Monthly Archives: May 2016

From Medical Maggots To Stench Soup, ‘Grunt’ Explores The Science Of Warfare


Soldiersi
Soldiers

Science writer Mary Roach is not easily repulsed. While researching her latest book, Grunt, Roach learned all about the medicinal use of maggots in World War I. She also purposely sniffed a putrid scent known as “Who me?” that was developed as an experimental weapon during World War II.

For Roach, it’s all in the name of research. “I’m kind of the bottom-feeder of science writing,” Roach jokes to Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “I’m just someone who is OK with being very out there with my curiosity.”

Roach’s curiosity compelled her in previous books to dive deep into the science of cadavers, sex and digestion. Now, in Grunt, she examines the science of warfare — specifically some of the scientific developments that help prevent wounds from becoming infected, and improve the chances that soldiers will endure the heat of the desert and survive explosions.

Interview Highlights

On combating the problem of diarrhea in the military

It’s particularly serious among special operations service members — Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, people who are operating off the main bases in quite remote rural areas in villages where there isn’t a safe water supply. They may be eating food that’s been contaminated by flies, not refrigerated, so they’re getting diarrhea at a rate that’s twice what the average enlisted person is getting.

Grunt

The Curious Science of Humans at War

by Mary Roach

Hardcover, 285 pages |

purchase

And the average enlisted person — there was a study done, I think it was 2003 to [2004] and they asked people, “How often did you come down with diarrhea, and what kind?” Seventy-some percent had diarrhea — 40 percent bad enough that they sought medical treatment, and 32 percent were in a situation where they couldn’t get to a toilet in time.

You could imagine if you were a special operations team, like three or four people going to do some highly classified critical mission where you can’t really stop and say, “Hold on, I got to go behind that rock.” …

The researcher that I accompanied at Camp Lemonnier [in Djibouti] is Capt. Mark Riddle, who is with the Navy, and he’s looking at a better treatment regimen for traveler’s diarrhea, which can really put you out of commission for a while. He’s looking at a one-dose regimen, rather than three or four days; it was something that you could take, and within the day start to be feeling better and be over it.

On maggots used to clean and heal wounds during WWI

This was a battlefield in World War I, and there was a medical man, William Baer, with the French expeditionary forces, and he noticed that a couple of his patients had come in with these wounds on the legs and on the genitals. They had been out in the field for seven days. They’d been lying there, they were brought in, and the wounds were infested with maggots. …

Initially there was that revulsion of, “Oh my God we’ve got to clean them out.” And they did clean them out, and then what he saw was this beautiful pink, new, fresh tissue that had grown in.

The maggots had been impressively effective at debriding the wound — that is, eating the dead tissue — which is important in wound healing. You want to let the fresh tissue have a chance to grow. The dead tissue doesn’t get blood; it doesn’t heal. It stands in the way of healing.

The maggots also seemed to prevent infection … so it was this kind of miraculous feat that the maggots had achieved. And William Baer some years later, back in civilian life, he kept thinking about this and he thought, “I’m going to try this.” There were some children with bone infections — it was TB infection of the bone — and he tried the maggots, and it worked.

You can imagine that was a fairly brave thing to do, to place maggots in these children’s wounds. But they were wounds that had not responded to other treatment or surgery, and it actually worked. There’s work going on still today with maggot therapy, as it’s called. Actually, the FDA has approved maggots as a medical device. … I can actually tell you the Medicare reimbursement number for maggots.

On the problem of using maggots in modern hospitals

Not only is there a revulsion factor that you have to overcome with the staff — the nurses are going to have to go in — you’re going to have to clean the maggots out after a couple of days. You don’t want them to pupate, become flies, because you think, flies flying around a hospital is the last thing you would ever want, because a fly can spread disease from landing on material in the bathroom and then landing on a wound. It’s the last thing you’d want in a hospital, so you have to be careful using maggots. …

They’re not any old maggots. They’re a particular kind of bottle fly. They’re from a company called Medical Maggots. They come with a dosage card — it’s something like five to eight maggots per such-and-such square centimeters. … They come in a vial, kind of like drugs. You don’t want to just sort of attract any kind of fly to come and lay eggs in a wound. That would be a little dicey. … You need a prescription, though!

