Week 2 Response: The Intersectionality of Art and Biology

This week’s lecture covered an area of art historical study that I had not encountered before, the study of Neuroarthistory. Due to John Onians’ book, Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki, we now have a stepping stone into understanding what motivates and drives humans to create. An example provided in the lecture on this subject was Mark Rothko and his color forms; the argument was that during his lifetime, Rothko had been exposed to numerous scenes of the American Dust Bowl, which may have led to him repeating the formlessness of the dust clouds onto his paintings. However, I would argue that considering the Dust Bowl occurred during the 1930’s and Rothko was already in New York City by 1928, forming his inner circle with Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman, Louis Schanker, John Graham, and Milton Avery, he was not as influenced by the engulfing dust clouds as he was by studying with Avery. While it is not completely far-fetched to suggest that the images of the dust bowl may have subconsciously influenced Rothko’s forms, I would not agree that it is underlining reasoning behind Rothko’s abstract expressionism.

Despite this disagreement, an excellent example provided is the Chauvet cave art and its attempt to capture the forms of animals. Here, the neural plasticity of the brain comes more into play because of the lifestyle of early humans and their interaction with wildlife. Professor Cartwright explained that “cavemen” would track and hide from bears that resided within the cave as a way to coexist. This type of relationship would allow the “cavemen” enough visual stimulus to try and recreate its form on the cave indentations. This can also be applied to all the other animals present on the cave walls. This discussion of brain plasticity, repetition, and the creation of art allowed the lecture to transition into the intersection of art and biology. This is seen in the first diagrams and models which attempted to classify organisms (Taxonomy) and the way in which Flemish doctor Andreas Vesalius attempted to represent the inner workings of the human body. As more scientific discoveries and inquiries were made (Physiology, Descartes’ and Borelli’s mechanical philosophy, ultrasound), the more scientists relied on the creation of images of the body. Arguably, these representations of the body’s inner workings and of its physiology would lead to numerous philosophies on genetics, and eventually eugenics — the process of improving the genes of humans through sterilization, breeding, and controlled reproduction.

The controversial topic of eugenics is tackled in the film, Gattaca, in which a “not-so-distant” future society is so driven by genetic manipulation that it is now considered the norm and the “valid” life to live. Humans of natural births, or “in-valids,” were discriminated against and given menial jobs while “valids” were allowed any type of lifestyle they chose. The story follows Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) who is an “in-valid” and struggles to overcome this position in life in order to fulfill his dream of going into space. This film is all about the perseverance of will over physical limitations, as seen in the game that Vincent plays with his “valid” brother, Anton, which is called “Chicken.” This consists of the brothers swimming out to see and the first one to give up and return to shore is the loser. While his brother is considered to be genetically “perfect,” Vincent manages to beat him twice in two critical moments in the film, the first being before Vincent disappears to pursue his dream, and the second towards the end of the film, where Anton discovers Vincent’s secret. When about to lose, Anton asks Vincent how he was able to do everything that he had accomplished, to which Vincent replies, “I never saved anything for the swim back.” This line transcends the scene of the race and successfully encapsulates Vincent’s journey to Gattaca, and eventually to Titan, because it describes the actions he was willing to do in order to achieve his dream, such as him leaving his home for good and discarding his “in-valid” identity to take the identity of Jerome Eugene Morrow.

Ultimately, this film represents one of the powerful ways in which art and biology intersect — genetic art. The creation of the “best” or “ideal” humans as shown in this film can be considered as genetic art, similar to the method in which Greek artists and artists of the Italian Renaissance had idealized the depiction of the human form in order to suit the social philosophy of that time.

— Ashley Bryan Marin

 

I signed up to present on Week 8, so that means I would present on Week 9

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