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Creative writing [sound recording] / prepared and narrated by Morris Schreiber

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Cover design by Ronald Clyne.

Script by Morris Schreiber in booklet (12 p.) inserted in original cover.

Performed by the University Players directed by Wallace House.

Related materials may be found in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, also held by this repository. Related materials may include correspondence between the studio, producers, and/or performers; original cover art designs; original production materials; business records; and audiotapes from studio production.

Norma Elia Cantú on Preserving Culture in Creative Writing

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
The study of culture and people—the field of ethnography—revolves around impersonal research. But what if an author colors cultural, political, and social observations with personal reflections and her own history? For this hybrid genre, author and folklorist Norma Elia Cantú coined the term “autobioethnography.” In her new novel, “Cabañuelas,” she merges ethnographic field research on Mexican American culture, lived experience, and elements of fiction to form a creative narrative. Read more: Camera: Charlie Weber Story: Malgorzata Mical Editing: Ashley Avila [Catalog No. CFV11229; (c) Smithsonian Institution, 2019]

When the Rain Sings

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson plan suggesting ways to incorporate the book When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans in language arts studies. The poems (in the form of dialogues between objects, photographs, and the written word) demonstrate the importance of imagery in storytelling. Students may examine thematic connections or respond with creative writing exercises.

"Creative Weaving: A Prospectus"

Archives of American Art
Essay : 1 p. : typescript ; 28 x 22 cm.

Art to Zoo: Celebrating the Smithsonian's Birthday (1996)

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson plan commemorating the Smithsonian Institution's 150th birthday. Students exercise writing skills as they discuss what they personally collect and as they observe and describe selected objects from the Smithsonian museums.

Writing the Kindergarten Constitution

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Teacher-created lesson in which kindergarteners vote on the best solution to a class problem.

Creative Questions: Project Zero Visible Thinking Routine

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
A "Visible Thinking" routine for generating and transforming questions from Project Zero. This routine encourages students to create interesting questions and then imaginatively transform them to explore their creative possibilities. It provides students with an opportunity to practice developing good questions that provide thinking and inquiry into a topic. Uses questions starts such as, "What would it be like if...", "Suppose that...", "What would change if..."


A routine for generating and transforming questions

1. Pick an everyday object or topic and brainstorm a list of questions about it.

2. Look over the list and transform some of the questions into questions that challenge the imagination. Do this by transforming questions along the lines of:

What would it be like if...

How would it be different if...

Suppose that...

What would change if...

How would it look differently if ...

3. Choose a question to imaginatively explore. Explore it by imaginatively playing out its possibilities. Do this by: Writing a story or essay, drawing a picture, creating a play or dialogue, inventing a scenario, conducting an imaginary interview, conducting a thought experiment.

4. Reflect: What new ideas do you have about the topic, concept or object that you didn't have before?

Purpose: What kind of thinking does this routine encourage?

Formulating and exploring an interesting question is often as important as finding a solution. This routine encourages students to create interesting questions and then imaginatively mess around with them for a while in order to explore their creative possibilities. It provides students with the opportunity to practice developing good questions that provoke thinking and inquiry into a topic.

Application: When and where can it be used?

Use Creative Questions to expand and deepen students' thinking, to encourage students' curiosity and increase their motivation to inquire. This routine can be used when you are introducing a new topic to help students get a sense of the breadth of a topic. It can be used when you're in the middle of studying a topic as a way of enlivening students' curiosity. And it can be used when you are near the end of studying a topic, as a way of showing students how the knowledge they have gained about the topic helps them to ask ever more interesting questions. This routine can also be used continuously throughout a topic, to help the class keep a visible, evolving list of questions about the topic that can be added to at anytime.

Launch: What are some tips for starting and using the routine?

Before using Creative Questions you might want to ask students what they think makes a good question. Then, when you show the Creative Questions, explain that this routine is a tool for asking good questions. Start the routine by providing a topic, concept or object-- Sudan, medieval punishment, a stethoscope, genetic engineering. Ask them to use the Creative Questions to generate a list of questions about the topic or object. Initially, it's best to work together as an entire group. Once students get the hang of the routine, you can have them work in small groups, or even solo.

After students finish generating questions, ask them to pick one of the questions to investigate further. Encourage students to explore it by imaginatively playing out its possibilities. Writing a story or essay, drawing a picture, creating a play or dialogue, inventing a scenario, conducting an imaginary interview, or conducting a thought experiment are just some of the possible ways for students to find out about their questions. At the end of the exploration process be sure to take time to reflect on new insights and ideas about the topic, object or concept.

One Writer Used Statistics to Reveal the Secrets of What Makes Great Writing

Smithsonian Magazine

In most college-level literature courses, you find students dissecting small portions of literary classics: Shakespeare’s soliloquies, Joyce’s stream of consciousness and Hemingway’s staccato sentences. No doubt, there is so much that can be learned about a writer, his or her craft and a story’s meaning by this type of close reading.