On the usage of stink bombs during WWII

I use the term “stink bomb” sort of casually … this was more specifically a … squirtable spray, or a smearable paste. The idea was to get this very simple, cheap weapon into the hands of resistance organizations. People in occupied countries — France, China — give it to them, and they would surreptitiously approach officers, German or Japanese officers, and squirt this little 2-inch tube of this very heavily researched and tested, very foul-smelling odor, which was nicknamed “Who Me?” as in “Who dealt it.” So it was a kind of surreal and bizarre chapter in the history of World War II. …

More With Author Mary Roach

The thought was to give motivated citizens things that they could easily and cheaply use to undermine morale, to isolate, humiliate these officers. It’s a very small gesture; it wasn’t going to turn the tide of war. And in fact, “Who Me?” — this smell paste — was never deployed. The project went on for two years. And a lot of testing went on, because of a tremendous amount of difficulty with the delivery system. The tubes tended to leak and dribble, and then the operator, himself or herself, would have this stench on their hand. … It was a bit of a fiasco.

On the ongoing research to find a universal bad smell for stink bombs

There’s still work that goes on. Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has done work over the years on malodorants. They created one called “Stench Soup.” …The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, back in the ’90s, commissioned them to come up with a universally loathed scent, because there are some cultural differences. They actually looked into different cultural reactions to the scent of vomit, of burned hair, of dirty feet, all of these different odors to see, “Can we find one that is universally loathed?” And then we could use that in any military setting, in any country, in any culture. It’s very hard to do. If you don’t know what you are smelling — for example, butyric acid, depending on the context, may smell like smelly feet or it may smell like Parmesan cheese, just completely depends on the context, whether you think it smells good or bad. …

I actually have, in a box in my closet, a sample of “stench soup.” It’s in a bottle that is double bagged and sealed with paraffin and packed in a box and I haven’t had the courage to open up, because the last time I opened up something that came from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, which was an old archival sample of “Who Me?” and I opened it up out on the deck, it was quite some time before anybody could go out on the deck. I actually gagged. As you can imagine, I’m not easily repulsed or … disgusted.

The Code Switch Podcast, Episode 1: Can We Talk About Whiteness?


Why is it so hard to talk about whiteness?i
Why is it so hard to talk about whiteness?

Subscribe to the brand-spanking new Code Switch podcast! Hosted by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji.

At long last — the first episode of the Code Switch podcast! We decided to start off with a question we’ve been fixated on over the past few months: Why is it so hard to talk about whiteness?

As we were trying to work this stuff out, we asked folks on Twitter if they’d ever taken a critical whiteness studies class in college — and yes, that’s a thing — and we got a hundred variations of the same joke:

I went to Indiana University — that whole experience was a graduate-level course in white people!

Or: Is that, like, a full semester dedicated to Wes Anderson movies?

Or even: And here I thought everything in American life is already about white people!

That response wasn’t too surprising. Nell Irvin Painter, the historian and author of “The History of White People,” once wrote that since we don’t have very useful language around white identity, we mostly talk about it as a kind of empty space, defined by what it’s not.

“Whiteness is on a toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness,’ and ‘racist hatred,'” she wrote. (Our own Kat Chow has made this point about the word “vanilla” — even metaphors for whiteness are, er, colored by the notion that they lack dimension or flavor, due to being so ubiquitous.)

So, let’s all agree that it’s really hard to grapple with whiteness, both due to the slipperiness of the concept itself, and also thanks to the almost visceral discomfort people have with talking about white identity.

The problem is, by shying away from talking about whiteness, we also fail to understand the profound ways that whiteness shapes our culture and politics. And right now, in a crazy election cycle when folks’ feelings about their own white identities is a strong predictor of how they’re likely to vote, that’s especially dangerous.

And that, y’all, is what we’re taking up on our inaugural episode: how we talk (and don’t talk about whiteness), and why it’s really important we figure out how.

Neil Gaiman’s Nonfiction, Seen From The ‘Cheap Seats’


The View from the Cheap Seats

Selected Nonfiction

by Neil Gaiman

Hardcover, 522 pages |

purchase

Neil Gaiman is best known for his fictional creations, but he’s no slouch in the nonfiction department. Barely a week goes by without the appearance of a foreword to a reissued book, an introduction to an album, an essay about genre fiction, a speech about the state of literature, a keynote address to one event or another, or a eulogy for a fallen writer that’s been penned by him.

