Monday, April 30, 2007

Elucidating Madness

I read the following editorial in Time magazine tonight at the gym. It's a very compelling piece of writing and I can't say I disagree--what do you think?

It's All About Him

by David von Drehle

My reporter's odyssey has taken me from the chill dawn outside the Florida prison in which serial killer Ted Bundy met his end, to the charred façade of a Bronx nightclub where Julio Gonzalez incinerated 87 people, to a muddy Colorado hillside overlooking the Columbine High School library, in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wrought their mayhem. Along the way, I've come to believe that we're looking for why in all the wrong places.

I've lost interest in the cracks, chips, holes and broken places in the lives of men like Cho Seung-Hui, the mass murderer of Virginia Tech. The pain, grievances and self-pity of mass killers are only symptoms of the real explanation. Those who do these things share one common trait. They are raging narcissists. "I died--like Jesus Christ," Cho said in a video sent to NBC.

Psychologists from South Africa to Chicago have begun to recognize that extreme self-centeredness is the forest in these stories, and all the other things-- guns, games, lyrics, pornography--are just trees. To list the traits of the narcissist is enough to prove the point: grandiosity, numbness to the needs and pain of others, emotional isolation, resentment and envy.

In interviews with Ted Bundy taped a quarter-century ago, journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth captured the essence of homicidal narcissism. Through hour after tedious hour, a man who killed 30 or more young women and girls preened for his audience. He spoke of himself as an actor, of life as a series of roles and of other people as props and scenery. His desires were simple: "control" and "mastery." He took whatever he wanted, from shoplifted tube socks to human lives, because nothing mattered beyond his desires. Bundy said he was always surprised that anyone noticed his victims had vanished. "I mean, there are so many people," he explained. The only death he regretted was his own.

Criminologists distinguish between serial killers like Bundy, whose crimes occur one at a time and who try hard to avoid capture, and mass killers like Cho. But the central role of narcissism plainly connects them. Only a narcissist could decide that his alienation should be underlined in the blood of strangers. The flamboyant nature of these crimes is like a neon sign pointing to the truth. Charles Whitman playing God in his Texas clock tower, James Huberty spraying lead in a California restaurant, Harris and Klebold in their theatrical trench coats--they're all stars in the cinema of their self-absorbed minds.

Freud explained narcissism as a failure to grow up. All infants are narcissists, he pointed out, but as we grow, we ought to learn that other people have lives independent of our own. It's not their job to please us, applaud for us or even notice us--let alone die because we're unhappy.

A generation ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch diagnosed narcissism as the signal disorder of contemporary American culture. The cult of celebrity, the marketing of instant gratification, skepticism toward moral codes and the politics of victimhood were signs of a society regressing toward the infant stage. You don't have to buy Freud's explanation or Lasch's indictment, however, to see an immediate danger in the way we examine the lives of mass killers. Earnestly and honestly, detectives and journalists dig up apparent clues and weave them into a sort of explanation. In the days after Columbine, for example, Harris and Klebold emerged as alienated misfits in the jock culture of their suburban high school. We learned about their morbid taste in music and their violent video games. Largely missing, though, was the proper frame around the picture: the extreme narcissism that licensed these boys, in their minds, to murder their teachers and classmates.

Something similar is now going on with Cho, whose florid writings and videos were an almanac of gripes. "I'm so lonely," he moped to a teacher, failing to mention that he often refused to answer even when people said hello. Of course he was lonely.

In Holocaust studies, there is a school of thought that says to explain is to forgive. I won't go that far. But we must stop explaining killers on their terms. Minus the clear context of narcissism, the biographical details of these men can begin to look like a plausible chain of cause and effect--especially to other narcissists. And they don't need any more encouragement.

There's a telling moment in Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine, in which singer Marilyn Manson dismisses the idea that listening to his lyrics contributed to the disintegration of Harris and Klebold. What the Columbine killers needed, Manson suggests, was for someone to listen to them. This is the narcissist's view of narcissism: everything would be fine if only he received more attention. The real problem can be found in the killer's mirror.


Paula Rego

May's art quote (above) is by artist Paula Rego.

