Thursday, June 30, 2005

I Carry Designer Viruses

Nearing what I trust is the end of a long convalescence, my immune system has been busy producing B-cell lymphocytes which are presumably developing antibodies to combat what remains of the infection. The virus, though symptomatically similar to Epstein-Barr virus (“mono”) and cytomegalovirus (CMV), remains unidentified despite several blood tests, the last of which I had this morning.

Upon arriving at work, I spoke with a doctor affiliated with the National Institute of Health, who became quite interested when I described my situation. Apparently, he had just returned from a weekly medical seminar and the topic of the week had been a strange, “mono”-like virus that doctors have yet to figure out. The lecture focused on a woman from Cape Cod who became so sick, once infected, that she was forced to resort to steroids to prevent further throat swelling and to regain energy. My symptoms and liver counts fit the bill for this “new” virus, and the doctor I spoke with is very excited about the possibility of “another” case study.

Knowing that the virus I'm host to might very well be a “new” one, I've been reading reports of the coming virus bloom more closely. Many epidemiologists predict that this century will see an increase in serious viral pandemics and this article in The Guardian focuses on one such virologist, Albert Osterhaus. Osterhaus is most concerned with flu epidemics and he, like Dr. Robert Glasser (“We Are Not Immune,” Harper’s Magazine), reminds us that our focus on bioterrorism is misguided. “[The money spent combating bio-terrorism threats is] fine, but we should not forget that the main bio-terrorist is nature herself. Flu is knocking on the door. It is only a matter of time.”

Dr. Glasser puts it even more dramatically.
“Bioterrorism is a remote threat and a massive attack is very unlikely, but it captures the imagination of weak-minded politicians and a populace raised on movies starring Bruce Willis. The truly imminent biological threat, which all public-health experts agree will inevitably strike, is an influenza pandemic.”
Be forewarned….and Gesundheit!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Jack Beatty's terrific "Markets Gone Wild: American history and the myth of free trade," included in the June 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, should be of interest to anyone curious about economic philosophy and American history.

Beatty portrays the contemporary American socio-political and socio-economic landscapes with more originality than I did in my recent post "Absolutely Relative,", though he, too, turns to Alexis de Tocqueville for then-and-now perspective. de Tocqueville offers readers a wealth of valuable material, but I hadn't before read anything as prescient as the below.
"Ideology - everything will work out for the best in the long run - sustains inevitability. But mass trances cannot be counted on to hold. The spell of inevitability has been broken before."

"Should Americans lose their capacity for self interest, Tocqueville feared, American individualism would produce a society of post-political strangers who stay 'enclosed in their own hearts,' beyond collective anger, and laiable to pacification by the 'immense tutelary power' of a soft despotism."
Only a devoted scholar of history and culture could have so accurately predicted our current American condition...over 160 years ago! de Tocqueville's observations stand as a challenge to those bottom-line thinkers that deny the vitality of the humanities or the importance of a grounding in history. A world of specialists is a world of "post-political strangers."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Absolutely Relative

“In his homily to his fellow-cardinals, on the first morning of their conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger had warned that modern society was threatened by a 'dictatorship of relativism.' But it might have been more accurate to say that it is threatened by a dictatorship of absolutisms, including his own. This is a world in the tightening grip of orthodoxy, of literal ‘truths’ and crusading certainties…”
-Jane Kramer, “Holy Orders” (The New Yorker, May 2, 2005
Though Kramer turns a nice phrase in her Talk of the Town piece, her conclusions are too neat. While it's true that the Bush administration is comprised of a veritable Who’s Who of moral absolutists and that the conservative evangelical crusade embraces relative absolutism (i.e., the execution of criminals is morally sanctioned, whereas the abortion of unwanted babies is not), the western world at large is dominated by relativism, not absolutism.

Post-modern thought, the dominant intellectual force in our time, is grounded in relativism. Relativism, of course, can be a very positive thing, allowing for empathy and more complex analysis. As Jean-Paul Sartre argued, relativism grants an individual the moral perspective needed to pass judgment fairly.

Unfortunately, relativism has a dark side, too. Although it's good that a majority of today's youth is more willing than their parents to acknowledge complexity, their doing so often results in feelings of insignificance, even irrelevancy. These feelings engender apathy. How much easier is it to play video games than to design them? Moreover, how much easier is it to design video games than to face the challenging questions of the day? Celebrity and wealth are considered prerequisites for relevance; both are hard to come by, so why should we give a shit? Why shouldn’t we put all our stock into American Idol tryouts and the spread of corporate capital? Such questions are ultimately unanswerable if examined through a post-modern lens.

Apathy outfits the populace with blinders. A woeful lack of popular engagement in politics means that politicians have an easier time passing suspect legislation, legislation that drains the disenfranchised of their funds, opportunities and real estate. Compounding matters, the marketing machine has an easier time selling snake oil, stripping bare the already shallow pockets of the majority. It's a familiar scenario; our political and financial systems continue to bleed those who don’t care to involve themselves. Of late, the bleeding has become a hemorrhage.

I’m simplifying the equation; there are a great many variables that should be considered. Yet I can not disagree with Pope Benedict XVI. Modern society is in danger of becoming feudal and “the dictatorship of relativism” has much blood on its hands. So what is to be done? Can we marry some degree of absolutism with relativism?

Photo credit: uncredited

Friday, June 24, 2005

I've Got Some Explaining To Do

“Conservation is also about choices in our daily lives. It’s not only about how we commute to work but whether we choose to commute at all. It’s about what kind of fabrics we wear and what kind of beverage containers we buy. It’s even about the kind of heating we have in our homes.”

-George Reiger, “Heron Hill Chronicles”
My recent “Where’s the Beef?” post inspired a reader to send me an email that, using unnecessarily harsh language, made explicitly clear his opinion that my diet is nonsensical and unethical. Each to his or her own; I suppose I should turn the other cheek, so to speak, but the reader's invective makes me think that I should better elucidate my choices.