But Ben Blatt makes a strong argument for another approach. By focusing on certain sentences and paragraphs, he posits in his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, readers are neglecting all of the other words, which, in an average-length novel amount to tens of thousands of data points.

The journalist and statistician created a database of the text from a smattering of 20th century classics and bestsellers to quantitatively answer a number of questions of interest. His analysis revealed some quirky patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed:

By the numbers, the best opening sentences to novels do tend to be short. Prolific author James Patterson averages 160 clichés per 100,000 words (that’s 115 more than the revered Jane Austen), and Vladimir Nabokov used the word mauve 44 times more often than the average writer in the past two centuries. talked with Blatt about his method, some of his key findings and why big data is important to the study of literature.

You’ve taken a statistical approach to studying everything from Where’s Waldo to Seinfeld, fast food joints to pop songs. Can you explain your method, and why you do what you do?

I am a data journalist, and I look at things in pop culture and art. I really like looking at things quantitatively and unbiased that have a lot of information that people haven’t gone through. If you wanted to learn about what the typical person from the United States is like, it would be useful, but you wouldn’t just talk to one person, know everything about them and then assume that everything about people in the United States is the same. I think one thing with writing that kind of gets lost is that you can focus on one sentence by an author, especially in creative writing classes, or one passage, and you lose the bigger picture to see these general patterns and trends that writers are using over and over again, hundreds and maybe thousands of times in their own writing.

So what made you turn to literature?

My background is in mathematics and computer science, but I’ve always loved reading and writing. As I was writing more and more, I became very interested in how different writers and people give writing advice. There’s a lot of it that made sense but seemed not backed up by information, and a lot of it that conflicted with each other. I just thought there had to be a way to take these topics in writing that people were already well aware of and talking about and test them on great authors and popular authors to see if this advice is real or if it is prescriptive advice that doesn’t really mean anything in the real books and the real pages.

What was the first question you wanted to ask about literary classics and bestsellers?

The first chapter in the book is on the advice of whether or not you should use –ly adverbs. This is also the first chapter I wrote chronologically. It’s mostly on Stephen King’s advice not to use –ly adverbs in his book On Writing, which for a lot of writers is the book on writing. But lots of other writers—Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk—and any creative writing class advises not to use an –ly adverb because it is an unnecessary word and a sign that you are not being concise. Instead of saying, “He quickly ran,” you can say, “He sprinted.”

So I wanted to know, is this actually true? If this is such good advice, you’d expect that the great authors actually do use it less. You’d expect that amateur writers are using it more than published authors. I just really wanted to know, stylistically, first if Stephen King followed his own advice, and then if it applies to all the other great and revered authors.

So, what did you find?

In fact, there is a trend that authors like Hemingway, Morrison and Steinbeck, their best books, the ones that are held up and have the most attention on them now, are the books with the fewest amount of –ly adverbs. Also, if you compare amateur fiction writing and online writing that’s unedited with bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners of recent times, there is a discrepancy, where less –ly adverbs are used by the published authors. I am not so one-sided that I think you can just take out the –ly adverbs from an okay book and it becomes a great book. That’s obviously not how it works. But there is something to the fact that writers who are writing in a very direct manner do produce books that overall live the longest.

How did you go about creating a database of literary works?

For many of the questions, I was using the same 50 authors I had chosen somewhat arbitrarily. Essentially it was based on authors that were on the top of the bestseller list, authors that were on top of the greatest authors of all time list and authors that just kind of represented a range of different genres and times and readers. That way, throughout the book, you can compare these authors and get to know them.

It was very important to me that if I said something like, “Toni Morrison uses this word at this rate,” I was talking about every single novel she’s ever written and not just the three that I happen to already have. In my book, there are 50 to 100 authors that are referred to throughout. I found their bibliographies and then found all their novels that they had written up to that point as their complete record. In some ways, it is a bit like keeping sports statistics, where each book is kind of like a season and then all of these seasons or books come together as a career. You can see how authors change over time and how they do things overall. Once you have all the books on file, then answering these questions that in some ways are very daunting is very straightforward.

And how did you process all that text?

There is a programming language called Python, and within that, there is a set of tools called the Natural Language Toolkit, often abbreviated NLTK. The tools involved in that are freely available to anyone. You can download the package online and use it in Python or other languages. You can’t get many of the writing questions in particular, but you can say, how many times does this word appear in the text? It can go through and identify where sentences end and where sentences begin, and parts of speech—adjective vs. adverb vs. verb. So once you have those tools, you can get the data.

What stats did you compile manually? What was the most tedious?

There is one section where I look at opening sentences. Elmore Leonard, who was a very successful novelist, had said, “Never open a book with weather.” This is also advice found in a lot of writing guides. So I went through hundreds of authors to see how often they open their book on weather. For example, Danielle Steel, I believe 45 percent of her first sentences in books are about the weather. Many times it’s just “It was a magnificent day,” or “It was bright and sunny out,” things like that. For that, there was no way to do that automatically without having some error, so I would just go through all the book files and mark whether there was weather involved. You can say it was tedious, because it was a lot of data collected, but it was kind of fun to go through and read hundreds of opening sentences at once. There are other patterns that clearly emerge from authors over time.

