Art and the Ethics of Natural History

The infamous scene in Disney's
The infamous scene in Disney’s 1958 film “White Wilderness” in which lemmings were thrown out to sea.

Having just posted a book announcement on Art and Ethics on the website of  ICOM NATHIST Ethics Working Group (click here for that) has given me pause to think about how the ethics of art touches on natural history. There are many facets to this. For instance, wildlife photography. When we sit down to our television screens and see incredible images, public demand calls for ever more inexplicable wildlife behaviours taken in increasingly intimate settings. You have to wonder to what lengths film makers may have gone, and to what risks they may have exposed their individual animal subjects. Even Disney Studios in 1958 in “White Wilderness” unceremoniously hurled lemmings off a cliff into the Arctic Sea, claiming that it was a natural phenomenon of mass suicide. Sadly many people still think this is true.  And it was even sadder for the lemmings.

David Attenborough 1
David Attenborough 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, such wholesale destruction of wildlife for the sake of a film would be unthinkable today. In fact, there is an explicit assumption that when Sir David Attenborough tells us something in a documentary, it is factually flawless and even the slightest breech of that is considered deeply unethical. For instance, the Daily Mirror lambasted him in 2011 for supposedly misrepresenting a captive-filmed sequence as one being caught in nature. Attenborough has also been accused variously of being “anti-human”, of ignoring homosexuality in nature, of not giving sufficient credit to God, of presenting nature as too pristine – as if being the world’s most famous nature documentary maker has conferred a mandate to universal truth.

Enrique Gomez de Molina hanging art for which he was ultimately jailed
Enrique Gomez de Molina hanging art for which he was ultimately jailed

There is a cultural perspective that nature is inherently “good” and we should be ethical when representing it. Creative taxidermy is one of the most interesting areas where this plays out. Perhaps the most important example is work of Enrique Gomez de Molina, who creates Bosch-like creatures by piecing others together . He is, as he himself says “playing God”. This practice is practically as old as taxidermy itself. Possibly de Molina’s best-known work is Rhinoplasty 2010, made from the mold of a white rhino and a buffalo horn, covered with peacock feathers, and tens of thousands of carapaces from the jewel beetle Chrysochroa kaupii from Indonesia.

On his website, de Molina says: The impossibility of my sculpture brings me both joy and sadness at the same time. The joy comes from seeing and experiencing the Fantasy of the work but that is coupled with the sadness of the fact that we are destroying all these beautiful things.

The jewel beetle from Indonesia, resting in its most familiar habitat on eBay.
The jewel beetle from Indonesia, resting in its most familiar habitat on eBay.

Ironically, many of the “beautiful things” that de Molina used for his art were endangered and smuggled by him into the United States. When in 2012 he was sentenced to 20 months jail for illicit trafficking of wildlife, U.S attorney Wilfredo A. Ferrer said: “For years, De Molina illegally imported parts and remains of endangered and threatened species, including a cobra, a pangolin, hornbills, and the skulls of babirusa and orangutans, and used them to create taxidermy pieces that he sold for as much as $80,000. Trafficking in endangered and threatened species, whether for personal profit or under the guise of art, is illegal.” Source: Sun Sentinel . Added to this is the destruction of native habitat that was involved with collecting the material, as well as the argument that he he’s bolstering the demand such objects.

Are de Molina’s actions counter to ICOM’s Code of Ethics for Natural History Museums? Absolutely. If he had worked at a museum, he would certainly have lost his job. But does his apparent hypocrisy undermine his value of his art as art? There’s a grey area there, and much of it comes down to taste. On a purely aesthetic level, I have to admit to liking his work. But I’d sooner buy a print of The Garden of Earthly Delights.

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