My diet's principal motivation is environmental and rational. I prohibit meat consumption unless I have hunted or fished the creature myself. The water and land use problems associated with industrial meat farming can not be ignored. More strict federal regulation of grazing, feeding and watering practices would no doubt ameliorate their negative impact, but such legislative salves can not eliminate the fundamental environmental challenges posed by large-scale, commercial meat production. According to the USDA, growing crops for farm animals requires nearly half of the U.S. water supply and 80% of its agricultural land! Those are astounding (and very troubling) numbers. The steep decline in offshore fish populations makes poorly regulated commercial fishing ecologically untenable, as well. Surf and turf consumption is therefore unethical. There's no other way to put it.

The ethical call may sound Sisyphean to many of us, but every individual should be compelled (by his or her conscience) to do what they can to mitigate our negative impact. Certainly, as my angry reader points out, plastics (made from oil) are ubiquitous, industrial dairy farms are responsible for environmental problems, and cotton, the base ingredient of my wardrobe, is the among the world's most environmentally destructive crops. While it is difficult for me to avoid consuming plastic products, cotton clothing and milk, I can (and do) take simple steps to avoid these items as much as possible. An increasing percentage of my wardrobe is now hemp or synthetic (also problematic, but not as bad as cotton) and I buy only soy or organic dairy products. If, however, I’m dining at a restaurant that doesn’t offer such alternatives, I won’t refuse the cheese that I'm served. Without retreating to ascetic life, each of us must pick our battles after considering the facts, and I believe that industrialized meat production is among the most serious threats to the world’s environment and to human rights.

Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher, ethicist, and author of “Animal Liberation,” sums up my dietary habits well.
The Peter Singer suggested diet:

- replace animal flesh with plant foods
- replace factory farm eggs with free-range eggs if you can get them; otherwise avoid eggs
- replace the milk and cheese you buy with soymilk, tofu, or other plant foods, but do not feel obliged to go to great lengths to avoid all food containing milk products
It may seem surprising that Singer, a father of the contemporary animal rights movement, should serve as a guideline for a hunter and fisherman. Though animal rights concerns wasn't the principal motivation for my shift to vegetarianism, I do consider such moral considerations integral to my mongrel philosophy.

A moral hunter aims to make every kill as humane as he (and, increasingly, she) possibly can. Unfortunately, even the best hunters will sometimes make a poor shot, and I am deeply disturbed by the long minutes spent tracking a wounded deer or the quiet, slow-motion gasps of a mourning dove as I squeeze the last breaths from its small breast.

Like humans, critically wounded animals go into shock. The endorphin rush associated with serious physical trauma prevents neurons from communicating normally and, as a result, one feels little, if any, pain. The dying animal enters a trance-like state in the final moments. This accounts for the military medical field practice of treating screaming soldiers before the wounded fighters that quietly stare off into space; if a wounded soldier is quiet, he or she has suffered only minor injury or is beyond medicine.

Crippled animals, like screaming, wounded soldiers, are often suffering a great deal. Their body is programmed for survival; the neurons let the pain “scream” to make sure that the animal knows where the source is. I used to believe that wounded non-human animals felt the same amount of pain as wounded humans, but I now fear they may feel more. Unable to reason what has happened to them, the stress of the experience must be that much greater. That I have been responsible for such awful moments in the life of another creature is a terrible reality, but I do feel better about facing such realities myself, rather than entrusting them to underpaid laborers half a continent away.

Even anti-hunters (many of whom continue to eat meat, a ludicrous fact!) sometimes find themselves in similarly distressing situations. A motorist that strikes an animal while driving is morally obligated to put the injured animal out of its misery or attempt to assist it.(1) Those drivers that opt to drive away, shirking responsibility and doing their best to evict the incident from their mind, are acting in a morally weak fashion. As I see it, it's no less irresponsible than a human "hit-and-run," for which convicted individuals often go to jail.

Simply put, it is immoral to allow a suffering animal a slow, perhaps agonizing death after having caused it direct harm. Increasingly, people I talk to claim that their benevolence prevents them from extinguishing the pained creature's life. In fact, they're often horrified by the suggestion that they kill it. My thinking that they should is, in their eyes, barbaric. These individuals are victims of their own good intentions, lies designed to make their little world more comfortable. I have no patience for such people; I disdain them as I do the “trophy hunter” or the violent environmental activist.

As Rien Poortvliet, the Dutch author and painter, wrote in his excellent picture book, “Dogs,”
“Some people would rather see you fool around with an animal than put it out of its misery…a little artificial leg here, a plastic duck bill there, and if necessary, wheels attached to it – anything is better than dead. ‘No, I couldn’t do that!’ Well, what good is that to a cat in pain, run over by a car? It is sometimes such an ‘animal lover with clean hands’ who drives on. I know those types who say, ‘How can you possibly shoot a roebuck?’ But where does that fur coat, that snakeskin bag, come from? She doesn’t care. You also mustn’t bother her with stories of where real cutlets and chicken breasts come from. She has never struck one animal.”
No matter how bloody and miserable the driver's responsibility to brain a raccoon with a tire iron, wringing the neck of bluebird, or snapping the spine of a house cat is, it must be done.

Doing so has left me shaken up for days. I once came upon an eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) that someone had run over. The shell was cracked and internal organs had been forced out of the gaps, but the turtle struggled on, attempting to make it to the other side of the road. Familiar with basic turtle anatomy, I realized that this reptile was doomed. I did what had to be done. I cried while doing it. If that makes me less of a man, I could care less.

It may seem illogical to some readers that I can be a compassionate, ethical person and a hunter. Indeed, there is some conflict. As a result, I hunt less with each passing year (maybe seven times in the last two years) and I've become more interested in pursuing only those quarry I know that I am likely to kill cleanly. Deer and other ungulates, for example, are animals that I am comfortable continuing to hunt, as my rifle marksmanship is good. As my shotgun ability continues to decline (the less often you do it, the worse you become), bird hunting becomes less tenable. I loathe knowing that I may “knock down” a bird and be forced to chase the terrified duck, dove, quail, pheasant or goose to end its life in a brutal fashion. Yet I also realize that death via disease, starvation or “natural” predation is equally awful. Such is Nature’s way, but few of Nature’s actions contribute to real degradation of the environment, even if they can sometimes pose a threat to biodiversity.

