Well, I’ve talked before about one my favourite works of art, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. So my obvious choice is out.
So let’s talk a little, instead, about my favourite painting, Wright of Derby’s “Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump“. Mostly, what I love about it is the quality he’s given the light. I could stare at if for hours, just contemplating the use of light and shadow in that painting. But even aside from that, I like the themes, the way the different members of the audience are reacting to the progress of science, with expressions ranging from disgust to fascination.
I like the way that all the moral outrage in the painting is reserved not for the fate of the poor bird, but for the effect that the bird’s plight is having on the people watching it – how dare this scientist cause us distress? It seems to me to sum up a lot of the problem with people’s attitude to science, which is simultaneously that it can be terribly harmful to the natural world, but that the reality is most people don’t care about the harm, as long as it doesn’t cause them distress – that there’s a basic hypocrisy inherent in denouncing science and progress while living with the comforts that it has brought us all. Most of the figures in the painting are either unbothered by what is happening, and are far more wrapped up in the other people around the experiment, in some way of form.
I particularly like the fact the of all of them, it is only the scientist who is looking out of the picture, engaging with the viewer and the wider world.