Surfing the Spectacle

The Most Positive Man in the World

The most positive man in the world loved to make pictures as a boy.

He burned cow dung to get the color white.

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The most positive man in the world knew war as a boy.
He saw death before he could understand it.

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The most positive man in the world lost his home as a boy.
He escaped into the bush with his family, and walked on and on.

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The most positive man in the world lost his family as a boy.
He knew hunger and thirst and fear.

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The most positive man in the world saw injustice as a boy.
He watched the weak devoured by lions and the unlucky cut down by men.

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The most positive man in the world escaped to America as a boy.
He sensed new worlds, new possibilities.

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The most positive man in the world is an artist.

He is an artist who believes that art –
art can transform the universe.

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Meet Awer Bul.

[Sudanese artist Awer Bul currently lives in Australia with his wife and children. Photo of Awer by Cynthia Merchant of the Commonwealth Times.]

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The Walls of the World

The walls of the world sometimes spawn creatures.

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These monsters resemble the same animals who built the walls.

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They are lost. They do not know who they are.
They haunt daily life as secret shadows.

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Their skins frequently open to reveal immensities.

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Reaching. Reaching. Reaching and tumbling.
They are hungry. Hungry! They need. They need!

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They are babies. They destroy with their play.
Inversion and transformation. Creatures in flux.

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The struggle of understanding, of devouring.

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With the night, they crawl into themselves…

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and dream another universe.

[These fantastic images are drawn from the startling and phenomenal creations of a muralist who goes by the name of Blu – go here for his website and here for a site featuring a documentary on Blu’s work.]

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The Measure of Women

[A guest entry by Althea Georgelas]

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“I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.”

– Katherine, “The Taming of the Shrew”

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A woman is made up of a body.

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These bodies have created 2000 generations of the human race.

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These bodies are smaller in size than other bodies.

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Easier to take…

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control of.

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Do women own these bodies?

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Can women protect these bodies?

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“That which cannot be secured isn’t owned.”

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Maybe.

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Sometimes…

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No.

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Is this why some women want to be bigger?

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Would power be equal if all bodies
were comparable in size and strength?

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Does it matter?

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Maybe.

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Stem cell research could allow women to one day
create their own sperm from these bodies.

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Women could engineer these bodies
biologically and mechanically….

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to be equal in size and strength to any threat.

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Would these bodies then be their own?

*****

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But maybe this divide would create two separate races entirely…equal in power.

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And one would be pitted against the other…

forever.

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Then again…

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Maybe these bodies could be engineered by others.

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To be perfect.

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A race of dolls.

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Or maybe…

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One day the control of these bodies,
using violence, terror and politics…

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which has spanned the length of human history
within all ethnicities and creeds…

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will just stop.

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And the daughters of these bodies will not bear this fear anymore.

This war was brought to OUR bodies.

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We will teach our children well.

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Known credits: Dying Amazon by Franz Von Stuck, Blond and Gagged by David Nestler, Illustration by John Copeland, Map of My Body by Tatiana Parcero, Men and Women Fighting by George Clair Tooker, Jr., The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo, Woman Tending her Spirit by Renee Rhodes.

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Vision of the Divine

We live in an odd universe, full of dark mysteries. Visions spring forth strange and uncertain.

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Dream visions.

Restless images that ask more than they answer.

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But amid the murk and confusion of our twilight world, certain avatars offer the gift of clarity.

Behold a figure strong and straight and powerful.

We have praised her before. Indeed, she was the guest star of our site’s very first entry, and she continues to embody eternal notions of courage and fortitude.

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This week, SurfingtheSpectacle has traveled out West to more closely view this guiding muse as she spiritually transcends the tribulations before her. Stay tuned.

[Top image from Stalingrad, 1942. Iraq war image by Michael Kamber of the New York Times. Image of Ms. Hilton from the Pacific Coast News.]

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That Which Entertains

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In its extraordinary tale of urban insurrection, the 1967 film Battle of Algiers considers with unblinking eye the brutalities humans inflict upon one another. Sentiment is largely exhausted. Each side coolly regards its violence as utterly justified.

The film features a brief sequence on torture, as French colonial forces interrogate Muslim prisoners. The montage is played out as human tragedy. A witness to the torture, perhaps another prisoner, silently weeps at the degradation. The filmmaker intends that the viewer himself may be just such a witness.

But, alas, who now sheds a tear for such things?