Like you say, tedious for some, fun for others. Some might think this analytical approach is boring, but you argue that it can be “amusing” and “often downright funny.” What was your funniest finding?

The title of the book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, is about how, by the numbers, the word that he uses at the highest rate compared to English is mauve. That ends up making a lot of sense if you look at his background, because he had synesthesia. He talked, in his autobiography, about how when he heard different letters and sounds, his brain would automatically conjure colors.

I repeated that experiment on 100 other authors to see what their favorite word is. As a result, you get three words that are representative of their writing by the words they use most. Civility, fancying and imprudence. That’s Jane Austen. I think if you saw those words, Jane Austen might be one of your first guesses. And then you have an author like John Updike, who is a bit more gritty and real and of a different time. His favorite words are rimmed, prick and fucked. I think seeing the personality come through based on these simple mathematical questions is very interesting. If you have a favorite author, going through it does sort of reveal something about their personality you may not have noticed before.

Ray Bradbury had written that his favorite word was cinnamon. By the numbers, he does use that a lot. His explanation of why he liked cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. So I went through and found other spice words and smell words that could be associated with a grandmother’s pantry, and Ray Bradbury does use most of those words at a very high rate. In some sense, you can get this weird, Freudian look into something about authors’ childhoods. If Ray Bradbury hadn’t said that, maybe you could still figure it out.

You compared American and British writers, confirming a stereotype that Americans are loud. Can you explain this one?

This one was actually based originally on a study done by a graduate student at Stanford. He had identified words that are used to describe dialogue in books, and described them as loud, neutral or quiet. “Whispered” and “murmured” would be under quiet. Neutral would be “he said” or “she said,” and loud would be “he exclaimed” or “shouted.” I went through the 50 authors that I looked at, as well as large samples of fan fiction, and found, not by a crazy margin but a meaningful margin, that Americans do have a higher ratio of the loud words to the quiet words. There are a few explanations. It could be that that is how Americans talk throughout all of their lives, so that is the way that writers describe them talking frequently. You could also just see it as American writers having a preference for more action-based, thriller, high tempo stories compared to the more subtle ones. Americans are indeed louder by the numbers.

Ben Blatt, author of Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve (Sierra Katow)

Why do you think applying math to writing is a good way to study literature?

I am definitely not advocating that this should be the first way you study literature if you are trying to improve your writing. But even a novel of moderate length is probably 50,000 words, and that’s 50,000 data points. You’re just not going to be able to soak that all in at once, and there are going to be some questions that you just can’t answer reading through on your own. It’s good to see the bigger picture. If you sit down and study one paragraph, you’re in your creative writing class talking to your professor, if there is a set way to look at that, you are just going to see that throughout everything. But with the data, that kind of frees you of it, and you can answer some questions without these biases and really get some new information.

You mention that you kept thinking back to Roald Dahl’s “The Great Grammatizator.”

There is a great Roald Dahl story where essentially an engineer devises a way to write a story. In this doomsday scenario, someone can just give the machine a plot and it will spit out a final novel. The insinuation there is that they are producing novels that are so formulaic and basic. The protagonist in that story chooses not to join the operation of the machine and fights against it by creating his own writing and art.

I definitely think that this book, if you are into writing, will answer a lot of questions for you and definitely change the way you think about some things, but ultimately there is really no replacement for ideas that make people think and scenes that make people fearful or connect with the characters. This book is looking at the craft of writing and not necessarily how to create a memorable story. This book is not trying to engineer a perfect novel, and I don’t think we are as close to that as some people may fear.

Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures with Meryle Secrest

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Meryle Secrest is an award winning biographer and winner of the 2006 National Humanities Medal. Her critically acclaimed works include biographies on Romaine Brooks, Frank Lloyd Wright, Salvador Dali, Bernard Berenson, Stephen Sondheim, and most recently, Amedeo Modigliani. As a feature writer for The Washington Post for many years, she wrote profiles of prominent individuals including Leonard Bernstein, Anaïs Nin, and Marc Chagall. From 2002 to 2004 she taught creative writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Secrest lectures widely and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs in connection with her biographies, including NPR's "All Things Considered" and TODAY. She was born and educated in Bath, England, and now lives in Washington, D.C.

Animals in Song -- Elizabeth Mitchell: Animal Songs for Children

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson plan designed to teach music skills (singing, time-keeping, creative writing) through stories and movement games about animals.

