Yes, dear readers, art is complicated, referential, reflexive, often difficult and like nuclear fusion is best left to the professionals.
A case in point is the placement of Jack Shadbolt‘s painting Tree of Life, which was recently installed in the atrium of UBC Okanagan Reichwald Health Sciences Centre, the home of the Southern Medical Program (SMP) and the fourth site in UBC‘s MD Undergraduate Program.
Dr. Allan Jones, Regional Associate Dean, Interior commented that ―The Tree of Life has become a showpiece for us all to enjoy and feel inspired.‖ and Professor Deborah Buszard, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Principal remarked “We are truly honoured to display this beautiful work of art on our campus—it is a lasting legacy of Mr. Shadbolt and his many contributions to Canadian art, education and history during his lifetime”.
“It is just so massive,” said Susan Belton, the curator of the campus art collection, “Your response is demanded. But it is also so lively and colourful, one must fall in love. Art often draws opinions and criticism, but this work seems to touch everyone who sees it.” (?)
Such mundane and anodyne comments belie a deeper understand of the painting necessitated by the controversy surrounding its location, a controversy largely attributed to the curators not doing their homework. (D -, must do better)
The title is taken from an annotation provided by English artist William Blake (1757 – 1827) which appeared with others, in a blank space on the right hand side of his last illuminated print dating from1826-27, entitled Laocoon. Jehovah & His Two Sons, Satan and Adam. The annotation reads “Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.”
When Shadbolt once described the piece as “art paraphrasing nature” no doubt he was referencing this annotation and paying homage to Blake, a fact that would have not been overlooked by those who were familiar with art history generally and Blake‘s work in particular.
So when optometrist, Dr. Allan Jones described Tree of Life, in the context of a medical science facility, as “a showpiece for all of us to enjoy and feel inspired” was he asking us to enjoy and feel inspired by the difference between Art as Life and Science as Death?
When Susan Belton, wife of Dr. Robert Belton, Associate Professor Art History, UBCO, remarked “it is also so lively and colourful, one must fall in love” was she romanticising about the tragic sentimentality, one must feel, with the death of love or was she ruminating on the visual imperatives of colour, intrinsically speaking?
When plant scientist and strawberry breeder Professor Deborah Buszard described the painting “(as) a lasting legacy of Mr. Shadbolt and his many contributions to Canadian art, education and history during his lifetime.” was she aware of the fact that this lasting legacy rejects science (including plant science) in favour of art?
Installing an artwork which venerates art as life over science as death in a medical science facility is perhaps not wise and somewhat ironic. It‘s clearly uninformed placement emphasises Shadbolt‘s affirmation as to the supremacy of art and over science, that is to life over death.
One wonders if medical students and others casually walking by the painting might be thinking maybe I should drop the sciences and focus on the humanities; UBC, think about it.