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The torture in Battle of Algiers may remind us of certain interrogations the American government has presided over in recent years.

Perhaps we shall not call these interrogations torture, because we are told by the highest of sources that America does not torture.

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Torture is something only our enemies do. It’s a barbaric practice, part of the Inquisition and the Dark Ages.

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Back then, torture was frequently a public spectacle. Normal folk were given the privilege to observe the piercings, the burnings, the gore, the screaming and, finally, when the time was just right, the grand demise. It was entertainment.

That impulse hasn’t vanished. Our public seems to have an appetite for vivid depictions of pain, fear and sadistic control. Amid such impulses, there seems to be an enduring fetish for the mutilation of the body.

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Hollywood is only too glad to feed that appetite. The torturer’s secret twin is now the filmmaker who controls elements of suffering and pain with the precision of a sadist. The exquisite realism of modern cinema adds to the heightened authenticity. You, the viewer, can feel utterly immersed in the torture chamber.

There is no cause for alarm. We remain a culture of deep values. For instance, in the realm of network television where one character may slowly butcher another, we should remember that it is strictly forbidden for anyone to utter the word “shit.”

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Torture, after all, can be a very good thing. In the last few years, the celebrated network series 24 has showcased some 67 incidents of torture. While some of the torturers are evil and debased foreign terrorists, much of the torture comes at the hands of the “good guys” who show great enthusiasm and skill in the wielding of unbearable pain.

The good guys have no choice. Jack Bauer, the heroic government agent played by Kiefer Sutherland, is locked in an epic battle against domestic terrorists. He must torture. Otherwise the terrorists will kill us all. Torture, we are shown again and again, forces the enemy to confess their deadly plans.

Patrick Finnegan has a problem with this. He’s an Army U.S. Brigadier General and dean of West Point. Accompanied by top Army and FBI interrogators, General Finnegan recently paid a visit to the TV show, delivering a message to the show’s producers: Cut the crap.

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It turns out the show’s image of torture is nothing more than a chickenhawk’s wet dream. General Finnegan told 24’s producers that the brutal acts they depict are illegal, psychotic and simply do not work in the real world.

Evidence had been accumulating that inexperienced army interrogators were imitating the actions they saw on the show. The general finds this development alarming. Moreover, he said that he saw no advantage in having the world think that American officers and officials are, more or less, viciously insane.

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Speaking of chickhawks, Joel Surnow (above), rightwing creator of 24, couldn’t actually be bothered to meet with the General’s delegation. Surnow said, “They say torture doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that.”

So that’s that.

Jane Mayer has an interesting video essay about this story on the New Yorker website (click here to view the video and here to read original essay). It’s instructive that, despite her reporting, Mayer remains a staunch fan of the show. She finds it riveting.

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As we sit before our televised scenes of torture, breathlessly witnessing inventive displays of human terror and degradation, we might take solace in knowing that we’re not truly delighting in human suffering. It’s just entertainment.

It’s just make believe.

It doesn’t mean anything at all.

[The Abu Ghraib image is from Fernando Botero. The Bush cartoon is by Bill Day of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. Information about the billboard can be found here. And click here for a short video on 24 by the Primetime Torture Project.]

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Writer as Hero

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Kurt Vonnegut. 1922-2007.

And so he goes.

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That Which Blights the City

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Something terrible is happening to our cities.

Our public space is a numbing ecology of standardization and dilapidation, of bleak façade and banal design, of endless advertisement, shrill and asinine.

All of which is fine, and as it should be.

What’s terrible is that certain people are contaminating our social realm with surprise and invention and mystery and the affirmation of life.

They must be stopped.

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For instance, there is a particularly treacherous man in Richmond, Virginia. He paints images on wood and affixes the wood to city street signs.

Where does he get the nerve? How dare he?

He’s ignorant. He never went to art school, so he doesn’t understand there is a place for art. That place is called an art gallery. There art can be bought and sold. If enough wealthy people purchase the art to decorate their large homes, the artist gets money and is a great success.

It’s all so simple and beautiful.

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But this ignorant man does not hope to make money with his paintings.

He says, “Money turns everything good, sour.”

He sees them as a gift.

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Naturally, he’s unstable.

And he’s breaking the law. Big time.

A local official calls the paintings a “safety hazard” that could “distract” motorists. Yes, these paintings are extremely dangerous.

But we would go further than this.

These works are an abomination. A terrible danger in our midst.