Meet Michael Keeling

Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Smithsonian Libraries is pleased to welcome Michael Keeling to the Preservation Services Department. Michael is a D.C. native and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the NYU creative writing program. Previously, he worked as a collections care technician at the Library of Congress. His interest in conservation began in high school during a visit more »

A Tired Brain Could Actually Be More Creative

Smithsonian Magazine

Got a stubborn work problem that needs some brainstorming, or a puzzling riddle that requires some creative insight? Tackle it when you are sleepy. This answer seems counterintuitive—surely feats of mental dexterity require the focus that comes from an alert mind. But when it comes to creative tasks, fatigue is your friend. 

Ron Friedman, author of the book The Best Place to Work, explains why in "HBR Ideacast," a podcast from Harvard Business Review (via New York):

[I]t’s partly because, in order to be creative, sometimes you need to consider some ideas that don’t necessarily feel like they’re on track with what you're trying to achieve. And so having all these ideas come into your mind because you’re not quite as good at putting them off when you're tired can actually make you more creative.

This effect makes tired people better at solving problems that require insight. That’s also why grabbing a cup of coffee isn’t always the best way to seek eureka moments. The focus caffeine lends can get in the way of those stray thoughts. Maybe that’s also why messy desks often go hand in hand with a creative mind—the clutter could be stimulating.

Sciences supports these suspicions. For the Atlantic, Olga Khazan writes about a study led by Marieke Wieth, a psychology professor at Albion University. Wieth posed insight-based and analytical problems to more than 400 students at different times of the day. The team also classified the students as night owls or morning larks. They found no difference in how well the students preformed on analytical problems (which were akin to the math questions you might find on the SAT). But the students did better on the insight problems when they were less awake. 

Friedman suggests that workers schedule creative tasks during their mid-afternoon slow-down or first thing in the morning—depending on when the brain fog most commonly descends. It may not seem pleasant, but it could get you farther in the long run.

Of course, this work can only take us so far: No one has suggested that you do your work anything other than sober, despite the finding that alcohol can also lubricate the creative mind.

Go Ahead, Wise Guy: Sarcasm Makes People More Creative

Smithsonian Magazine

Great. Turns out your sarcasm is so creative. No, really — according to new research published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, sarcasm is more nuanced than was once believed. In fact, making sarcastic comments may actually encourage creativity for both the jokester and their audience.

“To create or decode sarcasm, both the expressers and recipients of sarcasm need to overcome the contradiction...between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions,” said Francesca Gino, one of the study’s co-authors to Christina Pazzanese for the Harvard Gazette. “This is a process that activates and is facilitated by abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking.”

Participants in the series of studies were randomly assigned to have a conversation that was either sarcastic, sincere, or neutral. After a brief conversation, the participants took a test that measured their creativity. The study found that the people who had sarcastic conversations had more creative solutions to tasks they were given than those who had a nice, sincere chat.

“This suggests that sarcasm has the potential to catalyze creativity in everyone,” said Adam D. Galinsky, another of the study’s co-authors, told Pazzanese.

Galinsky noted that it’s possible that sarcastic people tend to be more creative in general. However, you still might want to refrain from being a jerk to someone you don’t know that well, writes Pazzanese. If the joker doesn’t know the other people he or she is chatting with, they may take offense, causing more harm than the good that comes from the sarcasm’s creative boost. Sadly, there’s no suggestion yet on how to handle that boss who can’t take a joke.

History’s Most Creative Paintings, As Picked by a Computer

Smithsonian Magazine

Computers have entered the art world and brought with them their ability to scan vast digital collections for connections. They are learning how to be art historians and assessing the creativity of painting masters. And now, one computer algorithm has ranked works from the early 1400s to today, on their "creativity," reports Daniel Culpan for Wired UK (via Ars Technica).

Creativity in the algorithm’s programming is defined by computer scientists Ahmed Elgammal and Babek Saleh as how different the artwork is compared to earlier works. They also included to what degree the art influenced works created later. Both of these measures are used by art historians to categorize works by masters. The team reported their process online at They programmed the algorithm to look at color, texture and the scenes and objects the painter chose to paint. The researchers tested their algorithm on 62,000 paintings and came up with a chart. Culpan writes:

The paintings at the top of the chart are those judged by the algorithm to be more original, while those languishing towards the bottom have been rated to be more derivative. The results are interesting, if not altogether surprising; Edvard Munch's instantly recognizable The Scream is considered exceptional, along with Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's bold Yellow Still Life and Monet's serene Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise. In contrast, works by some of the Old Masters, such as Ingres and Rodin, slip down the list—perhaps simply proving the age-old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The researchers concede that originality may not be the best metric by which to measure art. However, many of the paintings that the program ranks highly are those that art historians "highlight as innovative and influential." The computer hasn’t passed humans in this realm just yet, but it can make these assessments faster.

Educational Activities for Antonio: 25 Years of Creative Collaboration

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Educational activities related to online exhibit of works by two fashion illustrators.