The Policeman's Daughter, oil on canvas, 213 x 152 cm, 1987

The Policeman's Daughter has always been one of my favorite Rego works. It is striking in content, composition, and emotional impact. It has always made me think of Sylvia Plath's poem, "Daddy." (1) (2)

Here's what the Saatchi Gallery website had to say about this image:

"In the late 1980's Paula Rego made a series of painting to explore close family relationships. All the relationships seem somewhat dysfunctional, particularly those between the fathers and the daughters. The Policeman's Daughter is angry, her hand rammed into her father's boot as she cleans it, a drawing for the painting shows its genesis in a relationship that is a little more innocent - a younger girl, cradling the boot as she cleans it, a toy castle symbolising security at her feet. In the painting, the castle has become a mistrustful cat, and the pose of the girl, taken from a sexually-explicit Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, anything but innocent."

More of her works are available for viewing on the Saatchi Gallery website. (3)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Poem:
The Duck, by Ogden Nash

In seventh grade, we made a poetry journal. We had to collect a percentage of poems from other poets and write some of our own as well. This poem by Ogden Nash is one I remember fondly. Maybe at some point, I'll try to find that poetry journal and publish some of my original poems in my seventh grade mind here on my blog.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Amanda Baggs Breaks the Silence

I saw this on CNN this past weekend. While it is not technically about the subject of art, it is a wonderful story I had to share. Amanda Baggs is a woman with autism who communicates through a computer keyboard and a voice generator. She even makes her own videos and has a website. She calls her website a "non-site" and has some pretty entertaining and compelling FAQs on it.

She seems to be on the same page as I am as it regards to the "medicalization of deviance." CNN is definitely not.
"At its core, autism is a developmental disorder of communication. There is no cure. No one knows the precise causes, but recent science points towards a genetic component with a possible environmental trigger."

If something is different, we have to figure out what's wrong. Why is that? Perhaps Autism is a yet not understood form of kinesthetic or synesthetic communication that we can't decipher. Sure, their functioning in THIS WORLD is impaired, but what about in other "worlds" or other groups. Some have an uncanny knack with understanding and communicating with animals. Shouldn't that be considered a superpower? *

She made a video called "In My Language" in which she gives us a glimpse into what her world is like. Frankly, it's almost mystical and definitely artful.

* Read Dr. Temple Grandin's statement on thinking in pictures. She has a form of autism and has been able to understand cattle and developed innovations in farming and slaughter that calm the animals as well as applied the knowledge to changing environments to calm autistic children.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Comic Abstraction

Speech Bubbles, by Philippe Parreno, mylar and helium, 1997

The MoMA has a great online exhibition. It's called "Comic Abstraction" and it is on view from March 4 - June 11, 2007 if you want to check it out. There are interviews you can read as well as audio commentary.

Here is an excerpt that describes the exhibition from the MoMA website....

"In recent years a number of artists have transmuted the lexicon of comic strips and films,cartoons, and animation into a new, representational mode of "comic abstraction" to address perplexing issues about war and global conflicts, the legacy of September 11, and ethnic and cultural stereotyping. From Julie Mehretu's intricately layered paintings—in which she uses cartoon explosions to portray the changing histories of civilizations as a result of warfare—to Arturo Herrera's psychological collages, made by slicing and reconfiguring the pages of Walt Disney coloring books, and from Ellen Gallagher's seductively Minimalist paintings permeated by "blackface" signs culled from minstrel performances to Rivane Neuenschwander's wiped-out cartoon characters in the series Zé Carioca, the world of comic abstraction reflects the intensely personal relationship that many contemporary artists maintain with the political makeup of the world. The image of popular culture is so imprinted in our consciousness that the partial or total erasure of its iconography always remains recognizable. Bridging the rift between abstract form and social consciousness in ways that are critical and playful in tandem, this exhibition presents the first investigation into the experimental outgrowths of comic abstraction." (1)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Speaking Ill of the Dead

Faux News has done it again. They've displayed their deep, not-so-hidden resentment for anyone with a brain that doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator like they do. The following report is an obituary, if you can believe it, for a human being who deserves the minimum respect a human being is due--that is, to not speak ill of them after their passing. But as always, courtesy and social mores are out the window when it comes to Faux news. Instead of reporting on Kurt Vonnegut's death in their true, fair and balanced manner, they portray the author as a failed writer, failed actor, and a person who failed at suicide. Summary: Kurt Vonnegut is a failure. By whose standards? Faux news? The insinuation in and of itself is absurd. What they don't like about him is that they KNOW he was talking about them and their ilk before half of them were born. He exposes their idiocy, their greed, and most of all, their banal mediocrity. What do they go and do with Vonnegut's obituary? They prove him right.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Crystal Bridges Secures an Eakins Anyway


Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand, 1874

After the battle over Eakins' The Gross Clinic, Alice Walton has purchased a different Eakins painting for the Crystal Bridges American Art Museum. The subject, "Dr. Rand, who once taught Eakins anatomy, donated his portrait to the university when he retired in 1877. Proceeds from the sale, which experts familiar with the deal put at about $20 million, will go toward the expansion of its educational and research programs and development of its 13-acre Center City campus." (1)

Rand family profile.

A Very Sad Day
Kurt Vonnegut Dies (b. 1922; d. April 11, 2007)

I remember my first encounter with Kurt Vonnegut. I was in tenth grade English class when we read his short story, Harrison Bergeron. I was immediately mesmerized. He was the type of person you'd shoosh others to hear if he appeared on television. He was a sage and a humorist. I believe the world loses something extremely precious when a comedian or humorist dies--especially as the world gets more serious and the laughs spaced further apart.

The world has lost so much more with the passing of Kurt Vonnegut. He wasn't just a humorist, but a perceptive satire writer and wise man who understood the human condition in all its absurdity--particularly, the absurdity of war. He understood irony acutely and was more than able to point out our ever-increasing hypocrisies in our human endeavors and relationships. He was living proof that close confrontation with tragedy and evil can make a person wise beyond measure having been shaped by his experience as a POW in World War II and witnessing the total annhilation of Dresden and having to help dispose of the bodies for mass burial. He was recently critical of the Bush Administration in his book A Man Without a Country.

Most people are aware of Vonnegut's writing, but few know of his graphic art. Here is a link with samples.

Trout 44

I find it strange that a student gave me a Kurt Vonnegut book only last week and here I am writing my reaction to his death. It seems very Vonnegut. I will miss him for his satire and dark humor, his sage wisdom, his political and anthropological awareness, and his spirit of defiance. There is a gaping hole in the literary world today that may never be filled.

Here is an NPR interview with Vonnegut from January, 2006.

His regular website was closed today ( and had merely a splash page of the following image with the dates of the span of his life....

This bird has flown.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Printmaking at its Best

I love Käthe Kollwitz's printmaking. What more can I say when it speaks so poignantly and powerfully for itself?

Saturday, April 07, 2007


This art classic is a series of classics. Sometimes an entire body of work by an artist is poignant. This is especially true of the photographs of the child labor force by Lewis Hine during the early twentieth century in America.*

Biography of Lewis Hine.

It is a difficult thing to create art about subject matter that is tragic. The artist has to walk a thin line between expressing the subject in its pure state and avoiding the pitfall of aestheticizing that subject. Lewis Hine's photographs of the child labor force show an unflinching eye trained on one of the dominant social issues and tragedies in America during the early twentieth century.

Mill Girl

From our 21st century standpoint, the conditions in which these children worked were appalling, and it is still shocking to see children working in factories. We are also aware that child labor is still being used in underdeveloped and third world nations today. Lewis Hine doesn't just capture the conditions. He captures the broken spirit of the children. They appear tired and jaded due to sometimes as many as 10-hour work days. Their clothing, hands, and faces are dirty and they have bags under their eyes. They work barefoot around dangerous machinery and work in coal mines and mills.

Hine's photographs also serve as a stark reminder of class differences. These children worked because they HAD to. Middle and upper class children were NOT working. If a child's father was injured on the job (which was often the case), children often had to go to work to support their families. Many were poor immigrants or disenfranchised farmers who moved to urban areas and had to work for a "boss" for the first time in their family's history.

Breaker Boys, 1910

Aesthetically speaking, Lewis Hine is making documentary photography, but he creates portraits of ghosts to the contemporary eye because these visages still haunt us. They were portraits of ghosts at the time because the subjects' childhoods had died. They haunt us still because, although we are only marginally aware of the use of child labor today (due to a lack of coverage in the media), we are nonetheless aware. Here is a link to an article by Human Rights Watch.

