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  The Role of Art in the Genetic Age Saturday, May 25th, 2024  
by Dónal P. O'Mathúna

Art has always played several roles in society, including that of commentator on social events and trends. For example, Jonathan Swift's satires, while entertaining, simultaneously critiqued those in power. Art also plays the role of underscoring what is important in a society or to the artist. The Sistine Chapel demonstrates the awe and wonder that Michelangelo and his society had for God. Today many are still deeply impacted by this masterful work. Art also raises awareness of issues that society might otherwise miss. For instance, stunning photographs of starving children bring home the plight of many who might otherwise be forgotten.

Today artists play all of these roles when interfacing with genetics. Movies address controversial topics such as human cloning from a variety of vantage points, ranging from a light-hearted depiction of cloning undertaken by a person struggling to juggle his daily activities (Multiplicity) to scary images of multiple cloned Hitlers (The Boys of Brazil). Announcements of major biotechnology advances are often followed by cartoons that either applaud or satirize the developments. The double helix, Dolly the sheep, and other genetic symbols have become recognizable icons within society and its art.1 A current exhibition in Seattle captures much of the growing artistic interest in genetics.2 Several of the pieces depict creatures that genetic manipulation may produce. Some are simply curious; others, horrific. Many of the exhibits are humorous or thought-provoking, such as a set of pickled frogs wearing differently colored pants.

In keeping with the traditional roles of art, such artwork raises awareness and furthers discourse. But genetic art can also promote ideological agendas. Movies with clones who are identical in every way promote the myth that clones could replace deceased loved ones. Similarly, when a movie portrays the grotesque failures of early biotechnology experiments (Alien Resurrection), the images do more to raise concerns about genetic developments than would a thousand words.

Another emerging approach to art and genetics raises serious concerns. The Seattle exhibit includes the "GFP (green fluorescent protein) Bunny." The bunny's creator, Eduardo Kac, uses genetic technology to create his "art." Kac, Assistant Professor of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, calls his approach "transgenic art," claiming this is just part of the move away from static art forms to new media that are active and interactive.3

The GFP Bunny is a living, genetically modified albino rabbit named Alba. When the rabbit was an embryo, it was micro-injected with the glowing jellyfish gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP). In daylight, Alba is a white rabbit. Under blue light, however, Alba glows a luminous shade of bright green. Scientists have inserted the glowing gene into several species for various research and therapeutic purposes. The creation of Alba marked the first time, however, that such an experiment was conducted for artistic purposes.

Kac insists that the "GFP Bunny is a transgenic artwork and not a breeding project." He wants to raise the rabbit in his home and show that "transgenic animals are regular creatures that are as much a part of social life as any other life form." One of his goals is to show that humans are more similar to nonhumans than we like to admit. He claims this will be demonstrated through the bond he and his family will develop with Alba when she becomes their family pet (if this is permitted). Yet he fails to show why a genetically modified rabbit will demonstrate this any better than a normal rabbit.

Rather than merely commenting on genetic technology, Kac's project itself widens the potential application of such technology. No longer, in his view, should gene insertion be limited to improving human health or increasing food production. Rather, Kac wants genetic manipulation to be viewed also as a form of artistic expression. In another project, Kac translated Genesis 1:28 into Morse Code and then into DNA sequences, which he then had produced so that he could experiment with them. Similar to throwing paint at a canvas, the transgenic artist throws genes at living organisms and then waits to see what happens.

Is the act of creating some forms of art inherently unethical? Photography, probably more than any other art form, raises questions about an artist's ethical limits. Many view pornography as immoral because its creation and continued existence furthers the exploitation of its subjects. Similarly, the creation of a glowing rabbit exploits the rabbit without any apparent higher goal than satisfying someone's curiosity.

Pornography, even as "art," is unethical, in part, because it glamorizes the unethical use--and abuse--of human sexuality. Transgenic art can similarly glamorize unethical uses of genetic technology and abuse of research animals. Transgenic art trivializes the level of justification needed for germ-line genetic manipulation. This will make it easier to justify such experiments with humans, which is one of Kac's goals. He has stated that, "the introduction of foreign genetic material in the human genome can be seen not only as welcome but as desirable."

Art has value for the aesthetic reactions it elicits. Much of the subject matter within the field of genetics can function as art forms, eliciting awe and wonder. We should marvel at the structure of DNA, and how it came to exist and function so well. Art also plays an important role in raising awareness of societal trends and issues. How well does the Christian community use art to offer insightful cultural critiques? Are we encouraging Christian artists to use their gifts to express godly perspectives and to engage in public dialogue?

Transgenic art is an example of art being high-jacked to further dangerous ideologies. Kac claims that no one can curtail the artist's imagination since the notion of absolute truth has been denounced. The artist no longer represents the creation or the Creator. Rather, the artist is Creator, with transgenic art allowing "the literal creation of and responsibility for life." One of Kac's goals is "to incorporate life invention" as a function of art.

The power in genetics can breed arrogance among those who seek to manipulate the hereditary material of human beings and other species. Some scientists have succumbed to this, and transgenic art represents a broadening of the infection. Both genetics and art, under God's direction and Lordship, can be used to serve humanity and glorify God. But fallen humans want to use God's gifts to set themselves up as gods. Genetics and art, in an era of postmodern autonomy, seek to reject God and to glorify humanity. Ironically, in worshiping the creature instead of the Creator, human dignity will diminish and pain will ultimately abound (Romans 1:18-32). CBHD

1: Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1995).

2: Steven Henry Madoff, "The Wonders of Genetics Breed a New Art", New York Times, May 26, 2002, accessed at on June 21, 2002.

3: Eduardo Kac, "GFP Bunny," in Peter T. Dobrila and Aleksandra Kostic (eds.), Telepresence, Biotelematics, and Transgenic Art (Maribor, Slovenia: Kibla, 2000), 101-131. Accessed at on June 30, 2002.

Copyright 2002 by The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity

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