Making Middle Eastern Cuisine

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Live now at the #FreerSackler, join us as the “Making Middle Eastern Cuisine” symposium aims to give perspectives from history, anthropology, and literature. The Middle East is home to some of the most storied cuisines in the world, from the refined cuisine of Aleppo to popular street foods like falafel. Schedule: 12:30–2 pm Food and Displacement: Cooking as Refuge, Resistance, and Memory (featuring Anne Meneley, Adel Iskandar, and Laila El-Haddad) This panel brings together scholars and documentarians to discuss the role of food in displaced Syrian and Palestinian communities. 2:15–3:45 pm Writing Middle Eastern Cuisine: Recipes, Stories, and Politics (featuring Tony Tahhan, Reem Kassis, and Annia Ciezadlo) This roundtable discussion on food writing features perspectives from journalism, cookbook publishing, and creative writing. Panelists will share advice and stories from their experiences writing about the diverse cuisines of the Levant. #MidEastCuisine2019 #FreerSackler #MiddleEasternCuisine #Food #MiddleEasternFood #FoodDiscussion #MiddleEasternRecipes #CCAS

Alex Haley

National Portrait Gallery
Born Ithaca, New York

By the early 1960s, Alex Haley had interviewed such prominent figures as Miles Davis and Martin Luther King Jr. for Playboy magazine; in 1965, he collaborated with Malcolm X in writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the acclaimed memoir of the civil rights activist. But it was Haley’s 1976 work about his ancestors, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, that made him a household name.

This charcoal portrait by artist/author Barnaby Conrad Jr. depicts a thoughtful Haley two years before the publication of his Pulitzer Prize–winning book. Conrad became acquainted with Haley while teaching creative writing, later introducing him to the agent who would eventually publish Roots. In 1977 the television miniseries based on the book captivated a record-breaking 130 million viewers. Although the book has since been acknowledged for weak historical scholarship, its significance is irrefutable, marking a sea change in the national understanding of African American history and genealogy.

Journal, 1969

Smithsonian Field Book Project
The field book documents the work of Russell Greenberg completed while attending University of California, Santa Cruz, during November 24, 1969 - April 23, 1970. Inside the front cover are quotes from various authors. Entries are dated and contain narratives and lists; narrative text includes a wide variety of content, regarding personal observations and experiences as well as coursework outside the natural sciences (e.g. creative writing). Field notes contain a combination of information including location, class (e.g. mycology), individuals with whom studying, and detailed observations of wildlife, bird lists, drawings with notations,. These include scientific and common name, habitat (including vegetation), characteristics (sex, size) including measurements. Wildlife observed includes a variety of flora and fauna including invertebrates and birds.

Wealth Is a Strong Predictor of Whether an Individual Pursues a Creative Profession

Smithsonian Magazine

A sweeping survey of 160 years of U.S. demographic data suggests individuals from wealthy families are more likely to pursue careers in creative fields than those from lower-income households.

As Karol Jan Borowiecki, an economist at the University of Southern Denmark, writes in a recent study, someone whose family has an income of $100,000 is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, Borowiecki posits, every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, makes a person two percent more likely to enter a creative field.

The logic behind this math isn’t hard to comprehend: Moneys Kristen Bahler puts it bluntly, “Devoting yourself to the life of a ‘starving artist’ is a lot less risky if your family has enough money to make sure you don’t actually starve.”

In 2017, The New York Times’ Quoctrung Bui quantified this phenomenon using surveys of individuals in their first decade of adulthood. According to Bui’s report, 53 percent of 20-somethings pursuing careers in art and design receive a financial bump from their parents, as opposed to 47 percent of STEM professionals and, at the other end of the spectrum, 29 percent of those working in farming, construction, retail and personal services. On average, parental assistance received by young creatives totaled $3,600 annually; for those in personal services, this figure was closer to $2,200, while for blue collar and military professionals, it amounted to $1,400.

Major obstacles for individuals in creative fields include high entry costs and low financial return.

“Someone who wants to go into graphic design … requires a fair amount of time to get up to the point where you’re independent,” said Patrick Wightman, a researcher at the University of Arizona, who helped Bui analyze the data. “Someone contemplating that kind of career isn’t going to take that first step unless they know they’re going to have that support to take an unpaid internship. If you don’t have other sources of support, that’s not even an option.”

As Artsy’s Anna Louie Sussman points out, private arts schools charge high tuition and offer fewer scholarships than universities with large endowments. Entry-level jobs, particularly in art hubs like New York City, pay little or, in the case of many internships, nothing.

In January 2016, Ben Davis of artnet News, spurred by an email reminding him of video artist Rachel Rose’s family real estate fortune, wrote an article outlining various creatives’ financial backgrounds. He found, for example, that the late Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian artist known for her intricate mirrored mosaics, enjoyed what the Financial Times terms a “privileged upbringing” as the child of wealthy merchants whose father was elected to the country’s parliament. Yoko Ono, meanwhile, is the granddaughter of the founder of Japan’s Yasuda Bank, while late multimedia artist Dash Snow hailed from the De Menil family, which New York’s Ariel Levy once likened to “the closest thing to the Medicis in the United States.”