(1) If the animal seems as though it is not seriously injured, please take it to your local veterinarian. Having worked in a veterinary clinic, I know that most good vets are excited to have curious patients brought to them. During my short time at the clinic, we received a hawk and an owl that had been struck by cars. Both recovered and were eventually released.

Photo credit:; no credit given on site

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Amphibian Collapse

I recently received an “editorial email” from Tim Halliday, International Director of the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force (DAPTF). I thought it important enough to paste two selections here.
“The Mission of the DAPTF is to determine the nature, extent and causes of amphibian declines throughout the world, and to promote the means by which declines can be halted or reversed.

Last year’s Global Amphibian Assessment (GAA) brought to the attention of the wider world what those of us concerned with amphibian declines already knew. We are faced with a major extinction event, in the light of which our current mission statement seems increasingly unrealistic…

How should biologists act in response to mass extinction? I suggest that the first thing we should do is put more effort into alerting the wide world to the significance of amphibian declines. The general public, and its political leaders, seem indifferent to amphibians and are unimpressed by statistics on threatened species, however large the numbers. We need to emphasise that amphibian declines are a symptom of a rapid decline in the capacity of the environment, especially its freshwater component, to support life. We face an uphill struggle in getting this message across.”
Most people shrug off news of what appears to be a remarkable, ongoing amphibian extinction. Many individuals believe the extinction is something biologists are predicting, some future worst-case scenario. Futhermore, most folks don't connect the dots; the worldwide amphibian decline and the increasingly publicized global fresh water crisis are related.

Realizing that people are not responding to the alarm, Halliday takes a page from George Lakoff and suggests that a change in framing may be in order.
“A number of commentators have suggested that the public, and its leaders, are in a state of denial about environmental issues. The prospect of environmental collapse is too awesome, and too remote, to think about. I suggest that we biologists engage in our own form of denial by operating within the general area called ‘conservation biology’. This is a comforting, feel-good title but the results of the GAA suggest that we’re not doing a very good job. I now call myself an ‘extinction biologist’ and find that this generates much greater interest in what I do than calling myself a conservationist.”
Whether or not the term "extinction biology" will rouse a somnambulistic public, amphibians are vanishing, and at an incredible rate. As many as 122 species have gone missing - and are presumed extinct - since 1980 and 32% of the remaining species are in danger of imminent extinction.

Photo credit: copyright, Virginia Natural Historical Society; image of Cope’s Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Vague Division

The following text is taken from a review of Ed Kienholz’s retrospective at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, in Gateshead, England. The review is written by Guardian art critic, Adrian Searle. The selection speaks for itself.
“Another of these Conceptual Tableaux, which are among the most impressive 'unmade' works of the 1960s, deserves recording in full. This is The Black Leather Chair, from 1966: ‘This is a tableau about the Negro in America. The piece is simply a black leather chair completely covered in a block of lucite plastic and mounted on a suitable base. On the left side is a tunnel in the plastic where the viewer can reach in and touch one small portion of the chair.

‘It is possible that I will never be able to make this tableau as I do not have the chair in my possession at this time. It is stored in an attic in Texas and is the property of a Negro family there. I am told by a friend that although the family is reluctant to part with it, he will be able to get it for me some time in the future.

‘The leather on the chair is made from the skin of his great-grandfather.’

Some works don't need to be made, and exist best (if that's the word) in the imagination. Once read, this terrifying and haunting statement, and the possible existence of the chair itself, are fixed in the memory. At the foot of the statement, Kienholz stipulates that payment for this work is to be made to the American Civil Liberties Union. This is as sorrowful as art gets, and as much of an indictment as art can make.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Silly Rabbit, Tricks Are For Kids

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I just finished reading a recent Los Angeles Times article by P.J. Huffstutter, entitled “Evolution Hearings Under Way.” In it, Huffstutter describes the Topeka, Kansas intelligent design hearings and the associated scientific boycotts. Two quotes jumped out at me.
“There are alternatives [to the theory of evolution]. Children need to hear them. We can’t ignore that our nation is based on Christianity – not science.

-Kathy Martin, member Kansas State Board of Education

“Part of our overall goal is to remove the bias against religion that is in our schools. This is a scientific controversy that has powerful religious implications.”

-William Harris, chemist and witness speaking in favor of changing the Kansas curriculum to mandate the teaching of intelligent design
Scientists – excepting those on the fringe, like Harris - have boycotted these hearings, believing that their presence would only strengthen the case for intelligent design. Debating the legitimacy of I.D., they worry, will suggest that the "theory" is worth scientists’ time, lending the movement credence in the public eye. Yet the absence of scientists has given I.D. proponents a different sort of ammunition: taunting.

“Are [the scientists] afraid to show up? Are they afraid to defend themselves?,” asks Brian Sandefur of the Intelligent Design Network. After all, even Pennsylvanian Republican senator Rick Santorum has called intelligent design “a legitimate scientific theory.” Who better to distinguish sound science from hokum? (Perhaps nobody; Santorum was responsible for adding an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act that requires public school biology teachers to raise questions about “the continuing controversy” over evolutionary theory. Fortunately, this amendment was removed before the act was signed into law.)

But what exactly is this continuing controversy? The vast majority of scientists worldwide (over 95%) accept the theory of evolution as the primary springboard for investigation into the formation of life on Earth. The theory doesn’t deny the existence of God or demand that we all practice eugenics anymore than the theory of gravity insists we hurl ourselves out of skyscrapers. Simply put, there is no scientific controversy.

There is, however, plenty of social debate. The Wedge Document of the Discovery Institute, a west coast think-tank and the principal bastion of I.D. rhetoric, claims that Darwin fathered “a materialistic conception of reality” that has “infected virtually every area of our culture.” Apparently, the American majority didn’t get the memo. As H. Allen Orr points out in his fantastic article, “Devolution” (The New Yorker, May 30, 2005), the “eighty percent of Americans [who] say that God either created human beings in their present form or guided their development” is responsible for all the noise. As a country, we still don’t want to believe that we evolved from monkeys, much less burbling blobs of pond scum.

