Talk explores art and bioethics

The theme of death united two seemingly disparate fields — art and bioethics — during a Wednesday talk at the Yale University Art Gallery.

The lecture, titled “Art, Empathy and Morality: Exploring the Intersection of Art and Bioethics,” was led by YUAG curatorial fellow Tanya Pohrt and Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics director Stephen Latham. Pohrt and Latham discussed the way art objects that explore the theme of death can illuminate certain bioethical issues. Latham explained that the partnership between the Gallery and the Center for Bioethics began after the success of a Yale summer course titled “Empathy and the Practice of Medicine,” which used objects from the Gallery to tackle medicine-related themes.

The aim of the talk was to “us[e] art as a lens through which to consider issues of morality surrounding death and dying,” Pohrt said. During the lecture, Pohrt and Latham analyzed three YUAG pieces that portray death, highlighting the fact that the way people commemorate the deceased has evolved since the 18th century.

One of the pieces the lecturers discussed was American sculptor William Henry Rinehart’s “Sleeping Children” — a rendering of two cherubic figures in smooth white marble. The pair of toddlers, seemingly in a state of peaceful sleep, portrays innocence, Pohrt said, adding that they represent an “idealization of death.” Latham likened the sculpture to the “death portraits” nowadays taken at neonatal intensive care units, intensive care units that specialize in the care of ill or premature newborn children.

The talk also featured a discussion of two mourning miniatures from the 19th century, both rendered in watercolor on ivory. Such objects were very personal and emotionally charged, roughly akin to the “wallet photos” of today, Pohrt explained. She noted that locks of hair from the deceased were often incorporated into these miniatures as physical mementos of those who had passed. Latham said that the miniatures’ modern analog — the “memory box” commonplace in neonatal intensive care units — represents a continuation of this tradition, as it almost always includes a lock of hair from the lost child.

All three members of the audience interviewed said they enjoyed the talk.

“I thought it was amazing and enlightening to see a scientific center working in conjunction with an artistic center, to see the two disciplines working together,” said Boots Landwirth, a docent at the Yale Center for British Art.

Holmes Brown, a New Haven resident who attended the talk, noted that he enjoyed the lecture’s interactive nature. Martha Macdonald, another New Haven resident in the audience, said she was impressed with the collaborative atmosphere that prevailed during the discussion, but added that she thinks the talk could have benefited by a broad overview of the topic before the lecturers delved into the three specific examples.

Latham told the News that he hopes to continue the collaboration between the Gallery and the Center, adding that future joint projects may focus on portraits of doctors as well as works depicting people’s relationships with animals.

“Art, Empathy and Morality” was held in the American Paintings and Sculpture Room at the YUAG.

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