The View from the Cheap Seats gathers those bits and morsels, and it’s a hefty tome indeed. That said, it’s far from complete — an exhaustive collection of Gaiman’s nonfiction would take up volumes, considering he started out as a young arts-and-culture journalist in the ’80s. What View accomplishes, though, is considerable. Broken up into sections — “What I Believe,” “Music and the People Who Make It,” “Some People I Have Known,” “Make Good Art,” and so on — his musings shine with wit, understatement, and a warm lack of pretention. He speaks of “backing awkwardly away from journalism” in his youth, the first step of his eventual metamorphosis into an award-winning fantasy author with a fanatical following, and reflects on the patterns that arise in our lives: “Events rhyme.”

Accordingly, View draws order out of the seeming chaos of Gaiman’s scattershot career, from journalism to comics to novels to children’s books to screen adaptations. He talks about his life, but always through the lens of an external subject, usually on object of passion: the superhero comics of the legendary Jack Kirby, the transgressive songs of Lou Reed, the way “the shape of reality — the way I perceive the world — exists only because of Doctor Who.” That was written in 2003, before Gaiman actually wrote for Doctor Who; similarly, his many ruminations on American Gods, his greatest work of prose, take on a deeper resonance now that the book is well on its way to becoming a cable TV series.

Gaiman is a writer above all, though, and his entries about writing and reading make up the meat of View. They range from the deeply personal, eerily poignant “Ghosts in the Machines: Some Hallowe’en Thoughts,” first published in the New York Times, to an appreciation of the element of dreams in H. P. Lovecraft’s work — a particularly illuminating topic, as one of Gaiman’s most beloved characters, Morpheus of The Sandman, is the deity of dreams himself. Even more intriguing is “All Books Have Genders,” a meditation on the making of American Gods — as well as a humble assessment of his authorial flaws — in which he offers the succinct slogan “Novels accrete,” an entire master class on the creative process summed up gracefully in two words.

As these sorts of odds-and-ends collections typically are, View is a mixed bag, both in subject matter and quality. For every astute, incisive essay like “All Books Have Genders,” there’s “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997,” a piece of rambling, insider-baseball advice aimed at a room of comic-book professionals that’s as ungainly a read as its title would imply. Still, even in that speech, there are nuggets of wisdom and insight worth pondering. It’s an intriguing snapshot of the state of publishing circa the end of the century, just before the Internet changed everything.

Together these assorted tidbits form a mosaic — a composite picture of Gaiman as a writer, but also as a thinker, a cult figure, and barometer of genre fiction’s trends and sentiments over the past twenty-odd years. Not to mention an unassuming guy who just so happens to be a brilliant, bestselling author. As such, View is not only invaluable, but engrossing.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Neil Gaiman’s Nonfiction, Seen From The ‘Cheap Seats’


The View from the Cheap Seats

Selected Nonfiction

by Neil Gaiman

Hardcover, 522 pages |

purchase

Neil Gaiman is best known for his fictional creations, but he’s no slouch in the nonfiction department. Barely a week goes by without the appearance of a foreword to a reissued book, an introduction to an album, an essay about genre fiction, a speech about the state of literature, a keynote address to one event or another, or a eulogy for a fallen writer that’s been penned by him.

The View from the Cheap Seats gathers those bits and morsels, and it’s a hefty tome indeed. That said, it’s far from complete — an exhaustive collection of Gaiman’s nonfiction would take up volumes, considering he started out as a young arts-and-culture journalist in the ’80s. What View accomplishes, though, is considerable. Broken up into sections — “What I Believe,” “Music and the People Who Make It,” “Some People I Have Known,” “Make Good Art,” and so on — his musings shine with wit, understatement, and a warm lack of pretention. He speaks of “backing awkwardly away from journalism” in his youth, the first step of his eventual metamorphosis into an award-winning fantasy author with a fanatical following, and reflects on the patterns that arise in our lives: “Events rhyme.”

Accordingly, View draws order out of the seeming chaos of Gaiman’s scattershot career, from journalism to comics to novels to children’s books to screen adaptations. He talks about his life, but always through the lens of an external subject, usually on object of passion: the superhero comics of the legendary Jack Kirby, the transgressive songs of Lou Reed, the way “the shape of reality — the way I perceive the world — exists only because of Doctor Who.” That was written in 2003, before Gaiman actually wrote for Doctor Who; similarly, his many ruminations on American Gods, his greatest work of prose, take on a deeper resonance now that the book is well on its way to becoming a cable TV series.

