But is it art?

By David Kessler

The "quotation of the day" in the Boston Globe's September 17, 2000 edition is from a Chicago artist who joined with a team of genetic researchers to insert DNA from a phosphorescent jellyfish into a rabbit to make a glow-in-the-dark rabbit.  The rabbit appears to be normal in daylight, but when placed under ultraviolet light gives off "an otherworldly green glow from every cell in her body: her paws, her whiskers, and especially her eyes."

Many tests have been performed on animals over the years to develop scientific procedures and equipment, or to find cures for diseases.  These tests have sometimes been decried as an unethical means to a noble end, but the end of this case isn't a scientific purpose but an artistic one; the disease that the artist - Eduardo Kac - wants to cure is our hopelessly limited and primitive conceptions of art.  In both the full article and his website, the artist referred to the rabbit as a piece of "transgenic art" designed to confront the audience with a figure at once loveable and alien.  The statement that the Globe made its quote of the day illustrates how broad his artistic vision is; "It is a new era, and we need a new kind of art.  It makes no sense to paint as we painted in the caves."

Reading the article, my initial reactions of disbelief and laughter were quickly replaced by horror.  I've been trying to figure out just why.

My horror is not because I believe the rabbit is in pain; the article says that Alba (they found a wonderfully appropriate name for this animal) has a sweet disposition, and because the effect is a part of her genes, it is probably less likely to be harmful than if they had coated her with phosphorescent paint instead.  My horror is not because I believe the rabbit might escape and breed more phosphorescent rabbits; survival for rabbits is based on camouflage and often a nocturnal schedule.  Unless phosphorescence so disturbs the rabbits' predators that they refuse to attack, glowing in the dark would make it impossible to hide anywhere but surrounded by light bulbs or a patch of phosphorescent moss.  My horror is not at the idea of genetic manipulation; there are programs underway right now to breed ewes whose milk contains human proteins needed to treat certain diseases, and these programs can provide a great benefit.

If experimenting on animals and altering the natural world are not what disturb me about this case, then perhaps my distaste comes from the wounded cries of art itself.  If you shaved the rabbit and painted it, trained it to dance, or placed it strategically in a bowl on a table, the art created would not be the rabbit itself, but what was done with it.  By inserting the color into the genes of the rabbit, you make a new and interesting kind of rabbit, yes, but why is that rabbit art?  We have bred both animals and vegetables in all shapes and sizes, but are these objects art?  As a calligrapher I am used to the idea of animals being used for vellum and parchment, but although no rabbit has to die to create a canvas in "transgenic art", that is only because the rabbit itself is being confused with a canvas.  This is the root of my reaction to Alba and what has been causing me so much trouble since reading the Globe that day: what happens to life and to art, when those 2 categories are not distinguished?  This is a question I am still wondering at as I write this.

Perhaps I simply have a stunted sense of what art is and need to be liberated from "cave painting" by this would-be Socrates showing me Alba hopping around a museum display case.  Perhaps, but I have seen many things in museums and art shows that I don't consider art: there was the 20 foot square block of dirt on a sheet of copper, the 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of -inch plywood, and the canvas painted completely black.  A supermarket stack of Brillo boxes can be a powerful statement about culture, but a powerful statement is not necessarily art.

I turned to the artist's website and his various interviews (Alba caused quite a stir, it seems) to find out why and how he considers this art.  He is asked this difficult question by several interviewers, and in response he talks about breeding programs, aesthetics, making people think, and about how he believes art will change in the future.

"This integrated process is important because it places genetic engineering in a social context in which the relationship between the private and the public spheres are negotiated. In other words, biotechnology, the private realm of family life, and the social domain of public opinion are discussed in relation to one another. Transgenic art is not about the crafting of genetic objets d'art, either inert or imbued with vitality. Such an approach would suggest a conflation of the operational sphere of life sciences with a traditional aesthetics that privileges formal concerns, material stability, and hermeneutical isolation. Integrating the lessons of dialogical philosophy and cognitive ethology, transgenic art must promote awareness of and respect for the spiritual (mental) life of the transgenic animal. The word 'aesthetics' in the context of transgenic art must be understood to mean that creation, socialization, and domestic integration are a single process. The question is not to make the bunny meet specific requirements or whims, but to enjoy her company as an individual (all bunnies are different), appreciated for her own intrinsic virtues, in dialogical interaction."  (From Kac's website)

Kac's desire to expand our ideas is admirable, but here it's he who may need his conceptions liberated from the days of cave painting; Philosophy is as much about "pure verbal discourse" as art is about brushes.  Words can communicate ideas and so philosophers use them as a tool to express ideas.  "So do artists" is an obvious retort, but the fact that artists and philosophers both engage ideas has not kept us from distinguishing the two fields for thousands of years.  Yes, biotechnology and family life have links that should be explored, but this does not explain why his creatures are art.  His response to this seems to be that his creatures are not art in or of themselves, but that their relation to society is the core of transgenic art.  Does this mean that the children we raise and socialize and the immigrants we naturalize are also art?  Without further explanation or classification he could call any animal art.  He cites Aristotle (among other philosophers) but doesn't mention how his concepts of transgenic art as the linking of life with social milieu seem to be what Aristotle called "politics".  It could be argued that that my reaction to all this is nothing more than splitting hairs (my apologies for the pun) in a border dispute between art and philosophy, but I believe that the distinctions involved are important ones.  If something is done artfully its object does not necessarily become art.  We don't have to see art in everything around us in order to think; Such a conflation strikes at the distinction between the creative mind and the object that inspires thoughts and represents ideas in that creative mind.

Despite the disservice that Kac is doing to both art and philosophy with his statements, he may have indirectly done society a great service with this rabbit.  The most profound effects of new technology are often things never dreamed of by the inventors.  The Nobel Prizes, for example, were in part begun out of the shock Alfred Nobel felt as he saw his invention of TNT being used primarily for military purposes.  Today, we have laboratories around the world experimenting in genetic manipulation and the general public is only beginning to consider what this will mean for our cultures, beyond its effect on our vegetables.  Many past scientific experimenters have brushed aside a questionable ethical foundation with the argument that the resulting scientific advance would benefit society.  In the case of Eduardo Kac and Alba, the advance being claimed is not scientific (the techniques used in Alba are by no means rare) but artistic.

The result is a case ready for debate, without any need for any significant scientific background, and free from proclamations that - for the good of mankind - scientific progress must not be stopped.  Philosophers of aesthetics have been debating the nature of art for centuries without any great public interest, but now we have Alba, the glowing bunny - a symbol of the debate that can be understood as easily as flipping the light switch.

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