It is Radycki’s premise that Modersohn-Becker was a “pioneer and groundbreaker,” one of the key early German modernists—the “missing piece in the history of modernist imagery.”
Toxic Hot Seat, a new documentary directed by James Redford and Kirby Walker, takes an in-depth look at chemical flame retardants. It interweaves the multiple narratives of investigative reporters, scientists, lawmakers and community activists as they fight for transparency around a 1975 law. That piece of legislation, California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB-117), was enacted to eradicate fires in the home caused by cigarettes. What ensued were health hazards Americans were unaware of and years of disinformation promoted by those with big money at stake. At the core of the film stands the investigative work of three Chicago Tribune reporters who put the story on the map with their series, “Playing With Fire.” As they sift through the facts, the circle expands to connect their findings to the other key players in the account.
One of the top takeaways for the general public is the startling information that there are approximately 84,000 chemicals being used commercially in the country. They include home cleaning agents and flame retardants in furniture. Even more problematic is that the majority hasn’t been tested for safety—and are exempt from regulations.
When it was determined that cigarette-induced furniture fires were a primary cause of injuries and deaths from fires in the home, the tobacco industry was pressed to develop a “fire safe cigarette” that could extinguish on its own. However, the decision makers for tobacco asserted that it wasn’t their responsibility to prevent these fires. Rather, they shifted culpability to furniture makers. Bolstered by support from the National Association of State Fire Marshalls (their site has a PDF rebuttal to Chicago Tribune allegations), the initiative to alter the equation fell to the furniture industry. They were pegged as the “fuel,” as opposed to the cigarette manufacturers who were just the “igniters.”
When California put TB-117 into play—mandating fire retardants in furniture—manufacturers adopted the guidelines for all production in order to avoid developing two different product lines.
One of first groups to become aware of a correlation between flame retardants and health was fire fighters. We are introduced to Tony Stefani, a retired fire department captain turned activist. He was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. With other members of the San Francisco Fire Department getting ill, Stefani began questioning. He learned that when flame retardants burn they turn into toxic chemicals; fires in essence become “toxic soups.” Statistics now show that in a demographic of San Francisco women firefighters in the 40 to 50 year old demographic, the rate of breast cancer is six times the national average.
Dr. Arlene Blum, recognized for getting flame retardants with cancer causing chemicals out of children’s sleepwear, is a primary voice elucidating the science behind the chemistry. Several of the flame retardants currently in use are from a group of chemicals that include the banned substances of PCBs and DDT. They enter the body, bioaccumulate, and create havoc within the human system.
PBDEs, which often come out of the flame retardants in cushion foam and then attach to dust particles, are present in over 90 percent of American homes. Women with elevated amounts take twice as long to become pregnant. Children with higher levels at birth have a four to six point deficit in their IQs. PBDEs have been linked to impaired cognitive and behavioral problems, as well as increased rates of birth defects, and are found in amniotic fluid and breast milk. Children have three times more of these chemicals in their bodies than adults.
The American Chemistry Council declined requests from Redford and Walker to be interviewed for the film. However, they have posted a press release on their site charging, “New Docudrama Misleads the Public on Flame Retardants.” Another angle that was underscored by Chicago Tribune journalists Sam Roe and Patricia Callahan was the distortion by the chemical industry of a study conducted by fire protection engineer Vytenis Babrawskas. Babrawskas told the Tribune writers in their article, “[the] Industry has used this study in ways that are improper and untruthful.”
It should be noted that the top three companies generating the bulk of flame retardants on the market make over 3 billions pounds of these chemicals annually. This gives rise to “a market worth over $5 billion.”
The final piece of the puzzle was the legislators who began introducing bills in 2004-2005 to push back against the big money interests. California State Senator Mark Leno and Maine representative Hannah Pingree presented numerous bills to ban flame retardants. Their efforts were met with a $6 million press campaign led by the chemical industry. Maine saw more success than California. Pingree’s actions resulted in a statewide ban against flame retardants. Repeatedly, the bills put forth by Leno were defeated. Then, in May 2012, the Chicago Tribune published the first installment of their exposé. In June of 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown released a statement in which he directed state agencies to revise the flammability standards. Just this month, Brown announced new standards to reduce toxic chemicals in furniture for his state.