Many of these Americans may be surprised to learn that the two men behind the popularization of I.D. have different notions of what exactly intelligent design is and both accept that Homo sapiens were once, at an earlier stage in our development, pond scum. I won’t go into detail about the flawed pseudo-science of Michael J. Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, and Dr. William A. Dembski of Baylor University – I highly recommend the Orr article as it describes and evaluates the I.D. arguments in a wonderfully comprehensible way – but it is worth noting that Behe has admitted that his arguments against the theory of evolution were “sloppy”(1) and Dembski’s methodology was dismissed by the very mathematicians whose work he relied on to debunk Darwin’s theories in the first place(2), forcing Dembski to backtrack, claiming that he “never argued that the N.F.L. theorems provide a direct refutation to Darwinism,” even though he had done exactly that.

The two men also have differing philosophical viewpoints. Behe believes an intelligent creator designed the first cells, and then Darwinian evolution accounted for everything that follows. Dembski believes Darwinian evolution totally absurd, and that the intelligent creator “programmed design into the…early universe” and this design “then unfolded through the long course of evolutionary time, as microbes slowly morphed into man.” Both men accept evolution, in other words, but only if it is directed by a divine hand or set in motion by an omnipotent creator.

Why then should I.D. be taught in the classroom? No biology teacher tells his students that evolution is proof of God's absence and many respected evolutionary biologists are devout Christians. Faith is a matter of individual choice, not biology class.

The furor in Kansas, though, is about whether or not biology class should include "faith based" instruction. I.D. has been hijacked by a growing right-wing, Christian agenda. Behe and Dembski considered Darwinian evolution, decided it was too messy and uncertain, and chose instead to promote the magic wand approach. "Look! The bunny isn’t in the hat anymore. Ooooooooo!" Conservative fundamentalists recognized this wave of the wand as a chance to make gains for their cause. By tapping into societal doubt, they have succeeded beyond expectation. It is they, not the I.D. proponents, who are the real force behind the assault on science education.

Intelligent design, no matter how one dresses it up, boils down to a refutation (based in fear) of random mutation. I.D. proponents insist that nothing is random, ultimately, because God is behind the curtain, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons. “Hard” science doesn’t aim to throw back the curtain and expose the fraud, but it does demand that our body of knowledge progress based on the scientific method, not mere conjecture. I.D. proponents can make the rabbit vanish by marrying philosophy to pseudo-science, but who can’t? When asked to make an argument for intelligent design in an accepted, scientific fashion, the rabbit stays put and the illusion is spoiled.

I have no beef with I.D. when it isn’t claiming to be science. The notion that the universe must have been fashioned by a higher being is not new and it is one many people, particularly Americans, still hold dear. I see no reason why this should change, even if I do not believe in a Creator myself. However, such 'theories' belong in religious schools and the family living room, not in the biology classroom.

(1) “I quite agree that my argument against Darwinism does not add up to a logical proof.”

(2) “[Dembski’s use of the theorems was] fatally informal and imprecise.” (David Wolpert, physicist)

Photo credit:

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Book Meme Got Me

I was "infected" with this meme (via Vitriolic Monkey) some time ago. It lay dormant, thoughtfully waiting for me to wrestle the more serious mystery infection into something resembling submission. Anyway, now that my brain seems to be back up to snuff - at least, as up to snuff as it can get - I figure I'll answer these.

1. Total number of books I've owned.
This is a silly question, especially considering those school book sales they used to host in the early grades. Man, I would raid those places! Of course, I focused on Mad Libs but books were also purchased, much to my mother's relief.

Currently I have just under 300 books in my Queens apartment, but many more are at my parents' house in Virginia; unfortunately, small apartments don't allow for a proper library.

I'm something of a bibliophile. I love to - no, must - smell books and run my fingers down the different papers or up the binding; it's a perversion, really, but one that I'm quite comfortable with. As for how many books I have ever owned...I've no idea.

2. Last book I bought.
A three-way purchase:
Foop!, by Chris Genoa, a debut novel by a college buddy of mine. I'm halfway through and enjoying it.

Shoveling Fuel For A Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, And A Plan To Stop Them All, by Brian Czech, a conservation biologist and founder of The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the acclaimed photographer; this is more of a coffee table art book than a good read.

3. Last book I read.
I'm currently reading nine books and attempting to keep up with my many magazine subscriptions so things can get confusing. The two books I finished most recently are:

Tigers & Ice: Reflections on Nature and Life, by Edward Hoagland, one of the best American essayists of the twentieth century and almost certainly the best one working today.

Living Wild & Domestic: The Education of a Hunter-Gardener, by Robert Kimber; Quite simply, one of the best books I have ever read dealing with the philosophical hand wringing of hunting, fishing, and agriculture and how these relate to conservation and, more importantly, each of our lives.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me.
I will list four books and one category.

Childhood favorites that I still cherish; The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, Watership Down, by Richard Adams, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling.

On Human Nature, by E.O. Wilson

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by E.O. Wilson

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabakov

There are so many also-rans (not in the pejorative sense) that it becomes hard to narrow it down to five. Also, excepting the childhood reads, I have not included any fiction. I still enjoy reading fiction and some of my favorite books are novels, but my recollection of such writing is fleeting; my "artsy side" seems more attuned to visual art and film.

5. People who I'll infect with this meme.
I think all the bloggers I know have either already been "infected" or host sites that are focused on things other than book lists. I don't want to end the meme, however, so I'll pass this along to the following sites, but with the understanding that they don't HAVE to do it, especially you, Chris, since it might seem very out of place at Organic Matter.
Get Up Stand Up
Dirt and Soundwaves
Organic Matter

Where's The Beef?

Mikhail, over at Dirt and Soundwaves, brought the ludicrous quote below to my attention.
"I was sitting eating lunch the other day with a coworker, and all of a sudden she goes, 'Ug, why do you only have lettuce and tomato on your sandwich.' I replied quickly that I was a vegetarian. She breaks into a huge smile and loudly declares, 'Me too!' ... while eating a roast beef sandwich. I was too awestruck to speak again."
Well, okay then.

