Agar petri dishes by Norman Barker

by mitchellgallery


Norman Barker, Agar petri dish, (detail), 2013, Digital microscopic photography

What is the beauty behind medical science? When viewed as a work without context, the closest analogue to a picture like the one above is some picture from one of the abstract movements which deal purely with shape and color—take an example from Rothko or Josef Albers. But, of course, while the content can be taken this way, giving a short thought to what’s being represented (or not) will help the differences shine through. We can leave aside for now the question of the beauty of abstract art, though it is certainly of some importance to considering this work. When looking at this work for what it is (a photograph of some petri dishes), a good question to may be: what is beautiful about the objects of medical science?

If I say anything more than this, I will no longer remain comfortably within the realm of what I think I understand, but I want to stress the importance of the question. One of the distinguishing marks of the work of art is what we can call choice (or aesthetic choice). By this I only mean that—and here let us think about the abstract painters mentioned before—what is created is created by a couple decisions with their eye towards an effect on the individual: what specific color to use, where it is positioned, how much space it gets, and what it is paired with (these considerations are of particular importance to Josef Albers). And, of course, this idea can become complicated in examples: Jackson Pollock, for instance, seems to rely on chance in his method. Nevertheless, the scientific photograph is meant to convey something different. The objects of the photo are meant for the scientist to observe and gain knowledge. The arrangement and choice of subject serve to show differences or reveal patterns; or, to observe what cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is what I see as the difference: the one has its eye on beauty and one on understand.

No matter, I still hear visitors come into the gallery and say “my, this is beautiful.” All my headiness aside, I still take pleasure in viewing these photos. So, as it seems to me, the question still stands: what is beautiful about the objects of medical science?

The Mitchell Gallery relies on community commitment, through generous individual donors and corporate memberships, to support its diverse exhibitions and programs.

We thank the following for their continuous funding and support:
Anne Arundel County, Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, City of Annapolis, Helena Foundation, Maryland State Arts Council, Estate of Elizabeth Myers Mitchell, Mitchell Gallery Board of Advisors, Members of the Mitchell Gallery, Mrs. Ruth Mitchell, John and Hilda Moore Fund, National Endowment for the Arts, Lillian Vanous Nutt Mitchell Gallery Endowment, and the Clare Eddy and Eugene V. Thaw Fine Arts Fund.

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—Will Harrington, St. John’s Student (A20)