Gaiman is a writer above all, though, and his entries about writing and reading make up the meat of View. They range from the deeply personal, eerily poignant “Ghosts in the Machines: Some Hallowe’en Thoughts,” first published in the New York Times, to an appreciation of the element of dreams in H. P. Lovecraft’s work — a particularly illuminating topic, as one of Gaiman’s most beloved characters, Morpheus of The Sandman, is the deity of dreams himself. Even more intriguing is “All Books Have Genders,” a meditation on the making of American Gods — as well as a humble assessment of his authorial flaws — in which he offers the succinct slogan “Novels accrete,” an entire master class on the creative process summed up gracefully in two words.

As these sorts of odds-and-ends collections typically are, View is a mixed bag, both in subject matter and quality. For every astute, incisive essay like “All Books Have Genders,” there’s “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997,” a piece of rambling, insider-baseball advice aimed at a room of comic-book professionals that’s as ungainly a read as its title would imply. Still, even in that speech, there are nuggets of wisdom and insight worth pondering. It’s an intriguing snapshot of the state of publishing circa the end of the century, just before the Internet changed everything.

Together these assorted tidbits form a mosaic — a composite picture of Gaiman as a writer, but also as a thinker, a cult figure, and barometer of genre fiction’s trends and sentiments over the past twenty-odd years. Not to mention an unassuming guy who just so happens to be a brilliant, bestselling author. As such, View is not only invaluable, but engrossing.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

You Gonna Finish That? What We Can Learn From Artworks In Progress


Paul Cézanne, who painted Bouquet of Peonies in a Green Jar around 1898, rarely signed his works. He told his mother that finishing things was a goal for imbeciles.i

Paul Cézanne, who painted Bouquet of Peonies in a Green Jar around 1898, rarely signed his works. He told his mother that finishing things was a goal for imbeciles.

Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum


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Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

Paul Cézanne, who painted Bouquet of Peonies in a Green Jar around 1898, rarely signed his works. He told his mother that finishing things was a goal for imbeciles.

Paul Cézanne, who painted Bouquet of Peonies in a Green Jar around 1898, rarely signed his works. He told his mother that finishing things was a goal for imbeciles.

Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

How does an artist know when a work is finished? Sometimes it’s a deliberate decision. Other times, the decision is made by fate or circumstance. Now, an extensive exhibition at The Met Breuer Museum in Manhattan is exploring great works of unfinished art.

Jan van Eyck's Saint Barbara, painted in 1437, is mostly unfinished, and yet still a masterpiece.i

Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara, painted in 1437, is mostly unfinished, and yet still a masterpiece.

Hugo Maertens/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum


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Hugo Maertens/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

Jan van Eyck's Saint Barbara, painted in 1437, is mostly unfinished, and yet still a masterpiece.

Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara, painted in 1437, is mostly unfinished, and yet still a masterpiece.

Hugo Maertens/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

The Unfinished show has an intriguing subtitle: “Thoughts Left Visible.” The exhibit showcases works made over some 600 years, which offer glimpses into the creative process and sometimes reveal artists’ anger or despair.

Curator Andrea Bayer says that unfinished works can still be masterpieces. She cites a small, exquisitely detailed drawing Jan van Eyck made in 1437, in preparation for a painted panel.

Saint Barbara sits on a hill near a looming Gothic tower. She holds a thick book and long, graceful palm leaves. The young woman is drawn in black, on a pale background. Van Eyck paints in just a few birds against a blue sky. “And then he stopped,” says Bayer, and declares, “It’s a masterpiece.” No one knows why van Eyck didn’t apply paint to the rest of the panel. But he signed and dated it, which usually means an artist thinks it’s finished.

Rembrandt was once asked why so many of his works look half-finished. He replied: “A work of art is complete when in it the artist has realized his intention.” Rembrandt implies that it’s up to the artist to decide, not to critics, who may say a work appears raw, lacking a complete appearance.

Paul Cezanne, who was never satisfied, rarely signed his works. In a letter to his mother, he wrote that finishing things was a goal for imbeciles.

In 1630, a very frustrated Peter Paul Rubens quit working on this large canvas depicting Henri IV at the Battle of Ivry.i

In 1630, a very frustrated Peter Paul Rubens quit working on this large canvas depicting Henri IV at the Battle of Ivry.

Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum


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Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

In 1630, a very frustrated Peter Paul Rubens quit working on this large canvas depicting Henri IV at the Battle of Ivry.

