high percentage have a creative avocation. Likewise, I’ve rarely met an artist who doesn’t value science and technology.  We find example after example of scientist-artists—from Albert Einstein to astrophysicist Stephon Alexander, who sees physics in Coltrane. The central question may not be whether artists and scientists can mutually appreciate each other—they generally already do—but whether school boards, politicians, voters, and investors can see things their way.

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

Bruce Springsteen Lists 20 of His Favorite Books: The Books That Have Inspired the Songwriter & Now Memoirist

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Image by Michele Lucon, via Wikimedia Commons

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 today. And next week his long-awaited memoir, Born to Run, will finally get into readers’ hands. In advance of that literary event, we’re looking back at a 2014 interview with The New York Times, printed shortly before Springsteen published his children’s book, Outlaw Pete

The interview takes you inside Springsteen’s literary world, revealing what books he reads, which books he loves, and what authors have shaped his songwriting (and likely his own literary style): The Times asks: “Who is your favorite novelist of all time, and your favorite novelist writing today?;” “Who are your favorite New Jersey writers?;” “What’s your favorite memoir by a musician?;” “What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a songwriter and musician or contributed to your artistic development?” The books he namechecks along the way include the following:

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You can read the interview in its entirety here, and find some of the classic books he mentions in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices. His memoir, Born to Run, will be officially released on September 27th. The companion album, Chapter and Verse, is out today.

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The Very First Illustrations of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897)

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H.G. Wells’ tales of fantastical inventions, never-before-seen beings, time travel, and alien invasion practically cry out for visual and sonic accompaniment. Of all the other artists’ interpretations of his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’ infamous Halloween 1938 radio broadcast remains best known, but various illustrators have also brought the story of mercilessly destructive Martians’ arrival on Earth to equally vivid life. Last year, we featured Brazilian illustrator Henrique Alvim Corrêa’s horrifying work for the 1906 edition; today, we go back before The War of the Worlds‘ first edition to behold the aliens as rendered by Warwick Goble.

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“I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine,” Wells wrote to a friend, “in which I completely wreck and sack Woking — killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways — then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.” That dearest little serial, after its 1897 run in Pearson’s Magazine in the U.K. and Cosmopolitan in the U.S., appeared the next year in book form as The War of the Worlds, a common publication procedure for popular English-language novels in the 19th and early 20th century.

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“The story is still a bit rough round the edges,” writes sci-fi author John Guy Collick, but “what makes the magazine special are the fantastic illustrations by Warwick Goble. These are the first pictures of the Martians and their tripods and, I think, the best.” He praises their low-tech style and their faithfulness to the text: “in the novel Wells is at pains to point out that the Martian legs are rigid,” not articulated as the films and other illustrations have tended to portray them.” The Martians themselves he considers a “bit too cute, though they are the first attempt to visualise beings from another world,” and these depictions of terror from another planet (more of which you can see here) certainly marked a departure in Goble’s children’s book-oriented career. Even an artist of whimsy has to cause a few nightmares once in a while.

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

How to Draw the Human Face & Head: A Free 3-Hour Tutorial

Aspiring artists, take note. New Masters Academy has put online a video demonstrating how to draw the human face and head. And it’s no short demo. It runs a full three hours. 

Describing the scope and content of the video, the Academy writes:

In this in-depth drawing series, instructor Steve Huston shows you a step-by-step construction of the human head. He covers the basic forms and more detailed intermediate constructs of the head as well as the eyes, nose, mouth and ears.

In this lesson, you will learn how to use basic shapes (boxes, cylinders, spheres) to form the basic structure of the head. This lesson is a fundamental step in learning how to create a solid foundation to place the features of the face on. He will also show you how to construct the basic head in different perspectives…

This video will give you a big taste of what’s inside New Masters Academy’s library of subscription videos. You can learn more about their service here.

On their YouTube channel, you’ll also find videos of (nude) figure models you can use in drawings and paintings. And a series of non-nude models you can use for the same purpose.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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The New York Public Library Unveils a Cutting-Edge Train That Delivers Books

In early October, The New York Public Library will unveil a new book delivery system that features 24 cars, running on 950-feet of vertical and horizontal track, moving millions of books through 11 different levels of the library, at a rate of 75 feet per minute. This new $2.6 million book transport system replaces a clunkier old one where “boxes of research materials were placed on a series of conveyor belts.”

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Image by Jonathan Blanc/NYPL

Says Matt Knutzen, director of the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Divisions within the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, “This new dependable and efficient system will ensure a seamless delivery of research items from our storage facility to the researchers who need them.”  “Our priorities include preserving our materials and making them increasingly accessible to the public in an inspiring space for research – our recent storage expansion, our restoration of the Reading Room, and the installation of this system are all elements of that work.”