Admittedly, my own dietary restrictions are unusual – no meat unless I kill (and preferably butcher) the fish, fowl, or mammal myself – but I'm still surprised every time someone assumes that I'll eat purchased fish or shellfish. "Are you vegan or something?," they'll ask when they learn that I do not.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by their assumption. A few months ago, I read in the British scientific journal, Nature, that an astounding 20% of the United Kingdom’s population claims to be vegetarian. I was impressed and encouraged, but a poll that I read more recently explains Nature's high figure. Apparently, nearly 75% of "vegetarians" in the UK eat fish, 50% eat chicken, and 25% eat red meat once a week or more. Evidently the roast beef sandwich girl's imbecilic take on vegetarianism is a common one!

Simply put, a vegetarian diet is that of an herbivore. An herbivore doesn’t eat fish or chicken and certainly doesn’t opt for the occasional sirloin. I realize that some people, especially teens, become vegetarian to be “part of something” while forging an identity, but why must the word be bastardized in the process? If you desire to distinguish yourself in this way, simply say you eat red meat less often than most people do, but don’t claim to be a vegetarian. When I traced my genealogy back three generations, I come across a Hungarian Jewish great-grandfather. Technically, then, I'm 1/8 Jewish (genetically), but I can't claim to be a good Jewish boy! How, then, can part-time meat eaters label themselves vegetarian, especially on a census?

I suppose I need to ask myself that question before I direct it at others. My own dietary rules are somewhat paradoxical, so in conversation or prose I take great care NOT to label myself a true vegetarian. I always write or say, “I’m a strict vegetarian unless I catch or kill the creature myself.” (By the way, I’d love suggestions for a descriptive term I could use, as the above statement is a mouthful.) On a census, though, there is no such category. What should I mark down? In my case, I think I would check the vegetarian box, especially considering I eat meat once in a blue moon (only once or twice a year). Obviously, I’m one of the guilty group here, but I do think that my case is something of an exception. I will never buy flesh again; if I eat it, I’ve killed it. I doubt that more than 1% of UK respondents, if that, checked the box for the same reasons I would.

In any event, my frustration boils down to my being a stickler for language evolution. I think it fantastic that 20% of the UK population is eating less meat, but I can't forgive their abuse of the word "vegetarian."

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Gallery Report, 06/18/2005

Unlike the last "Gallery Report," much of what I saw in Chelsea today left me unmoved. After three hours and twenty plus galleries, I had seen very little of substance. Many of the shows feature half-assed work, as if being lazy is suddenly avant garde. A friend of mine, also a painter, was with me and we ran into another artist I know who describes herself as a conceptual artist. We all agreed that less than 10% of the shows were any good. It just wasn't a good day in terms of quality, though the weather was gorgeous. Even so, my convalescence is not yet over and I was exhausted by 2:00 PM.

The five exhibitions described below all caught my eye for one reason or another and I felt they were worth mentioning, even if the reviews are mixed.


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P.P.O.W Gallery: Sandow Birk's "Paradiso" exhibition features seventy-one original illustrations from his three volume update of Dante's "Divine Comedy." Working with writer Marcus Sanders, the southern California artist has turned Dante's epic into a critique of our contemporary condition. Some of the illustrations are very amusing. Unfortunately, Birk's technique ranges from excellent to sloppy; many of the drawings fail as a result. When Birk's draftsmanship remains tight, though, these illustration/text combos work very well. The text associated with "Canto XX" (pictured above) is:

"The image of that eagle hung in the air in front of me, its wings spread wide, filled with the sparkling, flickering lights of the hundreds of souls."

In some respects, this 42 year-old artist is a younger hybrid of artists Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, the man behind "Maus."


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Luhring Augustine Gallery: Photographer Gregory Crewdson first caught my eye several years ago. His magnificent, posed photographs of a surreal American underbelly appeal to my sensibility. Sadly, Crewdson's photographs are becoming increasingly contrived. Where once I accepted his cinematic arrangements without question, they now seem almost digital and I resist entering the pictures. Only two photographs included in "Beneath the Roses," this most recent solo effort, capture my imagination the way his previous work has. One of these, "Untitled, Beneath the Roses," is pictured above.


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Ziehersmith Gallery: 34 year-old Karin Weiner taps into several popular Art World trends with her second exhibition, "Frontiera," at Ziehersmith. The works on display are a reaction to the young artist's time at a residency in Wyoming, "in the midst of a male-dominated culture." According to the press release, the drawings, collages and sculptures are intended to "celebrat[e] the natural world and expos[e] our ever distant relationship to it."

I applaud Weiner's intentions and I enjoy some of the work she includes, but Weiner does not set herself apart from the horde of young artists pitching this sort of romanticized take on natural history. I admit that I'm a tough sell in this department. A rural boy by upbringing, I distrust the average urbanites' interpretation of what Weiner calls "modern day cowboys." This bias aside, I also can't help feeling that replacing a traditional campfire with a television screening country-western karaoke is a bit trite. Walking around this sculpture, it seems a desperate substitution, like Oliver Stone's choice to project the words "Too Much TV' on the chests of his "Natural Born Killers." I suppose I'm sold on Weiner's ideas, but not on her execution. ("Campfire Karaoke" is pictured above.)


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Kustera Tilton Gallery: Jeff Sonhouse is popping up in more and more group shows, but this is the first solo show I have seen. Lauded in many reviews for producing paintings as "politically sharp" as they are visually satisfying, Sonhouse makes the plight of contemporary, American black men his subject matter. His work is uneven, but three of the paintings included in this small show, "The Panoptic Con," are excellent. All the riffing on our racist establishment aside, the successful portraits are just damned good paintings. The best piece on display (I can find no image online) features a man with an afro comprised of spent matches. ("Crossroads" is pictured above, but this painting is not included in the exhibition.)


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Paul Kasmin Gallery: The best show seen today was Walton Ford's latest solo effort. While only six original watercolors (though they can be enormous; one measures nearly 100" x 200") and six prints are hanging, they are stunning. Walton Ford succeeds where Karin Weiner does not. These are paintings that marry the romantic and the realistic, with tremendous results. Ford is definitely among my favorite contemporary artists and I look forward to seeing what the future will bring. ("The Witch of St. Kilda" is pictured above.)

