Art and Innovation

There was a great piece in psychology today last month:
A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus: Hobbling Arts Hobbles Innovation

As the economy stumbles, the first things to get cut at the national, state, and local levels are the arts. The first thing that goes in our school curricula are the arts. Arts, common wisdom tells us, are luxuries we can do without in times of crisis. Or can we?

Let’s see what happens when we start throwing out all the science and technology that the arts have made possible.

You may be shocked to find that you’ll have to do without your cell phone or PDA. In the first place, it uses a form of encryption called frequency hopping to ensure your messages can’t easily be intercepted. Frequency hopping was invented by American composer George Antheil in collaboration with the actress Hedy Lamarr. Yeah, really.

Next, the electronic screen that displays your messages (and those on your computer and TV) employ a combination of red, green, and blue dots from which all the different colors can be generated. That innovation was the collaboration of a series of painter-scientists (including American physicist Ogden Rood and Nobel laureate Wilhelm Ostwald) and post-impressionist artists like Seurat – you know, the guy who painted his pictures out of dots of color, just like the ones in your electronic devices. The programming inside owes its existence to J. M. Jacquard, a weaver, who invented programmable looms using punch cards. Exactly the same technique was borrowed to program the first computers and is incorporated into modern programming languages.

Then there are all those computer chips running our critical devices. They’re made using a combination of three classic artistic inventions: etching, silk screen printing, and photolithography. Add to that the fact that data from NASA and NSA satellites is enhanced using artistic techniques such as chiaroscuro (a Renaissance invention) and false coloring (invented by Fauvist painters) to increase contrast so it’s easier to perceive important information. Thayer, Painting of a Camouflaged Snake(Parenthetically, artists also figured out how to hide information. Camouflage was invented by the American painter Abbot Thayer and during WWI the Vorticists in England and the Cubists in France were co-opted by their governments to design prints to protect troops, equipment, and planes.) Hey, the arts look pretty useful, huh?

That’s only the beginning. In medicine, the stitches that permit a surgeon to correct an aneurysm or carry out a transplant were invented by American Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel, who took his knowledge of lace making into the operating room. Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin while gathering beautifully colored microbes for his (rather unusual) hobby of “painting” with microorganisms. Pacemakers are simple modifications of musical metronomes. If you have a neurological deficit, your neurologist may employ dance notation to analyze your problem. Physicians at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and other major medical centers are trained by actors to interact humanely with you as a patient. These same physicians may learn to observe your symptoms more closely by being taught to draw, paint or photograph, or through art appreciation courses. Many hospitals employ music to relieve stress in operating rooms and post-operatively. Painting, drawing and sculpting are also used to treat depression and other psychiatric disorders. Indeed, our own institution, Michigan State University, originated music therapy as a way to treat soldiers suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

Oh, and that bridge you may drive over on the way to work? Princeton engineering professor David Billington and Smithsonian historian of technology Brooke Hindle have demonstrated that most innovations in bridge design originated with artistically trained engineers such as John Roebling and Robert Maillart. They’re part of a long tradition of American artist-inventors. You may not know that Samuel Morse (to whom we owe the telegraph) and Robert Fulton (to whom we owe the steam ship) were two of the most prominent 19th century American artists before they turned to inventing — visit the Smithsonian American Art Galleries some time and see for yourself. Alexander Graham Bell was a pianist whose invention of the telephone began with a simple musical game. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes don’t just provide us with unusual architectures, they also inform our understanding of cell and virus structure and permit new biomedical insights. Kenneth Snelson’s tensegrity sculptures (stroll past his “Needle Tower” outside the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden on the Washington Mall) aren’t just fascinating constructions in and of themselves, they’ve also created a whole new form of engineering. Google it!

Max Planck at the pianoThe fact is that the arts foster innovation. We’ve just published a study that shows that almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences actively engage in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Many connect their art to their scientific ability with some riff on Nobel prizewinning physicist Max Planck words: “The creative scientist needs an artistic imagination.”

Bottom line: Successful scientists and inventors are artistic people. Hobble the arts and you hobble innovation. It’s a lesson our legislators need to learn. So feel free to cut and paste this column into a letter to your senators and congressmen, as well as your school representatives, or simply send them a link to this column. One way or another, if we as a society wish to cultivate creativity, the arts MUST be part of the equation!

Many thanks to Alyson Stanfield’s excellent ArtBiz blog for this one.