Above, you can watch the new system at work, chugging away, climbing to new heights, and delivering books to happy readers.

via BoingBoing/NYPL

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An Animated David Lynch Explains Where He Gets His Ideas

“Where do you get your ideas?” Every artist dreads having to answer that most common of all questions. Well, every artist with the exception of David Lynch. The director of such modern cinematic quasi-nightmares as EraserheadBlue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive will gladly explain exactly where he gets his ideas: from his own consciousness, “the TV in your mind.”

He’ll also gladly explain how he gets them by, not to mix the metaphor too much, using the folksy terms of fishing: “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” And to bait the hook with? Why, bits of other ideas. Those words come from his 2006 book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, a slim volume on this and that which gets into some detail about his use of Transcendental Meditation as a kind of fishing pole to reel those especially compelling ideas in from one’s consciousness. 




A couple of years after that, Lynch sat down with The Atlantic to talk about his special brand of creativity (as distinct from his special brand of coffee, no doubt also a fuel for thought). They’ve just recently animated his remarks to make the short video above, a visualization of his idea-getting processes, including daydreaming, traveling, and looking into a puddle in the gutter.

“I always say it’s like there’s a man in another room with the whole film together, but they’re in puzzle parts,” says Lynch as hands chop a fish into frames of celluloid. “He’s flipping one piece at a time into me. At first it’s very abstract; I don’t have a clue. More pieces come, more ideas are caught. It starts forming a thing. And then one day, there it is. In a way, there’s no original ideas. It’s just the ideas that you caught.”

The ideas Lynch has caught have become, among other things, some of the most memorable films of the late 20th century — and, according to last month’s BBC poll, the best film of the 21st century so far. What’s more, he claims not to have suffered for them, illustrating his argument of suffering as antithetical to creativity with an imaginary scenario of a diarrhea-afflicted Van Gogh. As for what part of his consciousness he fished that image out of, perhaps we’d rather not know.

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

Build Your Own Miniature Sets from Hayao Miyazaki’s Beloved Films: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service & More

In the Shintoism from which Hayao Miyazaki’s films liberally draw, the worlds of nature and spirit are not mutually exclusive. “Shrine Shinto,” write James Boyd and Tetsuya Nishimura at The Journal of Religion and Film, “understands the whole of life, including both humans and nature, as creative and life giving. A generative, immanent force harmoniously pervades the whole phenomenal world.” But to experience this power “requires an aesthetically pure and cheerful heart/mind, an emotional, mental and volitional condition that is not easily attained.” In My Neighbor Totoro, for example, Miyazaki helps to induce this state in us with long slice-of-life passages that move like gentle breezes through tall grasses and trees. In the apocalyptic sci-fi Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the title character herself takes on the task of harmoniously reconciling man, nature, and mutant insect.

I would argue that Miyazaki’s films are not solely entertainments, but means by which we can experience “an aesthetically pure and cheerful” heart and mind. And although he has retired, we can relive those films “over and over again,” as The Creator’s Project writes, not only by watching them, but by building miniature sets from them, as you see represented here. See My Neighbor Totoro’s old, rustic house in the forest—where Satsuki and Mei come to terms with their mother’s illness while befriending the local nature spirits—get assembled at the top of the post. And just above, see the town of Koriko from Kiki’s Delivery Service take shape, a place that becomes transformed by magic, just as Kiki does by her sorties into the forest.

These kits, made by the Japanese paper craft company Sankei, are “ready to be assembled and glued together, creating your own mini movie set,” The Creator’s Project notes. Previous models include Totoro and his two small companions, above, and the bakery from Kiki; another kit recreates the deserted magical town Chihiro and her parents stumble upon in Spirited Away. The kits don’t come cheap—each one costs around $100—and they take time and skill to assemble, as you see in these videos. But like so many of the important acts in Miyazaki’s films—and like the act of watching those films themselves—we might think of assembling these models as rituals of patience and devotion to aesthetic habits of mind that slow us down and gently nudge us to seek harmony and connection.

via The Creator’s Project

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

“Evil Mickey Mouse” Invades Japan in a 1934 Japanese Anime Propaganda Film

Before the Japanese fell completely, one-hundred percent in love with anything and everything Disney (I mean, seriously, they love it), Mickey Mouse represented something completely different: Pure American imperialist evil.

At least he does in this 1934 animated propaganda cartoon Omochabako series dai san wa: Ehon senkya-hyakusanja-rokunen (Toybox Series 3: Picture Book 1936) by Komatsuzawa Hajime. It’s a convoluted title, but pretty simple in plot. An island of cute critters (including one Felix the Cat clone) is attacked from the air by an army of Mickey Mouses (Mickey Mice?) riding bats and assisted by crocodiles and snakes that act like machine guns. The frightened creatures call on the heroes of Japanese storybooks and folk legends to help them, from Momotaro (“Peach Boy”) and Kintaro (“Golden Boy”) to Issun-boshi (“One Inch Boy”) and Benkei, a warrior monk, to send Mickey packing. The not-so-subtle message: Mickey Mouse may be your hero, America, but our characters are older, more numerous, and way more beloved. Our pop culture is older than yours!




