‘down the hillside of grass quicksilver sheep pour’
from ‘Cwm Ystwyth’
In August 1997, at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, a remarkable breakthrough in biological research occurred. Ian Wilmot and his team had cloned a live sheep using genetic materials taken from the cells in an adult sheep’s udder. This development had come from the rapidly developing field of biotechnology, described by Wilmot in Nature magazine in 1997, ‘as viable offspring derived from fetal and adult mammalian cells’. Cloning would allow the commercial company, who had assisted with some of the funding towards the project, to produce entire flocks of sheep.
The response to Dolly from some of the press and wider community was not welcoming, but rather one of horror and dismay at this piece of groundbreaking and innovative science. It was seen by some as the arrogant and blind determination of scientists to search for the new and as a result,society would be faced with some sort of Faustian horror story. Parents could decide what mental and physical characteristics their children could have, and worse still, men would no longer be needed for reproduction.
The scientist for some, it seemed, was an enemy; detached, lacking in empathy and uncompromising, determined to seek solutions to difficult problems, regardless of the effects and implications of playing about with nature. That in some way they lack the moral and human values of the rest of us, members of an alien race.
This legacy is difficult to ignore. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and, more recently, the alleged use of biological weapons in Syria and the routine experiments by cosmetic companies are compelling reasons not to trust scientists.
Art and Science are in opposition then? Artists are sensitive dreamers who sustain the morality and values of society in the face of the inhumane uses of science?
The appearance of Damian Hirst’s ‘Away From The Flock’ caused outrage by his refusal to give the public a comfortable answer to moral questions.
Referring, perhaps,to Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts in his installation Hirst’s point seems to be like that of Holman Hunt, that each onlooker would have to make up their own mind and contribute to the debate by reading beyond alarming newspaper reports. The image of the sheep embodies our cultural and agricultural connexions and whilst Hirst’s pickled animal seem to reference genetic engineering, he makes no moral comment. Furthermore, the link between the artist and the scientist goes further: they both know there are things to be discovered: their respective processes of research and investigation allow them to go out and return with evidence, though not necessarily answers. The arguments that artists,writers and scientists put forward are tightly woven into our cultural landscape, and it is this shared cultural landscape that connects these diverse disciplines. Imaginative problem solving is at the root of human inventiveness. Scientists, and artists are intellectually and aesthetically inventive people, who ‘update’ our human values: sharing a sense of belonging that gives both specialisms their moral compass. Scientific research occurs as a collaborative enterprise, marked by discussion, debate and the writing up of experiments. Leaps of imagination are for artists and scientists a shared sense of belonging.
In The History of Love, from 2011, David Gleeson’s painting pulls together these separate spheres. Language and art is part of our DNA. Francis Crick and James Watson’s double helix is elegantly and wittily examined in the twisting backbone of precisely assembled Penguin paperbacks ,reminding the viewer through the delicate and microscopic rendering of the tulips, that everything is fragile, beautiful, and above all, connected. Leonardo da Vinci could master the fundamental basics of ballistics, design a siege engine, write poetry and handle colour in order to make as enduringly beautiful a painting as the Virgin of the Rocks.
The connection between the two apparent opposing spheres of Art and Science is technological inventiveness. When Galileo made his working telescope, microscopists like Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, using the same lens technology, discovered protozoa and human sperm. Dutch artists produced still life paintings of truly compelling beauty and reality using the same technology. In the Devotions, John Donne investigates the manner of God’s methods of communication, mercy and ultimately redemption in order to consider medicine, his own illness, and the crisis of disease in his own time. He fashions a new method of writing: observation, analysis and recording. In the Devotions, Donne constructs a new discourse, a new science writing, to begin the process of understanding embodiment and materialism, and what it means to be human.
The science and art that brought Dolly the Sheep, the human genome project and plant pheonmics, was and is, very like the science and art of the seventeenth century based on chance, invention, sudden discoveries and occasional wrong turnings, but above all on imagination and a deep love of humanity.