Culture Shock

The Swing
The Swing РJean-Honor̩ Fragonard (1732 Р1806)

I have just come back from 10 days in London and am suffering from a kind of cultural overload. I know that there are many great art galleries in the world containing some wonderful art, but after spending a few days in London it is hard to believe that all the very finest art in this world isn’t housed within a few square miles in central London. I only visited the National Gallery, the Tate (both Modern & Britain), the Wallace Collection and the British Museum. There are plenty more that I missed this time around, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Academy, the Victoria & Albert. But in those that I did visit (I spent 5 hours in the National Gallery and still only did the Cook’s tour) I saw paintings from Van Eyck to Van Dyck to Van Gogh. I saw some of the finest Fragonards at the Wallace and all the important Constables at the NG.

One thing that struck me was the huge variation in size of some of these masterpieces. Viewing art in books there can really be little size variation from one print to the next. When you see a painting like Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles 1, mounted and in full armour, it is nearly life size! Then in another room there is a self portrait of van Eyck that is only about 8″X10″. Viewed side by side in an art book they would seem to be about the same size.

Equestrian Portrait of Charles I

Jan Van Eyck, 'Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)'

The other delightful thing about seeing original paintings is of course the texture, which is lost in reproduction.

The Van Goghs are of course in high relief, but the Constables are also really quite radiant with many tiny highlights achieved with the use of a palette knife.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows

 

 

 

 

The Brits have returned to their old practise of free admission to art galleries and museums, for which I am truly grateful. I believe that it is working out well, as they are making as much money from the restaurants and gift shops as they ever did from entrance fees. Take heed Mr Harper!

Comment on Comment

I subscribe to many blogs, either through Google Reader or by email. Now we have the opportunity to “Follow” blogs too. Every day it seems I find another that interests me. They are, of course, mostly artists or illustrators, but there are also several that are much more (even more?) arcane. Many of you may already have noticed that I have a thing about sheds and I subscribe to two shed blogs. I subscribe to one about collecting gardening books and another which covers the late Roman Empire. I am also honoured to have some subscribers of my own, some through the RSS feed, some through email and some “followers”. Many of these comment on my posts regularly, some only occasionally and some not at all. I follow Julian Merrow-Smith as do so many others. I usually don’t comment, he is brilliant and has dozens of people telling him so every day. One day I was so moved by one of his landscapes that I felt that I must say so, he didn’t respond, I didn’t expect him to. If he responded to every one of his comments he would never get any work done.
I have thought a lot about the etiquette of commenting. The first time someone comments I usually try to respond or visit their blog and make a comment of my own. After that, I usually go through my subscription list about once a week and comment where appropriate. Sometimes I have nothing to say, sometimes I don’t have time to make a considered remark. I am very grateful for the few comments I receive, I should try harder to acknowledge them all. If I don’t respond right away rest assured that I am reading them, considering them, visiting your blog if you have one, and when I have something to say, that hasn’t been said half a dozen times already, I will say it. I also promise not to be offended if you don’t respond to my comments. You may be busy with art or other things, or you may just not be ready to say anything yet. Thanks for visiting!

Pooh & Piglet update

Artdaily.org – The First Art Newspaper on the Net

Today, Sotheby’s London sold the finest single collection of E.H. Shepard’s original drawings for Winnie-the-Pooh books to have come on the market. The collection of Stanley J. Seeger & Christopher Cone realised the extraordinary total of £1,262,863 ($1,968,046), well in excess of the pre-sale high estimate for the sale (est. £648,900-931,500).

The top-selling lot in this afternoon’s sale was one of the most iconic and best loved illustrations of Pooh, ‘He went on tracking, and Piglet . . . ran after him’ and was extremely sought-after and contested for by more than four bidders in the saleroom and on the telephones. The illustration sold for the remarkable sum of £115,250 – more than double its pre-sale low estimate (est. £40,000-60,000) – establishing a new auction record for a drawing by E.H. Shepard.

The next highest price was for, ‘Bump, bump, bump – going up the stairs’, which sold for £97,250 and then “When Christopher Robin had nailed it on in its right place…”, which brought £73,25.

E.H. Shepard illustrations

According to BibliOdyssey forty two original E.H. Shepard illustrations will be auctioned at Sotheby’s (New Bond Street, London) on 17th of December.

These are among my favourite illustrations of all time, matched only by my love of the stories they accompany. I spent many hours reading these stories to my children and never grew tired of Milne’s humour and beautiful language. It is hard to imagine the stories without these wonderful illustrations which inspired, but were never matched by, Disney.I'm Not Throwing It, I'm Dropping It, Eeyore.He Went on Tracking, and Piglet ... Ran After Him.
This quote from peacay. He mentions on his blog that these images may be protected by copyright and that he will remove them if requested. As I have linked to him, they would then disappear from here too, ah well.