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It’s not just that some of the signs are explicitly political.

Which is highly distressing to see in a public place.

It’s that all of the signs are full of radical and disruptive messages.

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They threaten the public realm as we know it. What’s next? Allow people to speak to one another? Sing songs? Tell stories? Smile and stroll?

It’s awful to imagine.

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I have communicated with this Richmond man who hides his face from our criminal justice system.

I have asked him questions. And he has told me this:

“I want ANYTHING to break the mundanity of everyday life….I really hope to inspire people to make stuff and put it out there regardless of what the city wants. To participate in the urban landscape instead of having it dictated only by developers and business groups and city government and other boring/evil institutions.”

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The ravings of a madman.

[For more images created by this criminal, you can go here.]

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Recently in eastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber exploded near a U.S. military convoy. Afghan civilians claim American soldiers responded by firing on civilians, killing several innocent people. The U.S. military disputes this, and says the soldiers were fired upon after the bombing. At least eight people were killed.

Journalists working for the Associated Press arrived on the scene and took pictures. Marines forced the journalists to destroy all their images.

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Was the military hiding something? An Army spokesperson defended the action this way:

“When untrained people take photographs or video, there is a very real risk that the images or videography will capture visual details that are not as they originally were.”

This is just the latest chapter in our government’s ongoing battle to control the images of war. Images can be embarrassing. Images can provoke viewers to ask disagreeable questions.

For instance: Why?

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But the battle isn’t just about images that reveal wrongdoing. It is about hiding the war itself. Our culture considers it unseemly to show authentic images of mayhem, murder, war.

Dead soldiers, dead civilians? They exist all right. But not on American TV. Not for our eyes. That would send the wrong message. What message?

Bad things are happening.

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You may recall that the U.S. government deemed it unlawful to show even a photograph of slain soldiers in their flag-draped coffins. The idea was that the very image of the coffin was a gesture of disrespect to the soldier’s families. Many believe, however, that our government wishes to conceal any image that reminds us of the price of war.

No matter. The images emerged anyway. That is the way of the world today. Images emerge.

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Once legally petitioned, the Pentagon itself finally released photos of the fallen soldiers coming home. In these images, faces of soldiers are frequently blackened out (“redacted”) to cloak their identity, as if they were involved in some covert operation. They were not. They were helping to honor and bury their comrades.

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Such pictures seem to capture the surreal and shaming battle over the images of war.

[The image at top is one of the few to emerge from that day. As for the coffins, this report gives some wider context.]

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Burden of Images

Once upon a time, there was a Vogue Model.
She was beautiful. A fashion icon. An exquisite object of desire.

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She took artist Man Ray as an early lover. He was a surrealist.
She became one too. She started taking photographs.

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She had a particular way of seeing the world.

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And she knew everyone. She was famous. When the war came,
she did not watch it from afar.

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She became a war photographer. A correspondent for Vogue.

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She followed soldiers, nurses. She was unafraid.

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In the war, she found the annihilation of beauty. The image of the human animal capable of any degradation.

Victims and victimizers. SS guards.

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Collaborators.

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It all made its mark. She lost her love of the image. She lost her beauty.
She aged. There was depression. Alcohol. For the last 25 years of her life,
she is said to have regarded her photographs with contempt.

She seemed to leave much of her old self behind.

Her name was Lee Miller.

She turned to cooking. She became an excellent cook.

There is something to consider here.

The Lee Miller archives on the Web display a number of her photographs.
Several short essays about her work can be found online, including this one.
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When Rodney King Made a Speech

Sometimes even the most flawed and inarticulate of men find a way to express profound truths starkly, without pretense or practice.

Witness Rodney Glen King.

He’s a loser, a drug abuser, a high school dropout, a bully, a royal fuckup.

But after the murky video surfaced that captured L.A. cops wailing on his oversized frame, King’s image spread throughout the world.

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His brutal beating in 1991 replayed endlessly on television, evoking the darkest iconography of an American past built on slavery and racial denigration: a lone black man overpowered by a group of whites.

A year later, after a jury acquitted the officers of assault charges, scores of angry residents took to the streets for three days of violence, looting and arson. Some 55 people lost their lives, and more than 2,300 people were injured.

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Amid this mayhem, and in his first public appearance since his beating, Rodney King speaks to the cameras, to the citizens of Los Angeles, and to history. The result is a raw authenticity rarely glimpsed in television’s prepackaged world. Struggling to address a situation wildly beyond his control, and visibly distraught by the brutalities done in his name, King mouths one cliché after another, desperately searching for the right thing to say.

