Woman with a Parrot by Gustav Courbet (1866)
Oil on canvas
51 x 77 in. (129.5 x 195.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [larger view].
A little while ago, I received an odd question from a reader, and I was slow in responding (my bad!), but her question has bothered me ever since I first read it and responded. First, her question:
You have to save the world (and I assume you also want to). You are the only one who can do so, and to do so, you have to destroy one or the other:
The Louvre (with everything inside but people)
one of the many highly endangered island bird species.
You can’t choose the species. It will be a highly endangered one. You can’t go take DNA samples.
Alike, you can’t go into the Louvre and make replicas, or photos or anything.
You have to decide on the spot.
How do you decide? [academia and me: 30 September 2008]
And my response:
first, this is an artificial question, one that will never become a scenario in real life, so the question bothers me for that reason. anyway, that said, i disagree with all of you. my choice: preserve the bird species.
i am an avid art lover, as anyone who reads my blog is aware of, but i am also an evolutionary biologist and quite frankly, i think that protecting the biodiversity of this planet from the ravages of an out-of-control species [humans] is the number one job of all thinking people everywhere.
for example, just speaking selfishly, birds are valuable because teach us about ourselves; how we think, act and react, how our basic biology and neurobiology function. additionally, ethically speaking, birds are not a human creation, unlike artwork, so we have absolutely no right to destroy an entire species for any reason.
not only that, but nature is one of the most powerful inspirations for artwork known to humans. when nature is gone, we, as a species, will have destroyed our connection to the real world and replaced it with an artificial world of our own making, and that artificial world will have robbed us of nearly all of our passion for life, and for creating art, in general.
further, since humans and their creations are not an endangered species (and in fact, humans are experiencing a tremendous population explosion that threatens the habitability and well-being of the entire planet), there is no reason to value humans or our creations more highly than nature, which is becoming vanishingly rare. saving artwork instead of a species is simply .. astonishing, especially considering the hundreds (that we know of) of bird species that we already have destroyed in the past 400 years and the thousands (that we can guess at) of animal species we’ve wiped out since we became “fully human”.
this legacy of mass extinctions, death, and destruction is one that we should be ashamed of and the fact that we, as a species, have no shame speaks louder than all the human-created paint swirls in the world.
So what do you think? You can go to the above cited blog to read the responses there or if you wish to argue specifically with me, respond here (or there).