Friday, June 17, 2005

Context Is A Curious Thing

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When I first heard Daft Punk's popular single, "Technologic," I assumed the French duo intended to satirize or critique our contemporary, wasteful attitudes. Over a straightforward marching guitar and bass line, a robotic voice fires commands at us relentlessly.
"Buy it, use it, break it, fix it,
Trash it, change it, melt - upgrade it,
Charge it, pawn it, zoom it, press it,
Snap it, work it, quick - erase it,
Name it, rate it, tune it, print it,
Scan it, send it, fax - rename it,
Touch it, bring it, obey it, watch it,
Turn it, leave it, stop - format it."
Intrigued by the simple, catchy track, I found the associated music video online. The video's concept confirms that Daft Punk intend "Technologic" as a condemnation of our consumptive ways. In the video, a skeletal robot with human gums and teeth watches itself on television. The televised robot delivers the track's "lyrics" from a pulpit-like position in a geometric world dominated by red skies and black mountains. The minimal treatment and the color choices call to mind fascist regimes, making explicit the critique.

Enter Apple. Once a relatively small company sustained by a devoted minority of computer users, Apple is now an industry Big Boy, thanks to the success of its iPod. The colorful iPod television commercials are by now familiar to most of us living in the United States or Europe. Currently, Apple is using Daft Punk's "Technologic" as the accompanying music for one of these television spots. Watching silhouettes of hip, urban youth dance to a song about disposability, the track no longer critiques; it now celebrates.

iPods are not known for their durability. Distressingly, most iPod owners of several years are working on their second or third unit. Sure, I'm holding on to my old, broken model until I can find a way to recycle its parts safely, but I have a feeling that many people just toss broken iPods into the trash. Not only is such a practice dangerous - iPods, like computers, are filled with toxins and metals that, once leaked, have been linked to environmental problems and human illness - but the very act itself represents a turn towards carelessness. Just as the slob who drops litter on the subway tracks or tosses an empty soda can out the car window accepts less responsibility with each such action, so too does the contemporary consumer of disposable technology. This is precisely the sort of irresponsible behavior Daft Punk highlights with "Technologic," but Apple turns the message on its head, making it a gleeful anthem for those who don't give a shit about anything except their entertainment. I can't help but think of the lyrics to another, more dated pop song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
"With the lights out it’s less dangerous
Here we are now
Entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now."
Photo credit: Top, still from Daft Punk's "Technologic" video; Bottom, still from Apple iPod commercial

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Technology, Dullardism, & Climate Change

"The problem of modern man isn't to escape from one ideology to another, nor to escape from one formulation to find another; our problem is to live in the presence and in the attributes of reality."

-Frederick Sommer, The Poetic Logic of Art and Aesthetics
Although surveys suggest that most of the American public still believes that climate change is a future threat, many thousands of species are already threatened by shrinking environmental ranges and changing precipitation patterns; some of these species are on the verge of extinction. The negative impact of climate change occurs now and later.

I encourage those readers curious about the subject, particularly those who believe that we will "solve" the problem via improved technologies, to read "Climate Change is Totally Awesome," a recent post at Organic Matter. The author dissects a Telegraph article by Robert Matthews, entitled, "Warmer, wetter and better (or the good news that the climate change lobby doesn't want you to hear)."

Interviewed for the Telegraph piece, Professor Philip Stott of the University of London argues that reducing emissions will not alleviate the threat, and that the steps required to significantly reduce emissions would render us technologically impotent.
"Even if we shut every fossil-fuel power station, crushed every car and grounded every aircraft, the Earth's climate would still continue to get warmer, according to Prof Stott. 'The trouble is, we would all be too impoverished to cope with the consequences.'"
I agree that the warming trend is natural and that, even were we to de-industrialize, the world would continue to warm. But anthropogenic action accelerates climate change to such a devastating degree that biodiversity and, ultimately, human stability are in peril.

Furthermore, Stott's concept of technological impoverishment is misguided. To be sure, if we First Worlders are to transition to sustainable development, we must give up many of the conveniences that we now take for granted. It remains to be seen whether we will make this sacrifice of our own volition or if we will do nothing until Nature demands it of us. In either case, the sacrifice will not make us incapable of coping with climate change.

It will, however, demand a significant restructuring of our cultural and technological priorities. Our taste for spectacle and distraction must be unlearned. Cultural critic and anthropologist Morris Berman, in his outstanding book Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality, dubs the social spirit of contemporary, industrialized nations "dullardism."
"With dullardism, the goal is simply to go unconscious, by means of tranquilizers, alcohol, TV, spectator sports, organized religion, compulsive busyness and workaholism, and so on (even though many of these do provide a short-term 'high')."
Dullardism is not endemic to contemporary, industrialized societies. Equivalent symptoms were documented in the late years of the Roman and Mayan civilizations, and I suspect that they also existed in Sumer and other early civilizations.

The human animal is not evolutionarily equipped to flourish in society; our brains remain "wired" for the Pleistocene, and the rapid transition to an agrarian, sedentary, and "civil" existence has been rapid and fraught. We therefore exhibit displacement behavior, seeking escape via fundamentalism, sports, entertainment, and drug abuse.

Does this mean that advanced civilization makes us ill-equipped to deal with environmental catastrophe? Not necessarily (we have to hope not!), but we must reexamine our social mores in order to create something akin to a new social order, one that balances our primitive lusts for progress and power with pragmatism and stewardship. It's a tall order, to be sure, but one that we must fill.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Journal Scraps: Punk Wigs and Prom Dresses

"Those who think that the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which [the great] myths spring are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art."

- Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko in a statement attempting to explain abstract expressionism, June 7, 1943


"The more modern and technological we become - the more our lives become a mechanized routine against instinct - the more the most instinctual forces within us rebel. And in those places that fail to compete technologically, many young men may become ancient warriors, raping and pillaging and wearing tribal insignia rather than uniforms..."

