Molecular gaze for the sci guy

The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2004 216 pp, hardcover, $45 ISBN 0879696974 | ISBN: 0-879-69697-4

In The Molecular Gaze, artist Suzanne Anker and sociologist of science Dorothy Nelkin have done more than map and explore the new territory between art and science—they find landmarks and archetypes among the symbolic elements that artists create and juxtapose. This is no coffee table tour, but a sustained academic analysis of the idea that artists who “interpret scientific processes and engage in cultural critique” present a serious challenge to the meaning of genetic science. Their themes are the reduction of life to a script; monsters, chimeras and boundaries; beauty and eugenics; and commodification of the body, its cells, its fluids and reproductive potential.

They don't convince me that these themes are particularly genetic, although genetics may be the first discipline to claim them all at once. Bodies have always been sold. Chimeras from the Sphinx to the Wolpertinger (jackalope) are traditional monsters, easily constructed by artists from borrowed references. Life was reduced to a word in religion and to a script in golem stories.

Grotesque images spread themselves, perhaps traveling even faster than beauty. Some memes propagate from mind to mind in a viral way by creating shared discomfort. There may be no significance to their spread other than the spread itself. This idea, which I think was first articulated by Richard Dawkins, is a problem for the thesis of this book because it undermines the interpretation of an artist's work as an intentionally critical statement. The hot-buttons of sensation are too tempting for artists: the fetus, genitals, skeletons, blood, feces, bodily fluids, barbed wire and the symbols of terror and slavery. Biologists may be robust enough not to be shocked—and certainly not in New York, where flayed plastinated corpses wave expressionlessly from every bus stop poster—but the artistic grotesque is becoming annoyingly intrusive. I have to admit there are exceptions that forced me to reevaluate this view, like the poignant photo by Rosamund Purcell (page 70) in which a little hydrocephalic skeleton bows to show where its skull flares open like a tulip.

A worse monster than the chimera is the false friend. Anker and Nelkin only begin to explore the “meaning of veracity, authenticity and esthetics in the two domains”. Although forgery is the common enemy of art and science, they answer to very different standards of authenticity and reference. Visual art is artificial by nature, and it gets its effect by tricking the 'simplified physics' of the viewer's brain (Nature 434, 301–307; 2005), but it is judged valid by its ability to evoke real perceptions and emotions. New art and science are both held to the standard of creative originality, but the scientific paper declares its references explicitly, whereas the artwork incorporates them indirectly. An artwork can be widely appreciated if some of its implicit references are shared between artist and viewer, but many contain intensely private sources, such as depiction of a childhood nightmare of the artist (or even of the viewer) alone.

To say, as the authors do on page 189, that “in science, beauty is a subset, a by-product” is to ignore the primacy of curiosity as the mutual wellspring of art and science. Just as, for a dog, there are no bad smells, artists and biologists can revel in grotesque and horrifying images and concepts too gamy for the business world. The beauty of elegant execution is shared between artist and scientist, but science has no counterpart for the artist's stealth weapon: the beautiful image, which retains the contemplative gaze, redoubling the power of the work's critical message.

Should artists create new symbols, or can they use symbolic elements in new ways and be equally creative? Perhaps these processes are comparable to the paradigm shifts and within-paradigm research of the scientists. Anker's own Micro Glyph (Soma Font) on page 29, full of anthropomorphic figures, chromosomes and letters suggests not opposition but a creative continuum of symbol creation and reuse. This argument is completed by Zhang Huan (page 39), who letters the names of ancestors onto his face until his skin is completely black. The coalescent process and the human migration out of Africa now have their icon.

In the right context, the “pragmatic and bemused—even celebratory” artists that Anker and Nelkin accuse of merely cheerleading are making a more subtle, subversive and lasting statement than those who overtly protest against a future of genetically modified dystopia. The work of discredited stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang highlighted the principal ethical bottleneck to stem cell research: the treatment of women willing to donate their oocytes. This context changes Chrissy Conant's packaging of one of her oocytes as caviar (page 161) from an artistic one-liner to a rich set of references on reproductive autonomy in a commodified world. Kate and Helen Storey's anaphase bodice (page 162) is in part a light pun on cleavage, but its broken-heart shape and its suggestion of breast cancer cells proliferating is enough to give it uncanny layers of emotional resonance.

Simply seeing the familiar with new eyes can be revolutionary, as in Catherine Wagner's depiction of −86 °C freezers (page 180) full of what must be forgotten, mislabeled, transformed, infected, freezer-burned and expired samples. No researcher would leave even one of these freezers open for more than a few seconds, but the artist leaves twelve open at once, forever. I finished the book convinced by Anker and Nelkin that the artist's duty is to continually disturb us with freshness of her vision, not to protest any particular version of the transgenic future. That should not threaten the practicing scientist, for whom reality is provisional and whose beautiful ideas are constantly at risk of falsification by experience.

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Axton, M. Molecular gaze for the sci guy. Nat Genet 38, 269 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/ng0306-269

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