In 1630, a very frustrated Peter Paul Rubens quit working on this large canvas depicting Henri IV at the Battle of Ivry.

Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

When You Simply Get Fed Up

There are all sorts of reasons for not completing a work: The artist dies … the commission dries up … the artist gets frustrated … that last one is what happened to Peter Paul Rubens in 1628 while painting a big battle scene for the French Queen Marie de Medici.

“We can see him using a liquid brushstroke to set out the horses, the men, some of them falling, some of them riding,” Bayer observes. It’s clear from the animated canvas that the piece was ambitious. Yet after three years of working on it, Rubens stopped.

He was having too many problems communicating with the Paris court. They gave him wrong information about the size of the work, also Queen Marie was in trouble. “Basically,” says Bayer, “the artist said basta! and put down his brushes.”

Alice Neel started work on James Hunter Black Draftee in 1965, but Mr. Hunter never came back for a second sitting.i

Alice Neel started work on James Hunter Black Draftee in 1965, but Mr. Hunter never came back for a second sitting.

© The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum


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© The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

Alice Neel started work on James Hunter Black Draftee in 1965, but Mr. Hunter never came back for a second sitting.

Alice Neel started work on James Hunter Black Draftee in 1965, but Mr. Hunter never came back for a second sitting.

© The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

When You Are Interrupted

Centuries later, war left another picture unfinished. In 1965, the American painter Alice Neel was working on a portrait of James Hunter, an African American draftee who was about to go to Vietnam.

“She did the first sitting with him, capturing this beautiful, somewhat melancholic head, leaning on one hand,” Bayer says. On the rest of the large canvas Neel outlined Hunter’s arms and legs, the chair in which he sat, in quick, precise strokes. “He was supposed to come back for a second sitting, and he never did,” Bayer says.

Neel waited and waited, much as her pensive model in the painting sits waiting, knowing that his life is about to change.”This is a work in which not only has art been interrupted,” the curator observes, “but you get that sense that life has been interrupted.”

Maybe Hunter was sent to war, but the museum has not been able to find any record of his death. Perhaps he changed his mind about posing. Ten years later, for her first show at the Whitney Museum, Neel decided the work was finished. She put a title on the back, and signed it.

“It’s magnificent,” Bayer declares. “And it is a great example of so many of the works in this exhibition, in which you’re happy that the artist did not add another touch.”

Édouard Manet began work on The Funeral around 1867. The unfinished painting remained in his studio until he died.i

Édouard Manet began work on The Funeral around 1867. The unfinished painting remained in his studio until he died.

Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum


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Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

Édouard Manet began work on The Funeral around 1867. The unfinished painting remained in his studio until he died.

Édouard Manet began work on The Funeral around 1867. The unfinished painting remained in his studio until he died.

Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

When You Can’t Bear To Finish

“Unfinishedness” is Bayer’s word for the state of some of these pieces. Sometimes, as in the case of the Neel work, it’s a virtue. At other times, an artist doesn’t want to finish a painting, but can’t bear to part with it.

In 1867, Édouard Manet’s friend, poet Charles Baudelaire died. Scholars think Manet’s dark, brushy landscape of a small funeral procession was painted after the poet’s burial. “It clearly had personal significance for him,” Bayer says. “It captured a moment in which he was filled with grief.”

Anton Raphael Mengs left some key details out of his Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, duquesa de Huescar, 1775.i

Anton Raphael Mengs left some key details out of his Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, duquesa de Huescar, 1775.

Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum


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Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

Anton Raphael Mengs left some key details out of his Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, duquesa de Huescar, 1775.

Anton Raphael Mengs left some key details out of his Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, duquesa de Huescar, 1775.

Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

Manet never finished The Funeral. But he kept it in his studio until his death, 15 years later. Bayer posits the piece simply brought up too many emotions for Manet to want to finish.

When The Viewer Finishes For You

There are pieces in the exhibition which artists left unfinished deliberately. After World War II, many of them stopped trying to create perfect, completed canvases. Instead, work became about restlessness, flux. Co-curator Kelly Baum says they made paintings that looked “unstable, on-going, boundless, impermanent.”

Baum points to Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting from 1951. Four square panels are hung close together to form a big square, each panel completely covered in nothing but white paint. You can see it here. Is this an unfinished work? It’s hard to tell.

But when a viewer walks in front of it, he or she casts shadows on the panels. The visitor becomes a silhouette. “And because the paintings are always changing,” says Baum, “they can never truly be finished.”