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His message is born of compassion, and he emerges with a stark, human eloquence:

“We’re all stuck here for awhile. Let’s try to work it out.”

This appeal to human tolerance will be quickly ridiculed. His phrase “Can’t we all just get along?” becomes a punch line, a catch phrase of common mockery, as if the mere expression of a reconciliatory impulse must be denounced as absurd naiveté.

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Such has been America’s ability to confront the national legacy of race, violence and inequality.

Here’s a rough, treated excerpt of the speech:

[All the images are courtesy of Disturbance, a series of immersive video installations that excavate the ghostly remains of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.]

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Art and the Toilet

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An immensely talented friend of SurfingtheSpectacle went over to the dark side last year to work for a New York advertising agency. Her skills at hawking false dreams and empty commodities are equaled only by her insistence that the medium is no more or less honest than anything else.

She recently sent us a dispatch with an improbable tale of ethics on Madison Avenue. I submit the fantastic report here:

Because you love appropriation and hate advertising, I thought I’d write down the reaction of a Professional Advertising Man to a concept that involved using classic works of art to sell underwear. (Really, it was so bad.)

He said, “From an ethics point of view, it’s not right to do that to great art. You can’t take a Picasso and put George Steinbrenner’s face on it. You can’t fuck with Rembrandt. You. Just. Can’t. Do. This. I’m sorry, but this is just wrong.”

Naturally, this episode never occurred. An advertising man evoking ethics? The very idea of it shocks the imagination. Why not a moose flying a rocket ship to the planet Kloziak?!! Yes, our friend is in a profound state of denial.

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But the fantasy does evoke a certain toilet advertisement we once saw. And that, in turn, reminds us of a commercial for toilet paper that we once envisioned:

FADE UP. INT. WEALTHY HOME.
Camera dollies through rooms of elegant household. Various artifacts of wealth. Butler passes thru frame. The music of Verdi plays. We hear the deep, refined, almost hushed voice of the narrator.

NARRATOR (V.O.) When you live in a civilized world, why then, you want civilized things. You deserve it. The best wines. The best furnishings. And yes, even the best of bathroom tissue.

Camera now goes through bathroom door to reveal well–dressed GENTLEMAN, pants down, on the toilet admiring a few sheets of toilet paper he has torn.

NARRATOR (V.O.) That’s why we make Soft and Superior.

DISSOLVE TO: Close up on the toilet paper images held in hand by Gentleman.

NARRATOR (V.O.) With a reproduction of a Classic Art Masterpiece…

DISSOLVE TO: Pan of close-up tissue images (a Rubens, a Renoir, etc.).

NARRATOR (V.O.) (continues) …on each and every sheet. Quality you can see……

DISSOLVE TO: Medium shot waist up on Gentleman admiring the sheet he has torn. He looks at camera and speaks.

GENTLEMAN That enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa – what secrets does it hold?

NARRATOR (V.O.) …Quality you can feel.

As the GENTLEMAN’S hand holding the paper reaches behind, the camera discreetly pans over to a roll of the toilet paper sitting atop a stylish pearl table near a vase of long-stemmed roses. Camera gently moves in on the roll until its product name – Soft And Superior – can easily be read.

NARRATOR (V.O.) Soft and Superior – Bathroom Tissue for the Civilized Ass.

FADE OUT

[Photomontage by Kat Padua. Michelangelo toilet image from actual Kohler ad published in upscale magazines in the late 1990’s.]

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Gift from the Gods

Some humans are gifted with uncanny powers of healing. They literally “feel your pain” and then, remarkably, they repair all damage.

Sometimes they use psychic fusion, sometimes therapeutic touch. And sometimes, actually quite often, they use the WORD.

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Take Rush Limbaugh, America’s most powerful radio talk show host. He knows the heart of the American soldier. He knows that American troops face troubling dangers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that their job is most difficult.

He knows all this and he wants to help. He deeply wants to help.

If you or I could help American soldiers, we might want to get them more protective clothing, sufficiently armored vehicles, decent wages, a new president, and a safe journey home. But that’s because we don’t really understand the American soldier. Rush Limbaugh does and he knows what they want.

What they want is Rush Limbaugh. They want to listen to Rush. They want to read Rush. They want to think Rush.