Ernest Howard Shepard (1879-1976) was born in London and encouraged to draw from a young age by his artist mother. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy at the age of eighteen.

In the early years of the 20th century Shepard achieved some success with illustrated editions of Dickens and Aesop’s fables. By 1907, Punch Magazine had accepted some of his drawings for publication although he wasn’t a permanent Punch employee until 1921. He would remain there for more than thirty years.

In WWI, Shepard earned a Military Cross for bravery during service with the Royal Artillery in France and Belgium but he continued to sketch humorous vignettes which he submitted to Punch. In the 1920s, he was introduced to Alan (AA) Milne who reluctantly commissioned Shepard to do some line drawings for a children’s book he had written. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Shepard and Milne were never particularly close but their collaboration on the four books – ‘When We Were Very Young’ (1924); ‘Winnie the Pooh’ (1926); ‘Now We Are Six’ (1927) and ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ (1928) – ensured that their names would be associated for eternity. Characters included Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit and Kanga.

The character of Winnie the Pooh was based on Milne’s son’s (Christopher) teddy bear, but the drawings were inspired by a toy bear named Growler, belonging to Shepard’s own son. Growler would be mauled to death by a neighbour’s dog, but Christopher’s bear (and other stuffed Winnie the Pooh animals) circuitously made their way to the New York Public Library where I believe they still live. Late in life, Shepard was said to have voiced some resentment that the “silly old bear” had overshadowed his other illustration work, but he had expressed his fondness for the characters on many more occasions, so this phrase may have been more affectionate than has been reported*.

Although he pursued book and magazine illustration all through his life, Shepard’s most notable work, beyond the AA Milne quartet, were the line drawings he produced for Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’, published in 1931.

Lucrezia Borgia by Dosso Dossi

A pretty astonishing story today in Artdaily.org – The First Art Newspaper on the Net

MELBOURNE.- The National Gallery of Victoria announced today that it believes the subject of a mysterious Renaissance portrait it has owned since 1965 is Lucrezia Borgia, and that the painter is famed Renaissance artist Dosso Dossi (c1486-1542).

As a result of this astounding conclusion, the NGV’s painting could be the only surviving formal painted portrait of the famous Lucrezia. The discovery is attracting considerable international interest following extensive conservation and curatorial research work undertaken by NGV experts.

“This new research is revelatory”, said NGV Director Dr Gerard Vaughan.

“What was previously a portrait of an unknown sitter by an unidentified artist, now seems likely to be one of the most significant portraits surviving from the Renaissance, by one of the great Northern Italian painters”, he said.

“Generations of art historians have attempted to identify portraits of Lucrezia Borgia, but this appears to be the only one which contains direct personal references to this intriguing historical figure. The only reliable likeness of her features we have is on a portrait medal in bronze, made in 1502. The facial profile on the medal bears a striking resemblance to our portrait”.

Julian Merrow-Smith

There is an article in today’s Guardian about one of my favourite daily painters.

http://shiftinglight.com/images/081012.jpg<<In 1997, Julian Merrow-Smith lost his job at London’s Lumière cinema. An art-school graduate, he bought a ticket to the south of France and began painting for a living. By 2004, he was making “about enough to survive on”. Then he came across a US artist, Duane Keiser, who was doing a painting a day: small oils, mainly still lifes, posted and sold on the internet.

“I thought: hmm, there’s a living to be made here,” says Merrow-Smith, a chirpy voice on the line from his studio near the village of Bédoin in Provence. So he set up a website and began painting postcards: perfect little 4in x 6in oil-on-gesso pictures of, say, vegetables from his garden or fruit from the market, and luminous, ever-changing Provençal landscapes. “What was important, at bottom, was that they reflect this place,” he says.

The first two sold instantly, for his fixed price of $100. Within a few months he was selling most days. Then in 2006 the New York Times found him. “That night I sold everything I’d ever painted, most of it more than once,” he says. “It was crazy. For weeks I had 500 people wanting to buy every postcard. I spent my days organising credit-card refunds.”

So now his site, shiftinglight.com, hosts an auction, each work selling to the highest bidder at 10pm each night, generally for between $150 and $650. “I have 3,000 subscribers to my mailing list, and a few real collectors,” Merrow-Smith says. “There are people with 25 or 30 of my works, and people who buy one a year.”

On Friday, he will paint his 1,000th Postcard from Provence. Each takes up to three hours, “depending on how much wine I’ve drunk the night before”. Some weeks, he concedes, “I’m throwing things at the wall in frustration. But then people tell me it’s the only email they actually look forward to getting. I’m making a living, but I’m also spreading a little joy. It is satisfying.” >>

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