Pingree delivers one of the strongest lines in the movie when she appears in front of Sen. Barbara Boxer and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing on July 24, 2012. The witnesses included Stefani, as well as a lawyer and an “advocacy” representative for the chemical industries. Stefani told Boxer and the committee:
“I don’t trust these companies to tell the truth about their chemicals, and I don’t think the American public or you as Senators should either.”
Toxic Hot Seat debuts Monday, Nov. 25 on HBO, with additional play dates through December.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO
This article originally appeared on the blog Ken’s Green Furniture
As the baseball season comes to a close and football mania ratchets up, I can’t stop thinking about a Frontline documentary and an ABC news story that shared the common denominator elements of sports, money, and societal values. It’s a toxic brew that is impacting the health of athletes from the gloried model of the pros, trickling all the way down to teen athletes—and younger. It raises a whole lot of questions.
In “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” the narrative tracks the impact of football on the human brain from the big dollar “Pro” stakes to the college and youth leagues. The investigative piece, “The Lure of Speed and Strength: Illegal Steroids Available Overseas,” profiled how Americans are getting their hands on unregulated steroids via the Internet, for the purpose of enhancing athletic performance and replicating physical standards promoted in the media and popular culture.
Ironically, the injuries suffered as a result of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and anabolic steroid use have parallels and similarities. These include behavioral and psychological ramifications from aggressive outbursts to mood swings. For the linebacker Junior Seau and an aspiring teen baseball player, Taylor Hooton, both of their personal stories ended in suicide.
Taylor’s father, Don Hooton, became proactive in the steroid abuse space after learning that his son’s death and erratic demeanor was tied to the use of steroids. He founded the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which serves as a clearinghouse for information, and an education portal for young people to learn about the dangers of steroid use.
The site disseminates demographic stats about steroid abuse in the 12 to 19 year old age bracket. The average age for first time users is 15. A large percentage (40 percent) of high school seniors relate that obtaining these drugs is easy. Teen girls are the most rapidly growing user group. Side effects of steroid use include increased aggression, irritability, and depression. Withdrawal from usage without proper medical supervision can exacerbate these symptoms.
The drill down of the ABC report was the findings about online availability of steroid products, physical enhancement drugs (PED), and human growth hormone (HGH) produced overseas, with no oversight or regulation. The raw materials predominately come from China. Footage of factory production showed extremely unsanitary facilities. Tests on the products ordered and received by the ABC team evidenced the presence of heavy metals—including lead and arsenic—and a variety of fillers from cooking oil to horse urine.
An overwhelming 97 percent of online “pharmacies” operate illegally, allowing anyone—including minors—to order what is categorized by the U.S. government as a controlled substance. A Google search for “Steroids Online Without a Prescription” brought up over 8 million results. On YouTube (a subsidiary of Google), there were a plethora of videos responding to the search. I also found a five-minute posting by a person in the bodybuilding arena alerting others to the fact that YouTube was removing videos and replacing them with the notice “Content Inappropriate.” His advice was, “Change your tags up. It’s all in the tags.”
With 1.5 million teens using steroids, and the visibility of the ABC report, there has been pushback and questions about the role of search engines and the Internet functioning as a conduit to obtaining drugs online without prescriptions. In addition, the profit being derived from the Google AdSense program has been pointed to.
Hooton unequivocally believes that Google and YouTube bear responsibility for the availability of sites found via their search engines. (A quick check of Yahoo! showed they had over one millions hits for “Steroids online without prescription” and a list of sidebar ads). Google has responded to queries stating that the issue of “free speech” was a determining factor. Their stance has been to kick the can down the road to the purview of the legal system—through the involvement of the courts and legislation. Google maintains that it is not up to them to determine what should be “censored.”
