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  • The Art of Bioethics
  • Tod Chambers (bio)

At one point in his suggestive new essay "Stem Cells, Biotechnology, and Human Rights: Implications for a Posthuman Future," Paul Lauritzen runs into some trouble. He writes that he will examine "two broad concerns posed by stem cell research": the dramatic transformation of human life and the destabilization of our attitudes toward the natural world. In his discussion of the first concern he finds that the prior bioethical tradition provides a good foundation for his thoughts, but when he turns to the destabilization of nature, the tradition provides little assistance: the "tools available in bioethics are not well suited to the task." He turns, instead, to contemporary art.

Lauritzen does not fully justify this turn toward art, but to be fair he is not concerned primarily with the relationship of bioethics and art. His discussion of works of Kac and Piccinini, however, marks how "bioethics" defined in a more catholic manner is being done by those outside bioethics centers, and a stimulating place to look for such work is within contemporary art. The art world since the 1960s has offered ever more sophisticated investigation into the human body. What became known as "body art" (as seen in the work of Petr Stembera and Gina Pane) and its later intellectual sibling, performance art, has included issues that fall within the purview of bioethics. In 1990 the French artist Orlan began a series of public "performances" of plastic surgery, transforming particular features of her face to reproduce the western ideals of beauty as represented in great works of art. Ron Athey, an artist who is HIV-positive, has used his own blood in ritualized performances. Since the 1960s the Australian artist Stelarc has been enhancing his human body through technology, such as by attaching a third hand to his body.

Such artists can provide novel insights and alternative perspectives on bioethics. Additionally, their form of discourse has some fundamental structural advantages over traditional bioethics, in three ways: reflexivity, personal engagement, and public accessibility.

First, contemporary art is self-conscious of representation; an ongoing reflexivity characterizes its discourse. This heightened sensitivity to how the world is represented and to the particular power granted specific forms of representation allows it to examine the issue of rhetoric, which is missing from discussions in bioethics. Conceptual artists, for example, attend not only to the moral issues in genetics but also to the rhetoric of its science. Catherine Wagner, in her work "Twelve Areas of Concern and Crisis" (1995), shows a collection of still lifes of the archival samples from the Human Genome Project. In "Hela" (2000), Christine Borland re-frames the tools used for genetic screening by "displaying" them as pieces of art. Both of these works seem to resonate with Marcel Duchamp's "found objects," and by reframing the tools of genetics, they compel the viewer to consider how science acquires its authority—that is, the rhetoric of its objects.

Second, while bioethics has begun to take a personal turn in recent years, artists have long used their own biographies and bodies to reflect on contemporary issues. In "Tumor Suppressor, Gene (MLL) on Chromosome 11 and on the Nucleus" (1997), Gary Schneider creates a "Genetic Self-Portrait," which he developed after his mother's death from cancer. Larry Miller's "Genomic License No. 7 (Corpus Dualis)" (1997) is an installation that gives information on how Miller's dead sister could be cloned from his family's genetic information. These personal engagements, which focus on genetics and death, highlight how we desire certainty and salvation from science.

Third, art provides a particularly powerful medium for presenting moral issues in medicine to the general public. For example, while we can develop a philosophical analysis of the emotional response to redefining nature, artists can furnish physical manifestations that create a simulacrum of that response. In "Manimals" (1993), Daniel Lee digitally alters photographs so that they become portraits in which the division between human and animal is confounded, and by drawing upon Buddhist mythology in these images, Lee makes us question whether such transformations are either novel or intellectually problematic. In contrast, Bradley Rubenstein's portraits, such as one of a boy...


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Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2012
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