- Robert D. Kaplan, "The Return of Ancient Times"


"My casual routine ended on the fourth day, when Lendu warriors first appeared on the streets. I saw them walking down Lumumba Boulevard with a sickening swagger, drinking beer outside the gates of the Hotel Musafira and getting stoned on the milky potions contained in ampoules that dangled from their bandoliers. They carried taped-up Kalashnikovs across their shoulders and slid their fingers across their throats as they passed young Hema girls. Some wore clear-plastic masks on their faces, sequined prom dresses that glittered in the sun, and punked-out yellow wigs on their heads.

Little by little, they took a piece of Bunia each time the sun went down. After it was all over, they would own a small piece of everyone who had been there, or leave what they had taken on the boulevard to rot in the equatorial sun. They had taken a piece of my interpreter, Johnny, when they murdered his father two years ago; they shot him in the back as he tried to run away during a raid north of town. His body had lain in the street for three days while Johnny hid in the bush."

- Bryan Mealer, "In the Valley of the Gun: A Massacre Unfolds in Eastern Congo"

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Photo credit: "The Porcelain War Museum Project," guns made of porcelain by artist Charles Krafft; UPC child soldier in Bunia, Congo; Karel Prinsloo, AP (Ostensibly, the UPC fights against the Lendu and protects the Hema, but as with so many other ethnic battles, boundaries are blurred; everyone seems to kill everyone else.)

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Commonplace Book Excerpts #1

I apologize for the dearth of posts in the last two weeks. Despite having ample time to write, I've lacked the inclination. The same is true of painting. Whenever I prepare to work, it's as though my hands won't cooperate with my mind; the process becomes frustrating.

I assume that both creative struggles are linked to my still nameless illness. After several blood tests and many “negative” results, I know only what it is not; it is not Epstein-Barr (or “mono”), CMV (cytomegalovirus), Hepatitis A, B, or C, or West Nile virus. All these ailments were suspected at one time or another, but have since been ruled out.

To date, I've missed eleven days of work at my laboratory job and, though I plan to return to work on Monday morning, I don't expect to work an eight-hour shift for some time. Even a simple cat-sitting job just six city blocks from my apartment exhausted me such that I slept from 2:00 until 6:00 PM today! Not surprisingly, alcohol is prohibited, as is exercise until July 1st. If I’m not socializing (and I’m certainly not), I don’t feel the need to nurse a beer, but not being allowed to run or work out is particularly frustrating. My arms and chest have atrophied and everything seems to sag. I've lost nearly ten pounds in the past few weeks.

At any rate, because I want to remain active on Hungry Hyaena, but seem to have trouble focusing for long enough to compose coherent rambles – the “Fairy Tale” post took me three cross-eyed hours to write – I've decided to add a new “feature” to the blog, one which suits my temporarily scattered state. Beginning today, I will sometimes present quotes or anecdotes without commentary. I keep commonplace books, journals filled with images, quotations, and notes of all sorts, some of which are really beautiful, but too often forgotten by me as I continue to add more.

- Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Italian philosopher and alchemist; burned at the stake in Rome for heretical writing and pronouncements, including his faith in Copernican astronomy. “Man is no more than an ant in the presence of the infinite,” he wrote, and upon receiving the death sentence for his beliefs, he is said to have stated, “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it." While he was burning, the customary crucifix was presented to him, a chance to repent, but he mustered the strength to push it away and look towards the sky.
- The German city of Hamburg was fire bombed by the British Royal Air Force for several nights in July of 1943. Below is a selection from Hans Erich Nossack’s account of the bombing and the days that followed.
“…the convicts in striped uniforms who were called in to clear away ‘the remains of what had once been human beings’…could reach the corpses in the air-raid shelters of the death zone only with flamethrowers, so densely did the flies swarm around them, and so thick were the floors and steps of the cellars with slippery finger-length maggots. Rats and flies ruled the city. The rats, bold and fat, frolicked in the streets, but even more disgusting were the flies, huge and iridescent green, flies such as had never been seen before. They swarmed in great clusters on the roads, settled in heaps to copulate on ruined walls, and basked, weary and satiated, on the splinters of the window panes.”

I include Nossack’s writing not only to highlight the atrocity of war and our own human tendency to prefer neat history to the real mess, but also because I find the passage curiously beautiful, in the same way that a Hieronymous Bosch depiction of Hell might be. In all the copulating, feeding, and general excess, nature is at work, cleaning up what is, in effect, an all too natural mess, horrible though it may be.
- Lastly, the image that leads this post is a stunning photograph. Unfortunately, I don't know the photographer or the year. It is taped into one of my journals, presumably before I began to keep track of provenance. At any rate, I thought it a nice companion to Nossack’s description of Hamburg.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Of Fairy Tales and Flights of Fancy

“The show suggests that artists are connected to events in the outside world but have little sense of what to do about them, other than to create artworks that incorporate their frustration, rage, apprehension or sense of the absurdity of contemporary life.”
- Eleanor Heartney, Art in America, review of “Greater New York, 2005
Who would condemn a child for having an active imagination? In contemporary western culture, most parents celebrate the fantasy lives of their children (or at least tolerate them), no matter how consuming they may be. This is for the good; a rich, imagined world often leads to greater curiosity about the world we inhabit. There are, however, some legitimate concerns for those children who appear to withdraw into fantasy too much, those who exhibit a tendency for escapism. These kids can be spotted at an early age. I should know.

As an only child who grew up in a rural farming village, my interaction with other children was limited to the school day and the rare overnight visit to a friend's house. My father, an unabashed workaholic, kept me occupied with field chores and wildlife conservation projects on most weekends. Our house had no television, the upshot of which was that I won most every reading competition until I reached 6th grade (the year -- holy of holies! -- a television arrived). I turned to books and invention for entertainment. The fields and forests were places of extraordinary mystique, vast plains teeming with bison and Indians or thick, dangerous woods with thieves and bizarre creatures lurking behind every tree. The pond shoreline represented a potential aquatic dinosaur attack, forcing me to walk just so to avoid detection.

