The Limits of Art

Bonsai Tree Castle by Takanori Aiba
Bonsai Tree Castle by Takanori Aiba

The issue of artists genetically modifying animals, like Alba, and if it should be an allowed practice is an area of conversation that interests me in regards to the ethical questions it presents. Is it really a big problem to modify certain genes of an animal to make it genetically unique especially if the animal isn’t allowed or capable to breed with other like species to pass down the transgenic or modified DNA? If the animal would be made sterile, treated lovingly like an exotic pet, is this ethically and morally wrong? Is it really acting like god? Unleashing a transgenic animal into the wild is undoubtedly a very serious and disruptive thing to do. This would alter genetic balances in the wild and could potentially disrupt evolution and create a population of an entirely different species that could also potentially wipe out other species in the process.

Bio artist Eduardo Kac critiques science through his art and engages his viewers by using scientific practices brought about by technology, like genetic modification. In his project Alba, Kac implanted a rabbit with Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) gene from a type of jellyfish, to create a green glow-in-the-dark rabbit. People only cared about this transgenic DNA modification in animals because the bunny is an animal we humans have humanized, and brought into our own homes to live with us so it is seen as being unjust or being animal cruelty. However, scientists have been doing this for years with bacteria and the ethical issues aren’t really questioned and many people don’t really care because “its for science” and we don’t have that kind of warm cheesy affection towards bacteria like we do towards the cute furry bunny rabbit.

We already “play god” when we breed dogs for selected genetic types as well, and have been doing this for hundred of years too. Yet, not many people are opposed to this because they get the type of dog they desire discriminating at the same time against different physical traits in other dogs, similar to how society expects women to have a certain body type discriminating against others. It is like we are being racist not only to our own species, but towards other species as well.

Bioart is a very fascinating idea that broadens art. In class our professor defined bioart as “practices in which artists work with living forms, processes, organisms, and/or tissue — using cloning, genetic engineering, tissue culturing, and other methods to work with living matter or to manufacture life, often in labs and sometimes collaboratively with scientists”. While reading this definition an interesting form of bioart came into my head that was not mentioned in class and isn’t something many consider as art, that being the art of cultivating bonsai trees. I definitely think this horticultural practice is bioart because it uses living forms. The artists however aren’t working in a lab, or genetically engineering trees but are rather using techniques like “pinching buds, pruning and wiring branches, and carefully restricting but not abandoning fertilizers”. Some bonsai trees are even exhibited in museums as artworks like the Ficus bonsai tree at Crespi, Italy, which is believed to be over 1,000 years old. Some artists even take this a step further by creating fantastical architectural designs from bonsai trees like artist Takanori Aiba who creates complex castle structures within and on bonsai trees.

A lesson to be learned from these different art forms, artists and scientists alike, is to realize that art is not limited to any one medium and sometimes taking chances on something new can create something revolutionary.

– Alice Musher


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