Ironically, the film is animated in the style of American masters Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, and Max Fleischer, with its bouncy character loops and elastic metamorphoses.

Though made in 1934, it is set in 1936, which might tie (according to this site) into the expiration of a naval treaty between the United States and Japan on that date. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a full seven years off, but clearly tensions were running high even then, as both the West and Japan had their eyes on Asia and the South Pacific.

Also of note is the trope of characters coming alive from a storybook, as this was a favorite subject in several Warner Bros. cartoons that would come out a few years later (and which we’ve covered.)

And finally to clarify Mickey’s fate at the end of the film: the old man with the box is a Rip Van Winkle character, and in Japanese folklore he is made old by the contents of a box he’s been told not to open. Violence is not vanquished with violence at the end of this cartoon, but with magic and derisive laughter followed by a song. In the real world, things would not end so easily.

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

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

The Soviet Union’s repressive state censorship went to absurd lengths to control what its citizens read, viewed, and listened to, such as the almost comical removal of purged former comrades from photographs during Stalin’s reign. When it came to aesthetics, Stalinism mostly purged more avant-garde tendencies from the arts and literature in favor of didactic Socialist Realism. Even during the relatively loose period of the Khrushchev/Brezhnev Thaw in the 60s, several artists were subject to “severe censorship” by the Party, writes Keti Chukhrov at Red Thread, for their “’abuse’ of modernist, abstract and formalist methods.”

But one oft-experimental art form thrived throughout the existence of the Soviet Union and its varying degrees of state control: animation. “Despite censorship and pressure from the Communist government to adhere to certain Socialist ideals,” writes Polly Dela Rosa in a short history, “Russian animation is incredibly diverse and eloquent.”




Many animated Soviet films were expressly made for propaganda purposes—such as the very first Soviet animation, Dziga Vertov’s Soviet Toys, below, from 1924. But even these display a range of technical virtuosity combined with daring stylistic experiments, as you can see in this io9 compilation. Animated films also served “as a powerful tool for entertainment,” notes film scholar Birgit Beumers, with animators, “largely trained as designers and illustrators… drawn upon to compete with the Disney output.” 

Throughout the 20th century, a wide range of films made it past the censors and reached large audiences on cinema and television screens, including many based on Western literature. All of them did so, in fact, but one, the only animated film in Soviet history to face a ban: Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s The Glass Harmonica, at the top, a 1968 “satire on bureaucracy.” At the time of its release, the Thaw had encouraged “a creative renaissance” in Russian animation, writes Dangerous Minds, and the film’s surrealist aesthetic—drawn from the paintings of De Chirico, Magritte, Grosz, Bruegel, and Bosch (and reaching “proto-Python-esque heights towards the end”)—testifies to that.

At first glance, one would think The Glass Harmonica would fit right into the long tradition of Soviet propaganda films begun by Vertov. As the opening titles state, it aims to show the “boundless greed, police terror, [and] the isolation and brutalization of humans in modern bourgeois society.” And yet, the film offended censors due to what the European Film Philharmonic Institute calls “its controversial portrayal of the relationship between governmental authority and the artist.” There’s more than a little irony in the fact that the only fully censored Soviet animation is a film itself about censorship.

The central character is a musician who incurs the displeasure of an expressionless man in black, ruler of the cold, gray world of the film. In addition to its “collage of various styles and a tribute to European painting”—which itself may have irked censors—the score by Alfred Schnittke “pushes sound to disturbing limits, demanding extreme range and technique from the instruments.” (Fans of surrealist animation may be reminded of 1973’s French sci-fi film, Fantastic Planet.) Although Khrzhanovsky’s film represents the effective beginning and end of surrealist animation in the Soviet Union, only released after perestroika, it stands, as you’ll see above, as a brilliantly realized example of the form.

The Glass Harmonica will be added to our list of Animations, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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

Ukulele Orchestra Performs Ennio Morricone’s Iconic Western Theme Song, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” And It’s Pretty Brilliant.

Last week, Josh Jones highlighted for you a free five-hour playlist featuring Ennio Morricone’s Scores for Classic Western Films. Even if you’re not deeply familiar with Morricone’s body of work, you’ve almost certainly heard the theme to The Good, the Bad & the Ugly–the iconic 1966 Spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone. Opening with the immediately recognizable two-note melody that sounds like “the howl of a coyote,” the theme was originally recorded with the help of the Unione Musicisti di Roma orchestra.

Above, you can watch another orchestra, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, pay homage to Morricone’s classic theme. Described by The Guardian as “a cultish British institution” known for its expertly played covers of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the Ukulele Orchestra group scored its biggest hit with this performance. It’s an outtake from the DVD Anarchy in the Ukulele, which you can purchase through The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s website. Enjoy.

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