Octo-Art, or the Ethics of Life Drawing

Dylan Mayer, an art student at Green River Community College, was assigned the task of drawing from nature. Like any respectable art student, Mayer placed further challenges on himself, stating, “I thought, ‘How about something underwater?’ “

Mayer purchased a day permit and entered a popular dive site in West Seattle. Instead of leaving the water with a (waterproof?) sketchbook full of drawings, Mayer emerged clinging to – in fact, bludgeoning – an 80-pound octopus.

Apparently the great cephalopod was fair game; Mayer’s shellfish permit allows for one octopus kill per day, and forbids using devices to pierce the animal, which is why the young man was witnessed punching the octopus. However, local divers were outraged and beach-goers traumatized. The story went viral, and now some of people who are infuriated that he killed the octopus are, perversely enough, sending death threats to Mayer and his family.

This just scratches the surface of this story, but I want to pause in an attempt to instigate some conversation. Feel free to add to the story above, or comment on any of these parting thoughts:

• As a former professor of drawing who, oddly enough, used to live next to the “crime site” on Alki Beach in West Seattle, I have to say I applaud the kid for his initiative. I have taught extensively in the Pacific Northwest and Southern California. Not to stereotype an entire region, but my students in Washington had a much different (read: rawer) relationship to nature than do my students in California. The fact that Mayer’s methods were within the limits of the law shifts the conversation from criminality to aesthetics and/or ethics.

• Certainly this is not the first time an artist has used highly questionable methods to create a picture. One need look no further than celebrated artist and naturalist John James Audubon. In an effort to study birds in their natural habitat, Audubon would shoot them with fine shot, wire them into “natural” poses on-site, and create pictures before the dead birds succumbed to the elements. (I wonder how the Audubon Society spins this?)

• Tangential to this story is a comment about subcultures. I bring it up now because I think it will relate to a variety of future posts that deal with subcultures, especially transgressive ones. It appears that the dive community had a bit of a double standard with the Mayer event. Though they respect one’s legal right to hunt and fish they just didn’t want it happening at that spot (for a variety of well articulated reasons). The idea of subcultures self-policing is interesting to me. In this case we have a subculture calling legal activities unacceptable. What about subcultures whose activities often break laws? Do they self-censor? For instance, what happens with graffiti or skateboard subcultures, many of whose activities results in defacing private property? Do these subcultures make distinctions regarding whether something is not “worth” the crime? For instance, is quality refracted through the lens of criminality, e.g., experienced graffiti artists telling amateurs, “That wall is too important for you to paint.” Members of these groups as well as cultural studies people should comment on this.

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