Sunday, April 24, 2011

Art in Nature?

This winter, when first embarking on the study of art as an Area of Knowledge, I gave my students a long list of things (e.g. a painting by Manet, a Dicken's novel, an episode of Glee, a teapot from Ikea) and asked them to classify each as art or non-art. Great discussions ensued as the students wrestled with the question: What is art?

As we touched upon each item on the list, our discussion took many paths. Towards the end of the list, I had placed the following things sequentially: (1) The Grand Cayon, (2) a picture a friend snapped of the Grand Canyon and posted on Facebook, and (3) a Thomas Moran painting of the Grand Canyon. The students immediately raised some excellent questions, not only about the difference between "high" and "low" art (Can one create art with a $120 digital camera?!) but also about art and the natural world. Can objects from the natural world, asked my students, be art? Certainly, we agreed, they can be beautiful, but are they art? Grappling with this question helped expose the complexities of defining and classifying art. 

I wish at that time I had known about the Wellcome Image Awards, which annually honor the "most informative, striking and technically excellent images" added to the Wellcome Images collection. According to its website, Wellcome Images "is the world's leading source of images of medicine and its history, from ancient civilisation and social history to contemporary healthcare, biomedical science and clinical medicine." I just came across a BBC slideshow (via the International School of Manila's TOK blog) of several of this year's winning photographs. Here are two stunning images from the slideshow:
Curled up ruby-tailed wasp
Zebrafish retina

Catherine Draycott, the Head of Wellcome Images, narrates the BBC slideshow. While the beautiful images fade in and out, she says, in part, "They look beautiful, but they're not art. There is artifice in them. Some of them have been colored, using the judgement of the scientists, wether aesthetic or scientific. So they are striking aesthetically, but they weren't created to be so. And that's one of the most interesting things about the award for me." I find Draycott's narration fascinating because she, too, seems to be struggling with the question, What is Art? She seems to believe that art is, by definition, the product of human intent, that art does not spring from the natural world. At the same time, she seems so moved by the beauty of the images that they take on the soul-touching power of art. I have no doubt that these images would have helped inform my class's discussion. I'll add them to the list.

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