There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern: Jacob Lawrence was a child of the Great Migration tasked with supporting his mother after she lost her job during the Great Depression. A more recent example is photographer and sculptor Zoe Leonard, the daughter of a Polish refugee. As Davis notes, Leonard describes her family as “not even working-class, … just really poor.”

Borowiecki’s research—based on U.S. census data collected between 1850 and 2010—also explores issues such as racial equality and women’s visibility.

When it comes to race, Borowiecki writes “it takes almost a whole century before the first non-whites appear among artists or authors.” That, of course, doesn’t account for certain blind spots; enslaved people weren’t even counted in the earliest U.S. censuses, and who was counted as an artist in historical census data was subjective. “This could be why it looks like there are no black artists or authors until the mid-20th century,” Browiecki notes. In the most recent U.S. census, non-white Americans now account for 20 percent of individuals in artistic fields. The still-limited number of non-white creatives formally counted corresponds with Browiecki’s work, given that race and income are closely tied, with white families having a significantly higher median income than black and Hispanic families.

One surprising takeaway from Browiecki's work is that beginning in 1890, women became increasingly likely to have a career in the arts. Discounting factors including race, location and income, the study notes that being a woman increases the probability of pursuing creative professions by 18 percent. As Borowiecki concludes, “These results challenge the conventional wisdom that the arts are predominantly a male only domain.”

Arts Degrees: Not Entirely Worthless

Smithsonian Magazine

An education in the arts is widely acknowledged to be good for the soul: it promotes creativity, lateral thinking and an appreciation for some of the more beautiful or interesting parts of human endeavor. But as a way to make money, arts degrees are often seen as a gamble. Compared to fields like business, engineering or technology, the arts just aren't the easiest place to make a living. Yet according to a new report, most arts students are making it work—even if the arts education they received wasn't quite up to snuff.

A new survey by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project that looked at the successes of people who've graduated with arts degrees—getting higher-education training in everything from fine art, film, design and architecture to creative writing—found that most graduates go on to get a job in the arts, says Pacific Standard.

Overall, 65 percent of recent graduates report they were able to find work in arts-related fields—down only slightly from the figure reported by older graduates. A slim majority of recent grads, 52 percent, said they were satisfied with their income. That figure is far below the 63 percent of their older counterparts, but is surely reflects the fact they are younger and more likely to be in entry-level jobs.

Yet the report also identified a gap, says Pacific Standard. While arts education does a good job teaching budding artists how to be artists, it doesn't do nearly enough to teach them how to survive as one. According to the survey responses, art training slacks hard when it comes to business-related skills:

So if you're off at school to feed your soul, have a good time—just don't forget to sign up for Accounting 101. 

When PepsiCola Allowed a Team of Artists to Wreak Creative Havoc

Smithsonian Magazine

pepsi pavilion

The Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 (image: Takeyoshi Tanuma via YCAM)

While Pepsico’s finger may have slipped off the pulse of youth culture when they hired Edward Durell Stone to build their corporate campus, they found it again–briefly–when commissioning designers for their pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan.

Still focusing their marketing on the kids they called the Pepsi Generation, the soda maker initially planned for the pavilion to be a simple bandshell that would host the winner of a global battle-of-the-bands style competition. After all, the kids love rock & roll, right? Japanese architect Tadashi Doi of Takenaka Komuten Co., a general contractor that traces its history back more than 400 years, was commissioned by Pepsi Japan to design the basic structure. Doi’s design for a slightly distorted 120-foot diameter faceted geodesic dome was a radical departure from the rather conservative Modernist headquarters Pepsi moved into that same year. But the dome’s architecture would be the least interesting thing about it.

The battle-of-the-bands idea was quickly scrapped after some internal disagreements among upper-level Pepsi brass. In lieu of a standard rock concert, it was decided that the pavilion would house a truly avant-garde work of contemporary art. Pepsi commissioned a group of artists, musicians and engineers who collaborated together under the name Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) to design and program their pavilion. There were a lot of wheelings, dealings, arguments, misunderstandings and fundamental philosophical disagreements surrounding E.A.T.’s collaboration with Pepsi, but let’s just focus on the design of the installation, because it’s pretty great.

pepsi pavilion osaka

Pepsi Pavilion, Expo ’70(image: Shunk-Kender via Fondation Langlois)

E.A.T. weren’t particularly fond of the space they were given, but instead of ignoring it or opposing the faceted dome structure, they created a series of highly site-specific, integrated installations that dissolved the boundaries between art, technology and space, using the dome’s form against itself to create an immersive multimedia experience they referred to as “a living responsive environment.”