It also means that the viewer participates in the making of the art, and finishes it at least for that moment of shadow-casting.

Do It Yourself (Violin) is Andy Warhol's nod to paint-by-numbers kits that were popular in the 1960s. He invites the viewer to complete the work.i

Do It Yourself (Violin) is Andy Warhol’s nod to paint-by-numbers kits that were popular in the 1960s. He invites the viewer to complete the work.

© 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum


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© 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

Do It Yourself (Violin) is Andy Warhol's nod to paint-by-numbers kits that were popular in the 1960s. He invites the viewer to complete the work.

Do It Yourself (Violin) is Andy Warhol’s nod to paint-by-numbers kits that were popular in the 1960s. He invites the viewer to complete the work.

© 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society/Courtesy of The Met Breuer Museum

When Unfinished Is An Invitation

A canvas by Andy Warhol is like a signature for this Unfinished exhibit. Do It Yourself (Violin) salutes the paint-by-numbers kits that were popular in the 1960s. Warhol paints the outline of a violin, black, on a white background. He breaks the violin down into many numbered spaces, and fills in just a few of those spaces with numbered colors from the kit — brown, yellow, a bit of blue. Again, says Baum, it seems to be an invitation to the viewer to finish what Warhol has only begun.

Over the centuries, artists have been asked how they know a work is finished. Warhol may have had the best answer. Bayer says that Warhol’s response was: “when the check clears.”

‘Top Gear’ Returns With New Hosts On BBC America




ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

“Top Gear” is more than just a show about fast cars and funny adventures. It is a blockbuster for the BBC. Tonight, the show returns to BBC America revamped with new hosts. Here’s NPR TV critic Eric Deggans on its chances for success.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You don’t want to mess it up. You don’t want to go on the grass.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: I wish I could tell you whether the BBC has recaptured the moneymaking magic that made “Top Gear” one of the most widely viewed TV programs in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whoa, this is too fast.

DEGGANS: But I can’t because BBC America hasn’t given U.S. TV critics an advance look at the new “Top Gear,” stoking questions about why. A lot is riding on the success of this show, which debuts tonight with a new cadre of hosts, including longtime British television personality Chris Evans and former “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc. Yeah, Matt LeBlanc.

Instead, the channel has released a series of promotional videos, including footage of a time when Chris Evans got carsick while riding on the passenger side of a car during a test drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

SABINE SCHMITZ: Whoa, go out, go out, go out, Oh, sorry. Why is red?

CHRIS EVANS: Strawberries.

DEGGANS: Let me reiterate – the newly-hired host of a show about cars got carsick. That video seemed to be a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging all the negative rumors the new version of “Top Gear” has faced. Beside Evans’ sickness, there were rumors he and Matt LeBlanc didn’t get along, controversy when LeBlanc skidded his car near a revered English war memorial, and a report in the British press that fans walked out of a show taping when it took too long.

LeBlanc, who’s made special appearances on the show in the past, has denied any animosity with Evans. He told British talk show host Graham Norton the show’s international popularity caught him by surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE GRAHAM NORTON SHOW”)

MATT LEBLANC: It’s a lot bigger than I thought it was. You know, when I first did the show it was fun. And then – now, being a part of it, I mean, it is a – just an international juggernaut of a show.

DEGGANS: “Top Gear” started in 1977 and was revamped in 2002. It features hosts driving a wild variety of cars in amazing places across the globe. The franchise took off with hosts James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson, and became a global brand with DVDs, a magazine, a popular website and more.

These hosts would interject a bit of knuckleheaded humor while driving cars and expertly talking about them both in prerecorded pieces and in segments performed before a live audience. But they could cross the line, as in this moment, when host Richard Hammond made fun of a Mexican sports car.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

RICHARD HAMMOND: Why would you want a Mexican car? Because cars reflect national characteristics, don’t they? German cars are sort of very well-built and ruthlessly efficient.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

HAMMOND: Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick. A Mexican car is just going to be a lazy, feckless, flatulent, odorous…

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: …Leaning against the fence asleep, looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.

DEGGANS: Jeremy Clarkson was fired by the BBC last year after he punched a producer on the show. Co-hosts May and Hammond then left “Top Gear,” along with executive producer Andy Wilman. They’re now creating a car show for Amazon called “The Grand Tour.” Now that the BBC has developed a new team of hosts, including an American for the first time in the show’s history, the question remains – can you do the show without the old hosts?

