“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” by Joseph Wright, 1768



An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768 - Copy

 

This painting captures the drama of the Enlightenment. During the late 17thth century, discoveries in the realm of natural sciences gave mankind unprecedented power, as well as unavoidable moral dilemmas. In this painting, Wright forged new territory, focusing on the prominent issue of his day. It’s not inconceivable that the artist himself witnessed this experiment first hand. In this magnificent work, Wright delivers subtle criticism of the philosophical and moral ramifications of European society’s love affair with science during the Age of Reason. In order to prove the existence of oxygen, the traveling scientist places the pet cockatoo under the glass bell. He attaches the tubing to the top of the glass. There is no visible change at first. Everyone in the room is silent. They listen to the sucking sound of the vacuum pump…whoosh…whoosh…whoosh…The elegant white bird begins to jerk and spasm…and then become still.

It is no accident that this scene is cast mostly in shadow. With only a single hidden candle providing light to the room, Wright suggests the absence of moral guidance. We are able to survey the varying reactions of those standing around the table, but the scientist looks to the viewer to decide the bird’s fate. Incredibly, Wright puts you, and every other person who views this work in room 34 of the National Gallery in London, on the spot. What will it be? Life or death?

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“What sort of an experiment is this? No time to deliberate, no time to discuss the matter? How can you say to me, “Choose quickly!”? It is you who is being paid to provide entertainment this evening, not force this unpleasantness upon us. You have proven the existence of an invisible gas in the air, to be sure, and there can be no doubting its necessity. But time is running out for this poor creature, anyone can see that. Release this bird, sir, you are distressing the children! You said nothing about harming the animal. Come now, you’ve taken this far enough! The triumph of science makes itself known in many ways, surely, and we value science as much as any family does, but we will not entertain cruelty for amusement. Release the bird!”[1]

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Is the moral dilemma Wright creates in this painting so different from the dilemmas we face today? We want the thrill and advantage of scientific discovery, but at what cost? At what point does experimentation become cruel?

“Science gives us knowledge, a gift that is surely always welcome as providing a better basis for decisions than ignorance. But then science’s lusty offspring, technology, uses that knowledge to give us power, the ability to do things not previously thought to be possible. This is a more ambiguous gift, since not everything that can be done, should be done.”[2]

 

 

[1] Scarlett Clay (2017). Fictional dialogue.

[2] John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 147.

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