The Pepsi Pavilion engulfed in a cloud of its own making (image: Fujiko Nakaya via Research Library, The Getty Research Institute)

The Pepsi pavilion was a true collaborative effort in which E.A.T. synthesized multiple artistic interventions into a single unified whole. Two of the most prominent programs worked in tandem to literally conceal the architectural design. Most visibly (or invisibly as the case may be), a system of pipes and fog-emitted nozzles, designed by artist Fujiko Nakaya and physicist Thomas Lee, cloaked the dome in an artificial cloud whose shape would change in response to local weather conditions. At times, the cloud was six-feet thick, extending the effect of the Pavilion beyond the boundaries of the dome and prompting complaints from nearby vendors who couldn’t proffer their wares in the haze. Similar ideas and themes would be explored much later by architects Diller Scofidio Renfro, whose, scaffolding-like Blur Building(2002) used spraying misters to create what the architects called “immaterial architecture,” a phrase that echoes E.A.T. member Robert Rauschenberg’s description of the Pepsi project as an “invisible environment.”

pepsi pavilion osaka

The mylar-covered interior of the the Pepsi pavilion (image:  Shunk-Kender via Fondation Langlois)

If the outside of the building was a cloud, than the inside was its silver lining. The main interior space of the dome was dominated by an enormous mirrored Mylar surface held in place by vacuum pressure. In photographs, the inverted reflections created by the mirror almost look like holograms floating in space. As Marcelyn Gow, of the research and design collaborative servo writes, the combination of the fog and the mirror “would actively work to dematerialize the architecture of the pavilion itself. They would simultaneously augment and obscure the structure.” E.A.T. hated the architecture. So, like the strange and wonderful techno-artist-magicians they were, they made it disappear.

Additional programming in the building included electronically modified recordings of natural sounds that corresponded with various floor surfaces – bird tweets might be heard while walking across astroturf, for example. Other exterior elements, visible in the above photographs, included a laser beam space-frame and interactive, sculptural “floats” that move outside the pavilion and respond to movement. Truly keeping with the spirit of the 1960s, the pavilion was a case study in collaboration and participatory design. The interior changed in response to environmental conditions and the number of visitors, who were give some semblance of control over their environment through the interactive components. It’s hard to say more about what it was like to experience the pavilion because, it really was an experience; it was a visceral union of light, sound, and space. In other words, you had to be there, man.

The pavilion was an early example of a productive interaction between arts and industry, something that is so common today we barely even take note of it – see BMW’s collaboration with the Guggenheim, for example. The first lines of the press statement released jointly by E.A.T. and Pepsi-Cola is a paean to the union of the arts and and corporate culture: “E.A.T. is interested in Pepsi-Cola, not art. Our organization tried to interest, seduce and involve industry into participating in the process of making art.” This was a provocative statement to say the least and caused quite a commotion in the art world, many of whom saw little difference between global corporations like Pepsi and the military industrial complex. It came as no surprise then, that the relationship proved untenable and the program was unfortunately short-lived. Pepsi and E.A.T. came to some insurmountable disagreements and the cola giant canceled E.A.T.’s interactive, immersive, and incredibly expensive program with a modified version of their original idea for a music venue- something that Pepsi thought was more accessible for the average visitor.

Still from Masculin Feminin

The conflict between Pepsi’s desire to capture both the revolutionary spirit of avant-garde while also appealing to a broader, popular audience, reminds me of a scene from Masculin Féminin (1966), Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film/essay about a wannabe revolutionary in love with a wannabe pop star, and the dialectics of youth culture in the 1960s. The pop star, Madeleine, is asked by a reporter if she considers herself to be part of the “Pepsi Generation.” Her enthusiastic reply –”Oui! J’adore le Pepsi-Cola!”– is briefly interrupted by a gunshot, which goes completely unacknowledged. Madeleine so perfectly captures the charm and beauty of the youth with whom Pepsi, since the early ’60s, has tried to associate their brand. And yet, for a brief moment in 1970, Pepsi played both roles –revolutionary and pop star– but ultimately, like Madeleine, they ultimately chose to remain willingly oblivious to the burgeoning revolution, abandoning the barricades for pop culture adoration.

Invention at Play Homepage

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibit exploring the playful side of invention and the inventive side of play. Interactive games, inventors' stories, video commentaries, and toy displays show how play connects to the creative impulse that is fundamental to the work of invention.

Debunking the Mechanical Turk Helped Set Edgar Allan Poe on the Path to Mystery Writing

Smithsonian Magazine

A mechanical marvel may have helped set Edgar Allan Poe on his life’s creative path.

At the beginning of the 1770s, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a European inventor, premiered his newest creation: a robotic chess player. “Known initially as the Automaton Chess Player and later as the Mechanical Turk—or just the Turk—the machine consisted of a mechanical man dressed in robes and a turban who sat at a wooden cabinet that was overlaid with a chessboard,” writes Ella Morton for Mental Floss. “The Turk was designed to play chess against any opponent game enough to challenge him.” It toured Europe, beating the likes of Benjamin Franklin. Eventually, it was sold to Johann Maelzel, who took the Turk on its biggest adventure yet.