Breaker Boys, Pittston PA, January 16, 1911

Some actually support the use of child labor, if one can believe it. They often state that children have always been a part of the labor force, whether industrial or agrarian, and should still be used. They always add: 'as long as the conditions are safe.' I would argue that there is no such thing as safe conditions in factory work when it concerns children. When children worked with their families on farms, they worked with people who cared for them in close proximity, and only allowed them to do work their bodies were suited for--as they grew older, they obviously did more. Lewis Hine's photographs show us children that are being "used up." The industry or corporation had no and still has no vested interest in providing safe conditions for child labor because 1) the children don't belong to them, and therefore, they have no emotional connection to them--especially if they think having child labor is okay in the first place; and 2) safety regulations and limitations negatively affect their bottom line, which is the primary concern of any business.

While no sane person would advocate child labor, Lewis Hine's photographs make us question the nature of childhood--especially through our contemporary lens. We see faces like these today in the United States and other developed nations. They appear just as jaded and tired but have not worked in factories. Some are steeped in poverty. Some have been abused. Some haven't had their bodies worked, but have had their minds worked to exhaustion. There is more to learn than ever and even more to forget. They are bombarded with information so they can pass "tests." They watch hours of television that gets less intelligent with every passing second. They witness fantasy violence in television and video games to an unprecedented level. They come from broken homes. Perhaps we are more aware than ever of the dream versus the reality of childhood.

Is this childhood?

The Pied Piper by Kate Greenaway

Is this?

Unidentified Victorian Children

Is this?

Sunset by Norman Rockwell

Is this?

Television's The Brady Bunch

Are the images immediately above representations of our fantasy of childhood or are they representations of childhoods only available to a few or in manners of degree in all childhoods? If they are fantasies, why do we create them? Why do we seek to distinguish childhood from other phases of life and represent it in arcadian, idealistic, innocent, and idyllic terms and images? Perhaps some have access to these ideal childhoods, but it seems far more do not. Is Jack Nicholson right in As Good as it Gets? (I apologize for the sound quality):

I believe an "Art Classic" gives the viewer something to chew on or ponder, confronts our values and beliefs, and "wakes us up" to something--be it beauty, tragedy, joy, horror, or the sublime (among others). Lewis Hine's photographs are art classics because he captures a phase in history and the character of the people portrayed, exposes us to our guilt and complicity in the use of child labor, or the purchasing of goods made through child labor, illuminates class differences, reveals childhood as it often and sadly is, and reminds us of what business/corporations/industries are capable of if given free reign and no regulations.

Coupling Boy and
Rhodes Manufacturing Co., Spinner

* Here is a rather extensive digital collection of Lewis Hine's child labor photographs.

© Stephanie Lewis, 2007

Friday, April 06, 2007

From the Mind of Miranda July

I became a fan of Miranda July after watching her first feature-length film, Me, You, and Everyone We Know. I've been keeping up with her since then. She is a filmmaker, artist, performance artist and "musician." She's the closest thing we have to a modern-day Dada artist that we have. Here is an audio sample. It is called The Arky Girl:

I'm sure her music would be lost on many but her films and performance art are wonder-full. Recently she announced a book of stories she has written. It is called "No One Belongs Here More Than You." In true Miranda fashion, she has created a quirky website to promote it using a dry erase marker and kitchen appliances. If her films, websites, performance art and interactive art projects are any indication, her book should be intriguing to say the least.

Here is a link to a page of her interactive art project, Learning to Love You More; and a link to her all-girl video chainletter called Joanie 4 Jackie. If you don't "get it" click on the link on the bottom right that says "I don't get it." From there, click on the upper left links and watch various video clips from the video chainletter.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I'm On Technorati

Technorati Profile

A Poem

I was reminded of a poem today--or I reminded myself. It was back in high school that I first encountered it and it immediately attracted me to the work of e.e. cummings.

maggie and millie and mollie and may

by e.e. cummings

maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star

whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing

which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone

as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it's always ourselves we find in the sea

Monday, April 02, 2007

Another Art Controversy

It seems like the season for controversial art of a religious nature. Easter must be in the air. First, there was the chocolate sculpture of Jesus called My Sweet Lord, and now this sculpture of Barack Obama AS Jesus.