We Are Tired of Painting Dead Fish; A call to Bio Artists to work on COVID19 solutions

We are tired of painting dead fish:

 how can the arts contribute to the necessary phase changes of human civilizations ?


Roger F Malina:

To be presented, virtually, at Texas A and M University for the conference: American Art of the Sixties: Visual and Material Forms in a Transnational Context” March 24-26 2020: https://www.aa60s.org/

Some time in 1955 my father Frank Malina came home to our dinner table and said: “I am tired of painting dead fish”. His painting of dead fish is proudly displayed in our kitchen in the house in which he and my mother Marjorie Duckwork Malina raised my brother Alan and I.

He had just come back from an oil painting lesson by Reggie Weston, who taught oil painting in Paris at the time and became a good friend of the family. My father’s provocation was caused by his observation that his contemporaries, artists, were painting blindfolded and shackled. Why did not artists no use all technologies available to them, not just paint? Why not electric paintings? The art world of the time said “if it has to be plugged in’ it cannot be art”. And, why did painters still train by painting dead fish, why not explore all the new landscapes now available to them through instruments. The micro-landscapes of viruses viewable through microscopes? The landscapes inside the mind then accessible through electrical wave detectors such as alpha waves. The landscapes of other worlds accessible through telescopes? He was in contact with Gyorgy Kepes who famously published a series of books beginning in 1956 “ New Landscape in Art and Science” which was a manifesto of this vision. They changed the history of ideas as artists. What are the lessons for today ?

Artists through their manifestation of a cultural imagination are fundamental builders of sane and survivable societies, since the time when hunter-gatherers started painting on cave walls. Our societies are in trouble for a variety of reasons, from the Anthropocene crises to simple problems like COVID 19. Where are the new Pasteur’s ? Pasteur was an average student in his early years, and not particularly academic, as his interests were fishing and sketching, (yes dead fish were relevant in his time).  His parents hoped he might become an artist, after all science was not a respectable profession in his time. And of course Alexander Fleming, discoverer of antibiotics major discoveries happened through painting. So how can todays contemporary artists contribute to the necessary phase shifts of our societies to help human’s survive?

Well artists are ahead of the politicians and health insurance companies. There is a world wide bio art movement. They use every instrument and every landscape accessible to them. Joe Davis, long time a fellow at Kepes’s center at MIT, works at Harvard using CRISPR technologies to create molecular art. Data artists, such as Golen Levin and Nathalie Miebach, make art from the raw materials in data bases, just as the impressionists used paint tubes to paint in the outdoors. And emerging art-physicists such as Ayen Deng now develop spoken quantum word poetry about the entanglement of carbon nanotubes.  

So as we look back at American Art of the Sixties https://www.aa60s.org/ , lets reflect on the crucial role of contemporary artists in contributing to the phase changes of civilization needed for human survival. There are many good methods needed, no best methods and many ways of knowing. Ancient societies, who survived far long than western civilization, did not break down knowledge down into art, science, technology etc Those of us who have indigenous native languages think differently and must be with us co-designing survival. The international STEM to STEAM movement, as exemplified for instance by the European Uniion STARTS program https://www.starts.eu/ , is one initiative that is opening the way for today’s contemporary artists as contributors to changing human societies for survival.

And lets thank Texas A and M University for having Frank Malina as a student in 1930. He went on to co found the first start up company in a new industry for space ( Aerojet General Coporation), co-founded the first space research lab,  the Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech. He was a pioneer in introducing new technologies into art (which he patented), through the Kinetic Art movement in Paris,  and then founded the worlds leading artsciencetechnology Journal Leonardo at  Arizona state University https://www.leonardo.info/isast-asu-executive-director-job  and MIT Press, https://www.mitpressjournals.org/loi/leon.

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