Living Replica of Van Gogh's Ear or the Matrimony of Science and Art

When science and art get together, how do we know where one ends and the other begins?

Earlier this week, it was announced that an artist named Diemut Strebe had created a living replica of Van Gogh's ear. The organ is now on display at the ZKM Karlsruhe Museum in Germany, where it will remain until July 6.

This piece of news was turned into a headline by several publications. What's interesting is that, while some chose to include it in their “Odd” or “Art” sections, others placed it in “Science” or “Technology.”

The reason why media folks got so confused about which label would suit the news of the creation of a living replica of Van Gogh's ear best is because this little project by Diemut Strebe appears to be a perfect matrimony of science and art.

Hence, the organ present on display at Germany's ZKM Karlsruhe Museum begs the question: when science and art get together, share a glass of wine and birth a project together, who is to say where one ends and the other begins?

This editorial hopes to explain why, despite the fact that organs have been created in laboratory conditions before – and some are even cooler than Diemut Strebe's artwork – it was the living replica of Van Gogh's ear that ended up on display at a museum.

But First, Here's What the Deal with This Now Very Famous Ear Is

To create her ear – or, better said, Van Gogh's ear, – Diemut Strebe asked for help from Lieuwe van Gogh, the great-great-grandson of the famous painter's brother. Thus, Lieuwe agreed to donate genetic material, which was used to grow a whole lot of cells.

With the help of a 3D printer, these cells were then made to take the shape of an ear. The organ was placed in a special liquid that provides it with the nutrients it needs to stay alive, and even connected to a computer software that allows it to hear.

Not to be obnoxious or anything of the sorts, but so far all we have is a collection of cells that have been made to resemble an ear with the help of a 3D printer and that sit in a funny-looking liquid that feeds them. What's the big deal?

I mean, it was in late May when scientists announced that they had created an artificial lung that was no bigger than a sugar cube, and whose makeup even included blood vessels. In April, on the other hand, the news broke that braniacs had figured out how to 3D print cancer tumors.

I am not saying that an ear is somehow inferior to a lung or a cancer tumor complexity-wise – though, truth be told, I am tempted to – but I cannot help but wonder why it is that these two other pieces of news pretty much went unnoticed, and Van Gogh's ear sparked a media frenzy.

Simply Put, It's All About the End Game

The sugar cube-like lung and the 3D printed cancer tumors created by scientists are intended to serve research purposes. Specifically, specialists hope to use them to gain a better understanding of various medical conditions, maybe even assess the effectiveness of one treatment option or another.

The living replica of Van Gogh's ear is supposed to make people ponder on a philosophical problem that Diemut Strebe likes to call the Sugababe paradox. Here's what this problem is: if one restores an object by replacing all its parts, is the result the initial object or another one?

For those who haven't figured it out yet, this philosophical problem owes its nickname to the rather turbulent history of one particular band whose makeup has changed several times over the years but whose name has remained the same.

Simply put, Diemut Strebe's ear is a work of art and the 3D printed cancer tumors and the lung the size of a sugar cube are not – complexity and sheer coolness aside – because, unlike these other organs, it does not serve a practical purpose.

If This Is the Case, Are We Still Talking Matrimony?

There are a lot of people saying that, to complete her project, Diemut Strebe combined science and art. Let it be made clear: the artist did no such thing. Science and art did not birth this now very famous ear together. On the contrary: science was a tool that Diemut Strebe used, and quite well for that matter.

In fact, it was during a recent interview with the press, the German artist herself admitted that, “I use science basically like a type of brush, like Vincent used paint.” If this does not rule out the matrimony hypothesis, I don't know what will.

I am not one to repeat myself, but this time I will: the living replica of Van Gogh's ear now on display at the ZKM Karlsruhe Museum, does owe its existence to science, but science cannot be argued to be one of its parents. A nursery, maybe, but definitely not a parent.

From where I stand, this is the reason why the organ now rests at a museum and not in a science laboratory, and why, instead of being described in science journals first, the news about its existence first hit the public via the media.

Can Science and Art Even Form a Couple?

I am not delusional enough to think that my opinion is fault-proof and everyone should adhere to it, but here is how I see it: unless one wants to take things to a whole new level and start talking about how there is art in building a space ship, a matrimony of science and art is out of the question.

Granted, the two can be combined. Still, when this happens, it is not because they form a really cute couple whose photos folks would just love to see splashed on the cover of one tabloid or another. On the contrary, it's because science serves as a tool for the realization of art.

Simply put, science is used to create an object, which art then turns into something more than it would be were it to remain the brainchild of a team of researchers alone. This is what happened to the living replica of Van Gogh's ear, and chances are that this will be the case with several other art projects that will be completed in the years to come.

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