Clearly some people have taken ‘offense’ over the use of some glass tubes in an art exhibit — SOL Grotto — which is now installed in the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley as part of a larger exhibit entitled Natural Discourse. I was saddened when some went so far as to advocate the destruction of this artwork. Obviously, several issues have become confused in people’s minds. One is the issue of government (i.e. taxpayers) money going to industry, specifically the company Solyndra, which is, ostensibly, all the worse because the industry was involved in the development and use of solar or green energy.
The other issue apparently concerns the use of a material from the failed loan investment being used, actually recycled, for art. I am at somewhat of a loss to see how these are necessarily related, so perhaps we should consider them separately.
Whether the government should have invested in Solyndra is an economical and political issue that will likely long be debated. As a scientist and citizen of the earth, I can only express a strong opinion that investments should be made in developing forms of renewable, green, energy. I believe that such energy is needed and needed soon. There is no longer a raging scientific debate over whether the climate is changing. I cringe when I hear that we cannot afford the costs of developing alternative energy now. Rather, I would vehemently argue that we cannot afford not to invest. In this regard, it is somewhat irrelevant whether human activity is the full cause of climate change — evidence suggests that a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels will help. Any scientist will tell you that not all experiments succeed, but to do nothing because we might fail would surely be a greater failure.
With regard to the art issue, I would hope that people will take the time to start by visiting and experiencing the full Natural Discourse exhibit. By no measure is it the most expensive work of art ever created as has been claimed by some bloggers.
Do the math: It uses fewer than 1,400 out of about 24 million tubes that were produced for Solyndra and these were being destroyed. Is recycling also a bad word? No taxpayer money was used in creating the exhibit, which was accomplished through the pro bono contributions of talented builders and the artistic brilliance of the artists Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello.
Art is intended to make people think and rarely does everyone agree on what it means or whether it is ‘good or bad’ art. The SOL Grotto is only one of several installations in the garden, which hopefully all offer challenges to thinking and stimulate debate. For the botanical garden, it is an attempt to merge art with nature. The garden itself, although designed to look natural, is actually a form of art: the planting displays and landscapes have been carefully crafted to be pleasing to visitors while preserving the scientific value of the collection. The garden is open to all — it is free to the campus community and should be enjoyed. If this politicizing of an artwork induces people to visit and discover the beauties of the Botanical Garden, then perhaps politics will have finally done some good. Let us shift the debate to how we can preserve the world we must live in.
Paul Licht is the director at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley.
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