What Are Literature, Philosophy & History For? Alain de Botton Explains with Monty Python-Style Videos

Once upon a time, questions about the use-value of art were the height of philistinism. “All art is quite useless,” wrote the aesthete Oscar Wilde, presaging the attitudes of modernists to come. Explaining this statement in a letter to a perplexed fan, Wilde opined that art “is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.” But if you ask Alain de Botton, founder of “cultural enterprise,” The School of Life, art—or literature specifically—does indeed have a practical purpose. Four to be precise.

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The First Photograph of a Human Being

Human01D“I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.”
LOUIS DAGUERRE, 1839

This picture, the earliest known photograph to include a recognizable human form, was taken in Paris, France, in 1838 by Louis Daguerre. The human in question is standing in the bottom-left of the photograph, on the pavement by the curve in the road. He is having his boots shined.

The exposure time for the image was around seven minutes, and although the street would have been busy with traffic and pedestrians, it appears deserted. Everything moving was too fast to register on the plate.

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The Disappearing Planet: Comparing the Extinction Rates of Animals

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 6.08.01 PMThe subtly designed A Disappearing Planet by freelance data journalist Anna Flagg reveals the extinction rates of animals, caused by a variety of human-caused effects, including climate change, habitat destruction and species displacement.

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Back to Square One: Toward a Post-Intentional Future

by Scott Bakker

“… when you are actually challenged to think of pre-Darwinian answers to the question ‘What is Man?’ ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ ‘What are we for?’, can you, as a matter of fact, think of any that are not now worthless except for their (considerable) historic interest? There is such a thing as being just plain wrong and that is what before 1859, all answers to those questions were.” (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 267)

Biocentrism is dead for the same reason geocentrism is dead for the same reason all of our prescientific theories regarding nature are dead: our traditional assumptions simply could not withstand scientific scrutiny. All things being equal, we have no reason to think our nature will conform to our prescientific assumptions any more than any other nature has historically. Humans are prone to draw erroneous conclusions in the absence of information. In many cases, we find our stories more convincing the less information we possess! [1]. So it should come as no surprise that the sciences, which turn on the accumulation of information, would consistently overthrow traditional views. All things being equal, we should expect any scientific investigation of our nature will out and out contradict our traditional self-understanding.

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Photographer Documents the Death of Real-Life Conversation

convothumbAs our smartphones make it easier to connect with people across the globe, they often can make it harder to connect face-to-face.

London-based photographer Babycakes Romero doesn’t own a smartphone. Instead, he treks along in his beloved city, camera in hand, capturing whatever catches his eye. “As a person dedicated to observation, I just feel I would be missing too much of the world around me if I was staring into the palm of my hand the whole time,” he says.

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Belief, Reason, and the Origins of the World in a Striking Series of 19th-Century Illustrations

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“Manufacture of coal” illustration from “God in nature and revelation” (1875) (all images via Internet Archive Book Images)

Galileo and other troublemakers aside, science and religion didn’t have such a complete falling out until the 19th century. It was roughly 200 years ago when researchers started regularly digging up archaeological and paleontological evidence that dated the Earth far earlier than Genesis suggested, and then a man named Darwin was publishing some troubling suggestions on the evolution of life in his 1859 The Origin of Species. But that didn’t mean the sides of belief and reason completely split in two. There were those who tried for a middle ground.

One of the forgotten natural theology books to come out of this era was God in Nature and Revelation (1875) by Reverend J. M. Woodman, published in the United States by J.G. Hodge & Co. It proclaims itself a “teacher of natural, mental, and moral philosophy, of natural and revealed religion” on its title page, joined by an illustration of Jesus standing on the planet alongside encircled by man and beast alike. Throughout the text are links between the Bible and the scientific formation of the world, but questionable connections aside, the accompanying images are surprisingly intriguing. The world is shown as a repeating orb, changes in the rise and fall of the oceans and the sediments shaded in, all the while the sun never stops glaring down on the proceedings as a constant reminder of a holy influence. It’s the Victorian romanticizing of science and nature colliding with religion.

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How a Fluxus Pioneer Tuned Televisions to a World of Noise

Wolf Vostell, ‘Endogene Depression’ installation view (all images courtesy of galerie Anne de Villepoix unless otherwise noted)

Wolf Vostell, ‘Endogene Depression’ installation view (all images courtesy of galerie Anne de Villepoix and hyperallergic.com unless otherwise noted)

PARIS — Following on the heels of the Jean Dupuy and Robert Filliou gallery exhibitions, a third radical Fluxus-related artist is receiving a museum-quality gallery show in Paris: Wolf Vostell. Vostell was a German who, as an art student in Paris, was co-initiator of the European wing of the Fluxus art movement in the late 1950s and founder of the European Happening scene based in Cologne.

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Visitors in Lake Tahoe Are Taking Too Many Bear Selfies

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A black bear in Taylor Creek near South Lake Tahoe, California, in 2008. IMAGE: RICH PEDRONCELLI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Conventional wisdom stipulates that upon seeing a wild bear, one should not go near said bear. One should also avoid taking a picture of oneself with said bear.

Visitors to Lake Tahoe this month laugh in the face of conventional wisdom, though. The number of visitors attempting to take selfies with bears in the area has caused the U.S. Forest Service to issue a statement requesting that visitors keep a safe distance from the animals.

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Olafur Eliasson to Show 112 Tons of Ice for ‘Ice Watch’

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Olafur Eliasson: Ice pavilion, 1998. COURTESY http://olafureliasson.net/

COURTESY GROUP GREENLAND

On Sunday, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing will unveil Ice Watch, an installation that will bring 100 tonnes (equivalent to 112 tons) of ice to Copenhagen’s City Hall Square. Taken from a fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland, and displayed like a clock, the installation’s twelve large blocks represent the amount of ice that melts every hundredth of a second due to climate change—a number that will only increase over time.

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Elsa Schiaparelli and the Surrealists

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí

Elsa Schiaparelli (center) with Salvador Dalí (right), 1949. COLLECTION OF MERYLE SECREST

Long before visitors lined up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Alexander McQueen retrospective, the worlds of fashion and art collided in the Surrealist designs of Elsa Schiaparelli. The Italian-born couturier—as famed in her heyday as Coco Chanel—is the subject of Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography (Knopf), in which author Meryle Secrest investigates the designer’s ties with Salvador Dalí, Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, and other members of the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s and ’30s.

Schiaparelli was particularly close with Dalí, with whom she made the memorable “Lobster Dress,” “Shoe Hat,” and “Tears Dress.” The last is a slender gown and veil patterned with Dalí’s trompe l’oeil rips and tears to give the illusion of lacerated flesh. “Dalí had some pretty crazy ideas,” Secrest tells ARTnews, “and one of them revolved around the necrophiliac fantasy of the corpse who comes back to life with all the skin torn off,” as seen in his 1936 painting Necrophiliac Springtime. Yet the fabric Schiaparelli concocted “isn’t macabre at all,” Secrest adds. “In her hands, the concept becomes something unusual and strange, but not sadistic.”

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