Jim Hood, the Attorney General of Mississippi and co-chairman of the intellectual property committee for the National Association of Attorneys General, has plenty to say on the subject. He has been spearheading efforts to have Google undertake a real strategy to deal with the activities of pharmacies online. (Google paid $500 million to the federal government in 2011 to settle claims over ads sold to pharmacies that were illegally shipping drugs into the United States). In a USA Today article, Hood was reported commenting, “Google is putting consumers at risk and facilitating wrongdoing, all while profiting handsomely from illegal behavior.” Also noted in the account was a report released by the Digital Citizens Alliance, looking into the issue of steroid abuse. Their Executive Director, Tom Galvin, responded to Google’s claims of “fighting the problem,” suggesting that Google’s assertions were disingenuous. Galvin said, “Google has some of the most incredible minds in the world…They certainly have the analytics capabilities to know about these videos.” There appears to be plenty of culpability to go around. Most sites accept PayPal or credit cards (the latter frequently using a third party such as Western Union).
It’s going to take a concerted effort to untangle the threads of sports culture, health, safety, and the Internet. Not everyone is going to agree on what the core issues are and what should be done. Winning and profits can’t always be the bottom line.
It’s time for a robust conversation.
Photo: Courtesy of Don Hooton
Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist, by Diane Radycki, relates the personal story and artistic history of a woman that has much to offer today’s audiences.
Radycki’s book, which had its origins in a Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, sees Modersohn-Becker as a pioneer and groundbreaker who was trying to navigate “having it all.”
Born in 1876 (she died in 1907), Modersohn-Becker’s childhood ran parallel to what Radycki terms the national debate “about women’s access to higher education and the liberal professions.” Her father supported education and wanted his daughter to be able to earn a living—because he didn’t assume that she would get married. He encouraged self-reliance for children of both sexes, considering it “ever critical.” Her mother, who had artistic interests, encouraged Modersohn-Becker saying, “It would give me the greatest joy if you were really to accomplish something, something more than the little dabbling that all girls do.”
Monetary gifts from relatives and a small inheritance from her godmother allowed Modersohn-Becker to pursue art lessons and an education. She attended the drawing and painting academy run by the Association of Women Artists, where Käthe Kollwitz had studied. In this environment, Modersohn-Becker was provided with role models of women artists as teachers, creative entities, and those in positions of authority. Girls saw they could have a future as art teachers, rather than as a governess.
The society and world events that Modersohn-Becker was shaped by are of intrinsic interest to Radycki. She sets her subject not only within a historical and sociological context, but also draws a compelling picture of the people Modersohn-Becker associated with. Primary in the narrative are her relationships with her best friend, sculptor Clara Westhoff, and Westhoff’s future husband, the writer and poet Rainer Maria Rilke. A year after Modersohn-Becker’s death, Rilke would write his tribute, Requiem for a Friend.
Modersohn-Becker’s relationship to Westhoff was primary to both women. Yet Westhoff’s marriage to Rilke, and her new responsibilities, would strain the bond. Westhoff gave birth eight months after her nuptials. Finances for the newly-weds became unstable when Rilke’s father cut off his stipend. When Modersohn-Becker was puzzled by the shift in their friendship, Westhoff explained that mothering a newborn did not allow her to “simply get on my bicycle and ride off.”
Modersohn-Becker would experience her own realizations about conjugal life when she married the artist Otto Modersohn, who was eleven years her senior. She met him at the artists’ colony Worpswede, where she fully entered into the artistic life—without parental constraints.
Modersohn was a 36-year-old widower with a small daughter. There was an initial attraction between the two. However, for Modersohn-Becker, this was liberally mixed with a dose of pragmatism. She clearly understood that Modersohn had a child and a household that needed to be overseen. Yet, she would receive a source of economic support, thereby not needing to work outside the home. It would be an economically comfortable and safe situation in which to pursue her art. The spouses would retain their own studios. It appeared that the bond of art would seal the deal.
Within a year after taking her vows, Radycki relates that Modersohn-Becker wrote the following about matrimony: “It is my experience that marriage doesn’t make one happier. It takes away the illusion that previously sustained one’s whole being that one would have a soul mate.”
Throughout the book, the reader follows Modersohn-Becker as she struggles with the contemporary conundrum of trying to “have it all.” This is reflected in multiple identity conflicts that included the various permutations of her name, her consideration of single motherhood, and her belief that women artists “have it harder.” Indeed, a 1901 cartoon posited, “There are two kinds of women painters. The ones who get married and the others. And neither have talent.”
