On An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

So Brendan asks, so he shall receive:

Long awaited, little declaimed, little messay of good intentions regarding art and art’s consequences!

Can you handle it?

If not, please leave the room at this time.

So, Joseph Wright is the painter of this painting and, according to know-it-all Wikipedia, “[t]he painting departed from convention of the time by depicting a scientific subject in the reverential manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance.”  He painted many scenes using only a single light source, a candle that would center the scene and throw all the faces and textures into sharp relief (that, of course, quickly slid off into shadow).

Wright painted this work about a hundred years after the air pump had been invented.  It had become common enough that traveling philosophers/entertainers would use the air pump to astonish audiences, often draining the air away from an animal as a final, awe-ful act.

But I suppose the question must be asked as to Why I chose this painting as the inspiration for my blog?

That’s a relatively easy question to answer.

The reason I chose Wright’s painting is because of both its depictions of inhumanity and humanity.

The Painting Named For This Website

For the painting depicts inhumanity in the torture (and probable death) of the bird inside the air pump.  The painting even draws our focus away from the animal, since it is simply “a” bird while the machine is “the” air pump.  Sure, animals have often been used in experimentation, to prove theories of science or to test inventions and medicines for their usefulness or lethality.  But in this painting what’s shown is a demonstration and not an experiment, unless the experiment is to see how people react to the death of the bird.

For the painting depicts humanity in the very act of using a bird for a demonstration.  Traditionally, animals have been seen as disposable and fit to be repurposed for any activity we desire.  Why should the people in the painting care about the bird?  It doesn’t have a soul, after all, and we can’t even prove that it feels pain or terror.  It’s just a mechanism of nature.

And my writing has always been drawn to inhuman decisions made by humans. (One of my earliest poems involves nuns who cut off their noses and lips to avoid temptation.)

But mostly I chose this painting as the mascot simply because of what is evoked in the grammar of the title: the “a” opposed to the “the”.  The prioritizing of the machine over the animal.  I suppose I’m trying, in essence, to recapture the animal through the machine, this wild thicket of internet.

So, Brendan, I hope you learned something here today.  I know I did.

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One Response to On An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

  1. Brendan says:

    I learned NOTHING. Just kidding.

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