The Artist and The Cherry Tree

Is it an oxymoron to speak of ethics in art? What about the troubling aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright's personal life: do we disavow his architecture? Or, more currently, the accusations of sexual improprieties by Chuck Close: how does that affect our appreciation of his paintings?

This conundrum was brought home to me personally with a 3D printed sculpture called "Bloated Doll". I sent the CAD file for fabrication to a well-respected mid-western company. They first produced a small firm prototype, but then proceeded to get into one problem after another with the larger piece. The material had been suggested by them: I wanted something like human skin and rubber was not then available. After multiple failures with the material they sent the file to researchers in Israel, who seemed to solve the problems. But when "Bloated Doll" arrived at my studio it was not the same consistency as the prototype. In fact, it was so much softer that the plastic shipping wrap adhered to, and had actually sunk into, the sculpture, permanently disfiguring it. The company offered to print another but by then they had closed shop and sold their printer. There were 4 men working there at that time: 3 of them have come down with cancer, including brain cancer.

Those of us who pursue untrodden paths and experimental processes know that pitfalls can lie ahead. But the toxicity of the plastics used in 3D printing has been pretty much hidden from the public. In the excitement over this truly revolutionary process we are ignoring the clear dangers posed, not only by the printer (hardware) but also by the materials being used.

I asked Christian Lavigne, President of Ars Mathematica, Co-Founder of Intersculpt, and a pioneering figure in the field of additive manufacturing, as 3D printing is known, if we as artists have an obligation to alert the public to the dangers. Are we complicit? His response raises some troublesome issues, which I want to share with you, verbatim:

Sometimes the complicity is obvious. Remember all the artists who worked for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, etc. Nowadays we can see the same complacency, and the financial excuse (the need to earn money) is no excuse in front of history. It is not only a political matter: the problem is similar with companies. An artist who accepts to work for or sell a work to Bayer-Monsanto knows what she/he is doing. I had personal experience in this field in the early 90's. As you may know, I live in precariousness. One day the son of an African president asked me if I will accept to create a sculpture in his country. I answered him immediately that I did not work for the dictators. But I did not have a penny in my pocket. For me, dignity comes first. Needless to say I never saw the guy again!

Sometimes we are accomplices because we do not want to know what we are using or to whom we are talking. Example regarding our art activity: if we send a small model or a 3D file in Asia to a company that carves blocks of stone, in order to get a large sculpture, are we sure about the working conditions of the craftsmen?

Sometimes we are "accomplices" despite ourselves, by pure ignorance. If we don't know the origin and impacts of our techniques and materials, and it is impossible to get info, in fact we are not accomplices but victims of misinformation. Same case if we sell an artwork to someone who is later revealed as a mafia gangster or a serial killer! Etc.

In my personal opinion, all that we can say about our artistic difficulties is useful not only for the history of art but also for social progress in general - because we sometimes have access to information little known to (the) public and which can create awareness. Obviously we then take the risk of being/persona non grata/of certain economic or political powers. This risk is even greater when you're not in a democracy, and I know what I'm talking about!

As artists we are not the sales representatives of the companies or processes we use. We must emphasize the problems voluntarily hidden by the zealots of "progress at all costs".(1) The very notion of progress must be questioned. A new technology that makes people sick, creates unemployment and inequality and does not even keep its technical promises: is it progress?

The practice of art is a political act, even among those who deny it, or who close their eyes.

How about it? Have you heard the hoopla about 3D printing? Whose responsibility is it to reveal the toxicity of the process?(2) What about the many schools who are rushing to provide these machines to their students? Have the school administrators done their homework before making those purchases? Do the parents understand the risks involved?

c. Corinne Whitaker 2018

(1) Viewers interested in progress for its own sake are referred to "The Limits to Growth" and the Club of Rome.

(2) On our 3D Print News page we have included a warning: is that sufficient?

(3) In contrast to our learned friend above, you might think about "The Crimes That Fueled a Fantastic Brazilian Museum", and the dealer who said, "It's not my problem".