But the fun didn’t stop at nightfall. No, if anything, the level of “make-believe” only increased once I was forced indoors. I would stage plays in my bedroom, becoming the voice of a stuffed animal perched on the windowsill and that of the angry, invisible dinosaur, the evil step-mother, the diminutive Lego man on the shelf, and so on and so on. (For some reason, many of these epic plays resulted in a raccoon puppet ripping open my throat. Of course, I was then re-animated as a rabid monster that would stalk the room’s perimeter, hunting imagined company.)

Despite my protests, it wasn’t at all inappropriate then that some kids called me Christopher Robin. I was tremendously uncomfortable in most social situations and I really didn’t trust any of my peers. During recess, I was the kid who retreated to a corner of the playground and talked to myself or played with blades of grass, imagining I don’t know what. It was also not surprising that cartoons, comic books, and drawing soon dominated my life outside of chores and schoolwork. I was every elementary school teachers’ dream, the quiet kid who scores well and gets placed in all the advanced classes, but shows no sign of ego or contempt. In fact, I was just oblivious to most of what was happening around me. I had no idea what interested most of my classmates. I didn’t listen to popular music until the sixth grade and most of my pop culture understanding was garnered from the pages of MAD Magazine. I knew what a phenomenon Michael Jackson was, but I'd never heard his music.

None of this mattered to me, however. I remained an essentially happy kid. I just shut out everything except my drawing, reading, and my fantasies. I'd learned how to tune out without ever having tuned in. Fortunately, the years have been kind to me and, rather than go the way of the Unabomber, I’ve become a reasonably well-adjusted member of society, if still something of a loner who likes to draw, read, and write.

It is with increasing urgency, though, that I view so much art produced by my contemporaries, artists in their twenties and thirties. An uncredited New Yorker writer describes this work as, “gloomy, craft-spun, fairy-tale escapism endemic among young East Coast artists.” A visit to Greater New York, 2005, a survey of artists living or working in New York City at P.S.1, will illustrate just how prevalent this mode has become. Fully 40% of the work on display fits the bill, and while the majority of these are paintings or drawings, a number of videos and installations belong to the same impetus. We are a generation uncertain and intimidated. Rather than engage and participate, we have opted to wear the escapist smile, retreating into the worlds of Alice and the Little Prince. Is it enough to express ourselves in this way? Do these cryptic fairy-tales or self-abusive efforts communicate anything more than immediate frustration? After all, it was largely my social incompetence which drove me to chase monsters around dark living rooms. How much different is this display?

These currents aren't isolated to the eastern seaboard of the United States, though. Admittedly, the majority of young West Coast artists still seem to be preoccupied with abstraction and pretty pictures, but the dystopian fairy-tales are being createed by artists not just from across the United States, but also via imports from Japan, Europe, Iceland, and elsewhere. Peter Schjeldahl recently wrote of Takashi Murakami’s curatorial effort, “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture,”
“[The included work] suggests a certain pathology: rapturous defeatism, perhaps, that justifies youths who don’t grow up.”
It seems as though an entire generation -- global, not just Japanese -- has been forced into perpetual adolescence by the atom bomb that is our modern condition?

At the turn of the century, very few people knew anything about Henry Darger, the reclusive painter/janitor from Chicago who spent the bulk of his solitary life working on a series of collage-like, narrative drawings depicting the history of the Vivian Girls. The currents of the art world, circa the late 1990s, were such that Darger was considered an “outsider” when this term still meant, “Hold him at arm’s length, please.” By 2002, the year I graduated from art school, “outsider” was no longer a bad word. Books on Henry Darger could be found in the window of any Barnes & Noble in town and my own fantasical paintings were receiving admiring attention from curators and dealers. In fact, in 2004, two of my paintings were included in a group show with works by Henry Darger and a number of other contemporary painters who can readily be lumped into the "fairy-tale escapism" camp, including Inka Essenhigh or the currently red-hot Dana Schutz.

This shift in art world tastes had little to do with curatorial sensibility. There were simply too many young artists working in this vein for the movers and shakers to ignore the trend. The compulsive, “outsider” approach of Darger had become, long after his obscure death, standard issue gallery fare. Whether or not one would call it a “movement,” as I have heard some people discuss, is irrelevant. It happened and is continuing to gain momentum. The meaning and the value are for time, the critics, and the public, if they ever come back to contemporary art, to determine.

One has to wonder, though, what sort of work we are dealing with. Darger, as I mentioned above, was almost completely solitary. He attended church daily, made his income as a janitor, and returned to a cramped, disaster of an apartment to continue work on his epic Vivian Girls saga and the associated paintings. He never received any artistic training to speak of. This stands in stark contrast to most of the artists on hand at P.S.1. Not only are we dealing with a return to youthful escapism, but the return is a conscious decision, one being made by folks who have Master’s degrees, iPods, and Friendster accounts. Would Darger have been eager to discuss the latest EP or hit up the late night bar scene? The main difference between those lost souls like Darger and the average art world fantasist of today is a conscious decision. I decided to work as though I were an advanced child, turning inward and looking for my own little haven via the painting process. Darger just did it; for him there was no asking "What happens if I do it this way?"

Despite my enjoying much of the work I see at P.S.1 and throughout Chelsea, I have moved on from such preoccupations in my own studio. Perhaps I felt the room was too crowded with escapists, but most of the decision is a result of my tiring of helplessness. Sure, shit sucks right now, but I don’t feel I can just turn on the rock n’ roll and drift away. I'm excited about my current body of work, even though it has thus far received only lukewarm response; everyone points to the work of two years ago and says, “Now that was really something.” Yes, it was “something” and I still enjoy the paintings, but it ain’t what I’m making now and there are over three thousand other artists, if not many more, weaving similarly self-absorbed fairy-tales out there. Every week, I learn of another terrific young artist working in this vein; I’m rooting for all of them. For my part, though, I’ll head off to my studio and make paintings about the relationship between man and beast, or as some academics call it, anthrozoology. There aren’t as many rocket ships, dinosaurs, or indians populating these works, but I’m still smiling, even if no longer blonde.

Photo credit: Painting by Henry Darger, circa 1960s