Under Society's Skin: The Implications of Bio-Art
When asked about art, our first response is to discuss the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo’s David, Shakespeare’s all-encompassing works, Andy Warhol’s exhibits from the twentieth century, the brassy sound of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and perhaps even The Iliad and the Odyssey. Society is groomed to think of art as painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, and music—the modern system of the five major arts—as defined by historian of Philosophy Paul Kristeller. Though society has become less close-minded to the idea of what art can be determining a true, and universal definition of art is and will continue to be a controversial topic among philosophers. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there are various definitions of art. Some definitions focus on “art’s institutional features,” others are more traditional with a focus on “commonalities across the class of artworks.” There is also a hybrid of the two definitions which strives to combine traditional aesthetics and the institutional aspect of art.
Bio-art is a true spin on society’s traditional concept art and is considered a development of the contemporary art movement and also falls into the hybrid definition of art. This new-age form relates to creating works from either living or semi-living materials. It is a movement that combines the artist’s so often used biological metaphors, and scientific techniques. Throughout time, art has been causing controversies among society. There is a constant push and pull among artists who want to make a statement and the art’s viewers. The same is to say for the bio-art movement of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Bio-art—with its distinct usages of biological materials, and biological techniques for non-conventional purposes—has become an aspect of many ethical and political controversies.
Bio-art began in the twentieth century with scientists Edward Steichen and Alexander Fleming. In 1933, Alexander Fleming was the first instance with his ‘germ paintings’ made by soaking paper in culture, adding bacteria, and incubating the pages. Steichen created a name for bio-art with his exhibit of Delphinium flowers in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. These mutated flowers were a result of seeds soaked in a chemical bath. The movement gained momentum with Flemming and Steichen’s work, leading to an influx of bio-artists in the next century.
Twenty-first-century bio-artists have made the field much more ethically challenging for many social groups. One of the most well-known instances of controversial bio-art is Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny. Kac used biotechnology to modify a rabbit embryo to accept jellyfish genetic material, resulting in a fluorescent rabbit. Many individuals see this act by a well-respected scientist as manipulative. Kac used his knowledge of stem-cell behaviors as a way to create an unnecessary display of his knowledge. Many think that his manipulation of a rabbit and jellyfish as an act of animal cruelty (citation). In this case animal cruelty being defined with deontological ethics as “a moral behavior requires certain principles that are in essence ‘good’ or ‘moral’.” Displays have become even more extreme since Eduardo Kac. Julia Reodica’s hymNext project, a sculptural response to traditional virginity, was created with Reodica’s vaginal cells as she wanted herself to be “new art media.” Various religious organizations have found this to be offensive and controversial. While artists are given the freedom to express their thoughts, it is shrewd of Reodica to use a personal piece of her body to evoke such an emotional response from an audience on a sensitive subject. Her stated reasons for engaging in this form of art—to become a significant name—shows the purpose her bio-art creation could be misled for personal gain, more than contributing to the movement. The argument against bio-art includes a heavy significance on wrongful intentions, along with the claim that bio-art is not art at all.
A philosophical allegation in opposition to bio-art states that bio-art expects a reflection from humans that is not possible when confronted with biological displays (Anderson 105). Art engages its audience, and the bio art-movement claims that this new-age art exists to challenge traditional reactions to art and cause cultural discussions. Brandon Ballengée created fluorescent skeletons of deformed frogs to display the “malformation and global declines of amphibians.” Society is groomed to react traditionally to art, and thus react rationally (Anderson 106). However, when confronted with art that depicts biological material and concepts, we are unable to react rationally, as these displays evoke emotion. This goal is contradictory, as bio-art requires the audience to “learn new ways of being and audience” (Anderson 105). With displays that are often created to show the human effect on the earth and society, humans are required to react in a response of enacting change, an uncomfortable state. Due to the extreme sense of discomfort that bio-art evokes, individuals often separate themselves from the art, preventing any response at all. With response being one of the main purposes of bio-art, an inconsistent and not engaged audience removes the artistic significance of bio-art (Anderson 106).
With or without artistic significance, bio-art still employs the use of biotechnologies against animal and sometimes human products to create art. This is a process that can only be performed by specific individuals with knowledge of science, and even more-so credentials. Should scientists be able to claim themselves as artists, and put their creations on display only because they have access to subjects and technologies? The short answer is no. Science exists to make discoveries and collaborate to expand those discoveries; many individuals find that bio-art is a manipulation of this purpose. Bio-art is the work of a group that takes advantage of their knowledge and resources for gain, often exploiting animals and biological material in the process.
Bio-art is a complex movement that challenges the traditional realms of art as we know it. No longer is society attending art shows to view paintings and sculptures, but rather fluorescent animals, mutated flowers and growths of tissue. These are displays that manipulate biological materials and employ the use of biotechnologies for a social response from an audience. Bio-artists take advantage of their knowledge and expertise to perform unethical acts animal testing, useless stem cell research, and human cell mutilation—to name a few—as means of evoking a response from society. Bio-art as much manipulates biological material as it does human beings. It is a movement riding on a response from its audiences that is rationally impossible. Bio-art, with its rapidly increasing status, exists to get under the skin of society, a trait as viewers, we must not take lightly.