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And now for just 50 bucks, we can help them get what they want.

It’s all part of Rush’s astonishing Adopt a Soldier plan. You see, for just $49.95, you can make sure that a deserving soldier gets free online access to all of Rush’s radio archives, and gets a free subscription to his Limbaugh Letter, a colorful compendium of Rush’s wit and wisdom.

That’s an incredible offer! For instance, Rush recently explained how global warming is a socialist lie designed to destroy America, and that liberals pretend troop casualties are a big deal when there are plenty of people being murdered in American cities. Such stirring messages can really heal and invigorate our soldiers.

But we live in a twisted age. And we all know that there will be limp-wristed commies calling Rush a reactionary draft-dodging media-millionaire blowhard who exploits the war for his own financial gain. But why respond to the sad little spin machine of the liberals? When an angel comes bearing gifts, these monkeys can only shriek and throw their poo.

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But is Rush the only angel truly reaching out to give our troops the very best?

Oh, no.

At FOX News, you can find another shining cherub. It’s the illustrious Bill O’Reilly who has promised that everytime you buy a copy of his book Culture Warrior – and it’s a beautiful book – he’ll send a second copy to one of the troops overseas.

That second book will be utterly free of cost.

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That, my friends, is sincerity. That is purity of the heart. That is America at its very best.

[The war photograph was shot by Cheryl Diaz Meyer of the Dallas Morning News.]

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That Which Doesn’t Exist

[A guest entry by composer and robotic sculptor Frank Garvey]

In the 20th century there have been many incidents of mindless physical attacks by deranged persons upon art masterpieces residing in churches, museums and other places of worship.

To the madman, the artwork seems to substitute symbolically, perhaps animistically, for the hated political, religious, or economic ideal he blames for his personal misery.

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Two specific cases of this interesting transfer come to mind: one in 1934 and the other in 1972. The first was the destruction, by a madman, of progressive Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s masterpiece in Rockefeller Center, New York City. This mural included a portrait of the communist leader Vladimir Lenin amidst depictions of the degradations produced by capitalism.

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The second case that I wish to bring to your attention was the smashing of the face and hand of the Virgin in Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peters Cathedral, Rome. Some interesting conclusions about our society can be reached if we examine the fate of the two vandals. In the hammer attack on the Pieta, the perpetrator, Laszlo Toth, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Toth is a Maryonist, a bizarre religious sect that opposes all images in art of the Virgin Mary. He is now resting comfortably in a sanitarium. Society put him there for his own good, though there appears to be little hope of his ever recovering.

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In the first case, the destruction of the Rivera painting, the perpetrator’s name was Nelson Rockefeller. In 1933, Rockefeller commissioned Diego Rivera to create a huge mural to grace the lobby of Radio City in the Rockefeller Center in New York. The grand theme would be “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.”

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Rockefeller soon noticed, however, the images unfolding of suffering workers toiling under the regimen of capitalism. He found the stirring depiction of Lenin particularly displeasing. He demanded the head of Lenin be painted out and replaced with some other figure. Rivera rejected this “mutilation” of his work and was promptly fired. On the night of February 10th, 1934, workmen demolished the mural.

Nelson Rockefeller is a follower of a bizarre economic system called capitalism, which opposes all images of Lenin. He was appointed vice-president of the United States. He was put there for the good of his class, the billionaire class that rules the art and political world of America, and continues its imperialistic efforts to expand the empire internationally.

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Of course it should be pointed out that, before he became vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller was already widely known as one of the 20th century’s “greatest” collectors of modern art. On lecture tours, he would often tell the story of the destruction of the Rivera mural as an amusing anecdote, noting ironically that the artist refused to speak to him for years afterward.

The writer of this essay traveled to New York to see the actual wall where the Rivera mural once resided. The information desk clerk was visibly uncomfortable when asked if the area behind him was “the wall.” He had obviously been schooled to deflect this question. He finally told me the mural never actually existed because it had never been “accepted by Mr. Rockefeller.” I realized that by that definition, I didn’t exist either.

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In 1994 I sent one of my robots, Goboy the mechanical beggar, to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibit of BLANK WHITE CANVASES by Robert Ryman. His paintings do exist; they even sell to elite collectors fortunate enough to acquire one for $500,000 or more. Goboy was soon kicked out of the museum. He was not, the guard firmly explained, a work of art.

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[Go here for Diego Rivera’s account of the story]

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