Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Death Into Art

There are countless artists who render insects and other animals with traditional media like pen, ink, pencil, paints, clay, wood, and other materials, creating a realistic representation of the organism itself or, alternatively, a whimsical or inspired interpretation thereof. What, then, do we make of art that uses deceased life forms as the medium?

Detail of Jennifer Angus' In the Midnight Garden, 2015
© Smithsonian Magazine

Your appreciation, or disapproval, may hinge on one or more facets of personal taste or ethics. Have we given collective thought to the implications of such works? Maybe we should. People tend to place animals into one or more general categories. One category is reserved for other species that benefit people directly, and usually economically, though often framed as pets or companions for which we like to think there is no "price" we could assign to those individual animals.

Another group we call "pests," or vermin, enemy species that cost us economically in terms of damage to property, pets, livestock, or livelihoods. They may even cost us our lives if they are species that can prey upon us. Those are the two major categories, though most species fall through the chasm between the two, ignored or unknown to most members of Homo sapiens

Ideally, when it comes to animals, art is a way to enhance the appreciation of other species, encourage us to think differently about them, inform us as to their unique behaviors and place in the bigger picture (outside the frame, if you will), and inspire us to learn more once we leave the gallery. I personally know dozens of artists who share that intent, and who execute amazing works. I also know artists for whom I assume that is the foundation of their works, but who use insects themselves as raw material for their works. This begins to make me feel uncomfortable.

© Christopher Marley

The overwhelming message I receive from artwork composed of dead insects or their body parts is that the creature itself is not a complete expression of beauty unless it is modified by human hands into something "greater." I am quite certain this thought never crosses the mind of the artist, and that is understandable. I might even go so far as to say it is human nature to have the desire to "improve" other objects, other species. Look at every domesticated animal, every plant cultivar.

The second ethical aspect of turning deceased animals into art has to do with sourcing. Where did the specimens come from? The acclaimed artist Damien Hirst is currently creating art from dead butterflies, carefully removing the wings and applying them to boards in colorful patterns. He obtains specimens by purchasing old collections. Re-using and repurposing, so what is so bad about that? Nothing, if the collections have no scientific value, but a travesty if the specimens had location data with them. They belong in museums in that event. Other artists use "farmed" specimens bred in captivity so there is no detriment to wild populations.

An absolute purist would argue that even the best sourcing of specimens is still taking away from the carbon and nutrient cycles that other organisms benefit from. Hirst and other artists might consider simply putting out dead insects and letting carpet beetles and booklice reduce them to powder that can then be used to create more art. What an installation that would be, to bring awareness to the natural process of decay.

Dermestid beetle damage
© deanslab.org

The final insult, and I would welcome a better word, is that the artist employing organisms or their parts makes money from the exploitation of nature's works. Artists might consider donating at least a percentage of income to wildlife conservation organizations for the protection of the living versions of the dead ones they use in their works. Maybe, like Christopher Marley, they do and it is simply not widespread public knowledge.

Artists have the power to change our minds, our attitudes, and our behaviors, but it would be nice to see more respectful methods in the madness. More murals. Huge insect images like the ones rendered by Portugese artist Sergio Odeith. Spectacular glassworks like those of Rafael Glass. The real creative challenge, then, is finding new ways to exhalt nature without exploiting her. It can be done. I have faith that way.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Book Review: Bugged Delivers a Mixed Bag

Well over a year ago, someone at St. Martin's Press contacted me by e-mail asking me to review David MacNeal's latest effort, Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them (2017, St. Martin's Press, 297 pp). They would hardly take no for an answer, sent me an advance uncorrected page proof, and so finally, here is my assessment, colored by the circumstances of my receipt of the book, my lack of familiarity with MacNeal's previous works, and my personal biases, which I will reveal honestly.

First, my sincerest compliments to the author for his most thorough research, his diligent reading of numerous books and scientific papers, and in-person visits with the human subjects highlighted in Bugged. Whatever shortcomings the book may have, the foundation it was built on is as solid as they come. Additionally, I can say that in my opinion the book gets markedly better the farther the reader gets into it. Unfortunately, I found the first one-third to two-thirds of the book to be an exercise in the author's ego, perhaps due to my own peculiar style that I prefer to write in, and the approach to the subject that I would rather read.

The chapters reflect an overall theme that I am personally averse to: that in order to validate their existence, all non-human organisms must prove they have an economic value to humanity.

MacNeal may simply be trying too hard in the first chapters to convince the reader that he is edgy, funny, irreverent, intellectual, and jet-setting. It comes off as self-centered in my opinion, and aimed more toward those who value shock-and-awe prose. I prefer that an author remove themselves as much as possible from non-fiction, save for memoirs and autobiographies. I personally try to get out of the way of the story when I am writing myself, unless my direct experience is the story. I see no need for profanity ever, not because I am opposed to it, but because I think it can be a distraction if not a detraction from the rest of the words used. I do not try and paint myself as intellectually superior by throwing around words and phrases from foreign languages.

The choice of categories that define the chapters was predictable: Insect specimens as novel merchandise, social insects as a parallel to human societies, insect and spider sex lives, insects as disease-carriers, the pest control industry, insects in forensic science, insects and other arthropods as the source of inventions and advancement of technology, insects as live entertainment in Asia, entomophagy (intentional human consumption of insects as food), and honey bees as perhaps the most important of all insects (to mankind).

The chapters reflect an overall theme that I am personally averse to: that in order to validate their existence, all non-human organisms must prove they have an economic value to humanity. Maybe MacNeal recognizes this and is planning a sequel that will visit topics like endangered insects and the people working to save them, the economic impact of "ecological services" provided by insects and related invertebrates, and the myriad of citizen science projects available for his readers to participate in and become active contributors to science instead of passively entertained by his books. MacNeal does give a nod to ecological services, as almost literally a footnote (another aspect of books that I find distracting and mildly irritating); and he lists a few conservation organizations in the acknowledgements at the end of the book.

The bottom line is that I am glad the book was written, but I would have preferred that someone else had written it. If you enjoy this brand of storytelling that focuses on both insects and people, you may be better off reading works by Richard Conniff or Sue Hubbell.

Does MacNeal succeed in recruiting a new generation of entomology-appreciators? Hard to say. I think it takes actual in-person engagement with scientists to achieve that, and I hope that Bugged encourages readers to take that next, crucial step toward a better understanding of invertebrates in general, and an appreciation of those people, not the eccentrics you presume them to be, who make a living in the science of entomology.