Values Lab: Charissa Terranova, Fabrications of Art and Science: Darwinian Beauty between Bioart and Biotic Art

Thursday, September 24, 2020, 10:00 a.m.
Venue: Online
Admission: Free
Season: 2020-2021

Collaboration between artists and scientists promises to expand both areas of expertise in new and unforeseen ways. Science oxygenates contemporary art practices, providing new laboratory tools to rethink the shape and conceptual latticework of art while artists bring fresh perceptual insights that help tease out the complexity of well-nigh irreducible scientific patterns. This set of diverse forces is, while harmonious, often based on creative misprision. Bioartists hone their hybrid craft through a combination of nonreductive experimentalism, DIY bootstrapping and laboratory residencies, as scientists continue to develop notions of beauty based on the balance and composition of Old Master works, the hierarchy of which was toppled by Marcel Duchamp over a century ago. 

Given this set of circumstances, so often when scientists invoke “beauty” it has little to do with the manifold transformations the idea has undergone during this passage of time. The full gamut of conceptual art – as initiated in the pre- and interwar period by Duchamp and other Dadaists and expanded by waves of artists working after WW II into the present – is, for example, completely ignored. Yet, all is not lost insomuch as one recognizes that Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection offers an idea of “beauty” that works for both realms. Sexual selection is robust, capacious, and complex enough to describe artistic encounters unfolding around conceptualism in the twenty-first century without losing any of its persuasion or aptness within science.

This paper explores the relationship between Darwinian beauty via sexual selection and two strains of art involving living organisms – biotic art and bioart. It launches its arguments about sexual selection chronologically, as first introduced by Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859) and elaborated on more deeply in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). The body of the essay focuses on ornithologist Richard O. Prum’s recent reading of Darwin’s ideas about beauty, sexual selection, and mate choice in The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us (2017). Here Prum elaborates an idea of “biotic art,” a decidedly posthuman and interspecies-communication oriented art-form materializing in “the aesthetic productions of nonhuman animals.” Prum recognizes in this category the aesthetic agency of nonhuman animals, manifesting in a wide array of forms, colors, patterns, and rhythms, from the eyespots of peacock feathers and butterfly wings to the brightly colored abodes of bowerbirds, to the electric sizzle of the club-winged manakin’s song. The essay compares biotic art to examples of bioart, a strain of contemporary conceptual art in which artists share their own personal aesthetic agency with the peculiar agency of bacteria.


The Values in Science Research Laboratory is a weekly meeting of faculty and student affiliates of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology and our guests to present and discuss research in progress and readings on shared areas of interest. 

Please contact Matthew J Brown for information on how to join the lab.

For more information contact:
Matthew J. Brown
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