After increased emotional agitation and dissatisfaction with her married life, Modersohn-Becker left her husband and stepdaughter. She became an example of the “new woman,” described by Radycki as a “middle-class woman who left home and family for a life and career of her own.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t go swimmingly. Modersohn-Becker was constantly contending with money issues. She was discontent with life when she was not painting. Ultimately, she decided to return to her husband’s household. She wrote to Westhoff, “Whether I’m wagering smartly is up to the future to determine. The main thing is peace for my work, and that I have most of all while at Otto Modersohn’s side.” Radycki characterizes this decision as emanating from “warring forces of exhaustion and ambition—a ruthless retrenchment.”
It is revealed through a letter to Westhoff that for five years Modersohn-Becker’s marriage had been sexless. However, having a child became a condition of her return to the domestic nest. Modersohn-Becker became pregnant, but the delivery was difficult. Eighteen days later, she died at the age of thirty-one.
Radycki introduces her subject stating, “Modersohn-Becker painted the life she was living as a woman and an artist.” It is Radycki’s premise that Modersohn-Becker was a “pioneer and groundbreaker,” one of the key early German modernists—the “missing piece in the history of modernist imagery.”
Modersohn-Becker, without doubt, broke numerous barriers. She was, Radycki emphasizes, the first woman artist to challenge the traditional representation of the female body in art. She was the first to paint herself nude and to do self-portraits while pregnant. An extensive part of her oeuvre was devoted to compositions of mothers and children who are naked. Radycki believes that there is no male precedent for what Modersohn-Becker was doing—and that it can only be compared to 20th century body imagery. Modersohn-Becker took the nude out of the arena of the male gaze and male desire. Radycki writes, “Her female bodies defy the idealized and eroticized nude,” as she “shifted paradigms.” For Radycki, Modersohn-Becker is not just another woman in the art chronology. Rather, she is the first woman to paint herself nude when this was not a subject at all. Modersohn-Becker is taking and owning. It is something that hasn’t been seen before. The result is a legacy as a major influence on female artists from Frida Kahlo to Cindy Sherman.
Three-quarters of Modersohn-Becker output was of the figure, with a strong concentration on the premenstrual girl and the post-menopausal woman. Radycki qualifies these non-procreating females as “society’s powerless groups.” Illustrated in the book is an 1899 life size drawing entitled, Large Standing Girl Nude, in Left Profile. The young girl, with arms folded against her flat chest, has a slightly distended stomach and a resolute facial expression. She is clearly grounded in her own space and aware of her own agency. It is a striking contrast to the young girls in the world of Balthus.
An important observation that Radycki makes is how Modersohn-Becker has been held to a different yardstick than male painters, especially those who also died at a young age. In a ten-year period, Modersohn-Becker created over seven hundred paintings and hundreds of drawings. Van Gogh, who produced eight hundred paintings in a decade, was lauded as prolific. Why was Modersohn-Becker evaluated far more harshly than male artists who died at her age—or younger—such as Georges Seurat or Egon Schiele? Radycki points out that the work of those two artists are not “lamented as unfinished, with its implication of juvenilia and unsecured categories.”
Modersohn-Becker is clearly seen by Radycki within the framework of “the personal is political.” She analyzes the difference between Modersohn-Becker’s life experience and that of her male counterparts. Referencing feminist theory Radycki puts forth, “Time for women is constantly interrupted.” In the composition, Still Life with Haddock, Radycki underscores the essence of the painting within the sphere of Modersohn-Becker’s domestic chores. Her family dinner is wrapped in the newspaper it was purchased in. Adjacent are lemons that will probably be used in the preparation. It wasn’t unrelated. She painted her dinner before cooking and serving it.
Radycki was the editor and translator of The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker. An art historian who has made women artists from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries her purview, Radycki shows that she was uniquely positioned to delve into the psychology of Modersohn-Becker.
Radycki’s text is an incisive document that will speak to a range of audiences: art historians, feminists, artists, and those looking to the narrative of a creative woman—to help contemplate and forge their own future paths.
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