When the Mechanical Turk came to America in April 1826, writes historian Stephen P. Rice, over a hundred people gathered to see its New York debut, and thousands read rave reviews in the newspapers the next day.

“Nothing of a similar nature has ever been seen in this city, that will bear the smallest comparison with it,” wrote the New York Evening Post. Naturally, people were curious how the new man-made wonder worked, Rice writes, leading to further press as Maelzel took the Turk on a tour of the United States.

But it wasn’t just the novelty of a chess-playing robot that kept the conversation going. People were extra-interested in the Turk, he writes, because the fast mechanization of the industrial age had everybody questioning what kinds of work machines could do and just how many human functions they could replace.

Most people, though, thought that Maelzel’s chess player was a fake—not a thinking machine at all, but a simple automaton controlled by a human. The puzzle was how it was controlled–which is where a young Edgar Allan Poe comes in.

“Many writers found inspiration in the Turk,” writes Lincoln Michel for The Paris Review. Poe was chief among them, publishing the essay “Maelzel’s Chess Player” in 1836 in an attempt to debunk the hoax.

If the Turk was a “pure machine,” Poe wrote, it would always win, every time. In total, he offered seven criteria reasoning why the Turk had to be a hoax–a model that bears parallels to Poe's fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin’s method of “ratiocination.”

After due consideration, Poe believed that a small man actually crawled into the body of the Turk and operated it from within. Although the author was right in identifying the hoax, he was wrong about how it was done. The truth was a human sat inside the cabinet. The Museum of Hoaxes writes:

A series of sliding panels and a rolling chair allowed the automaton's operator to hide while the interior of the machine was being displayed. The operator then controlled the Turk by means of a 'pantograph' device that synchronized his arm movements with those of the wooden Turk. Magnetic chess pieces allowed him to know what pieces were being moved on the board above his head.

Maelzel and the Turk’s original owner tended to employ chess champions to work the machine, the museum writes, explaining why it won so often.

After seeing the Turk, Mechel writes, Poe went on to write the first detective stories. But he also conducted “hoaxes of his own, most famously the Balloon-Hoax of 1844, in which he wrote a series of fictionalized newspaper articles about a three-day trans-Atlantic balloon flight.”

Ideas come from the strangest places.

Educational Software for Use with the Commodore 64 Microcomputer, Reading Professor

National Museum of American History
This group of five educational computer programs was developed for the Commodore 64 during the 1980s. Each program has its original box, the 5 ¼” software diskettes, and the user manual.

Word Shuttle

This word processing program was released in 1985 and included a 42-page user guide and two keyboard overlays. Word Shuttle was the official word processor of the Young Astronaut Program which operated between 1984 and 2004. The objective of this international educational curriculum was to promote greater interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through space-themed activities, experiments, and conferences.

Sky Travel

This astronomy program, designed for persons ages 12 and up, was released in 1984 and included a 138-page manual. It provided an interactive guided tour of the universe—in the past, present, and future. The universe model could show the location of more than 1,200 stars, 88 constellations, 8 planets, deep sky objects, and the (then) future appearance (1986) of Halley’s comet. The program had four basic modes: map, set, sky, and chart. Map was used to select the location on Earth; month, day, year, and time were determined in set; optional displays were chosen in sky; and chart was used to project the sky on a celestial sphere with coordinate lines for creating, viewing, and printing your own star charts.


This creative writing program, released in 1984 for individuals of all ages, included a 20-page manual. The user could create colorful animated stories by selecting up to three animated characters from the twenty-five provided, choosing one of nine backgrounds, and a few of the 48 stationary objects. The author then wrote a story to match the selected graphics. While different parts of the program loaded it displayed random trivia facts from the 300 stored on the diskette. The story could be played back and saved to diskette. The introduction in the manual states that “JUST IMAGINE… is another example of Commodore’s commitment to excellence-in-education through technology.”

Reading Professor

This reading program, released in 1984, was designed to teach reading skills to high school-age students as well as adults. Included with the two software diskettes was a 40-page user guide. The program provided a series of ten 20-minute lessons to increase reading speed and improve comprehension by presenting specific techniques for eliminating bad reading habits and developing new skills. It has a library of reading materials with three reading levels--High School, College and Adult, and Professional--each level with 32 reading selections. The program used seven types of exercises to monitor and log progress and success.

Typing Professor

This typing program, released in 1984 for individuals ages 12 and up, included a 20-page manual, two cassettes for use with a Commodore 16, and a diskette for use with either a Commodore 64 or Commodore Plus/4.

Students could learn the basics of touch typing or learn to improve their typing speed. The program had 19 exercises which increased in difficulty. Each exercise contained a score chart that calculated and recorded the number of errors, error rate, and typing speed. The exercises were timed and the student could not exceed the acceptable error rate before beginning the next exercise. The allowed error rate started at 4% for lesson 1 and decreased to 1% for lessons 16-19. The goal for lesson 19 was 35 words per minute with a less than 1% error rate.
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