Chris Evans, not to be confused with the American movie star of the same name, talked up his partnership with Matt LeBlanc on “Good Morning America.”

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “GOOD MORNING AMERICA”)

EVANS: I think we’re like Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street. You know, it’s a two-hand, you know…

LEBLANC: …But we don’t sleep in the same room.

EVANS: Well…

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That’s good to know.

EVANS: …Not yet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).

LEBLANC: No, not yet.

DEGGANS: But it’ll take more than a little bit of forced banter to pull off what the new “Top Gear” is attempting – trying to recapture the fun spirit of the old series while leaving its more problematic past behind. I’m Eric Deggans.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘Top Gear’ Returns With New Hosts On BBC America




ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

“Top Gear” is more than just a show about fast cars and funny adventures. It is a blockbuster for the BBC. Tonight, the show returns to BBC America revamped with new hosts. Here’s NPR TV critic Eric Deggans on its chances for success.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You don’t want to mess it up. You don’t want to go on the grass.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: I wish I could tell you whether the BBC has recaptured the moneymaking magic that made “Top Gear” one of the most widely viewed TV programs in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whoa, this is too fast.

DEGGANS: But I can’t because BBC America hasn’t given U.S. TV critics an advance look at the new “Top Gear,” stoking questions about why. A lot is riding on the success of this show, which debuts tonight with a new cadre of hosts, including longtime British television personality Chris Evans and former “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc. Yeah, Matt LeBlanc.

Instead, the channel has released a series of promotional videos, including footage of a time when Chris Evans got carsick while riding on the passenger side of a car during a test drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

SABINE SCHMITZ: Whoa, go out, go out, go out, Oh, sorry. Why is red?

CHRIS EVANS: Strawberries.

DEGGANS: Let me reiterate – the newly-hired host of a show about cars got carsick. That video seemed to be a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging all the negative rumors the new version of “Top Gear” has faced. Beside Evans’ sickness, there were rumors he and Matt LeBlanc didn’t get along, controversy when LeBlanc skidded his car near a revered English war memorial, and a report in the British press that fans walked out of a show taping when it took too long.

LeBlanc, who’s made special appearances on the show in the past, has denied any animosity with Evans. He told British talk show host Graham Norton the show’s international popularity caught him by surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE GRAHAM NORTON SHOW”)

MATT LEBLANC: It’s a lot bigger than I thought it was. You know, when I first did the show it was fun. And then – now, being a part of it, I mean, it is a – just an international juggernaut of a show.

DEGGANS: “Top Gear” started in 1977 and was revamped in 2002. It features hosts driving a wild variety of cars in amazing places across the globe. The franchise took off with hosts James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson, and became a global brand with DVDs, a magazine, a popular website and more.

These hosts would interject a bit of knuckleheaded humor while driving cars and expertly talking about them both in prerecorded pieces and in segments performed before a live audience. But they could cross the line, as in this moment, when host Richard Hammond made fun of a Mexican sports car.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TOP GEAR”)

RICHARD HAMMOND: Why would you want a Mexican car? Because cars reflect national characteristics, don’t they? German cars are sort of very well-built and ruthlessly efficient.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

HAMMOND: Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick. A Mexican car is just going to be a lazy, feckless, flatulent, odorous…

(LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: …Leaning against the fence asleep, looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.

DEGGANS: Jeremy Clarkson was fired by the BBC last year after he punched a producer on the show. Co-hosts May and Hammond then left “Top Gear,” along with executive producer Andy Wilman. They’re now creating a car show for Amazon called “The Grand Tour.” Now that the BBC has developed a new team of hosts, including an American for the first time in the show’s history, the question remains – can you do the show without the old hosts?

Chris Evans, not to be confused with the American movie star of the same name, talked up his partnership with Matt LeBlanc on “Good Morning America.”

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “GOOD MORNING AMERICA”)

EVANS: I think we’re like Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street. You know, it’s a two-hand, you know…

LEBLANC: …But we don’t sleep in the same room.

EVANS: Well…

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That’s good to know.

EVANS: …Not yet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).

LEBLANC: No, not yet.

DEGGANS: But it’ll take more than a little bit of forced banter to pull off what the new “Top Gear” is attempting – trying to recapture the fun spirit of the old series while leaving its more problematic past behind. I’m Eric Deggans.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.