Q: Dragons are ubiquitous in Chinese art. What do they symbolize?
— Stacee Hawkins | Sugar Land, Texas
Since ancient times, dragons have represented the emperor, who is the son of heaven in Chinese tradition, says Stephen Allee, associate curator for Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Freer|Sackler. A symbol of masculine power and positive energy, the dragons are benevolent beings associated with water, from seas to waterfalls. Their control over rain and ability to influence the harvest reinforced their power in China’s agrarian society. Often, they’re shown clutching a flaming pearl, meant to symbolize wisdom they’ve captured and will use to help humankind.
Q: The painter Lee Krasner became known for destroying or cannibalizing some of her works. Why did she do that?
— Earl Alan | Philadelphia
Krasner was both keenly self-critical and very intentional about developing new modes of painting as she matured as an artist. Her mentor, the German artist Hans Hofmann, especially encouraged her move into abstraction. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, she began occasionally cutting up her own paintings—and sometimes ones discarded by her husband, Jackson Pollock—and incorporating parts into collages of new work. Evelyn Hankins, senior curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, says this process of renewal was integral to Krasner’s practice. In 1981, three years before she died, an art student wrote to ask how she felt about her completed works. Krasner replied, “Do I consider my work ‘precious’? The answer is no.”
Q: If the world’s insects ceased to exist, what would be the effect on the earth?
— Thomas Sweda | Lombard, Illinois
Entomophobes might be happy, but be careful what you wish for. Insects—1.2 million described species, and about ten quintillion individual bugs—make up the vast majority of the planet’s land-animal biomass. If they disappeared, the results would be catastrophic, says Floyd W. Shockley, collections manager at the department of entomology at the National Museum of Natural History. They are foundational members of the food chain, so animals higher up on the chain—reptiles, fishes, birds and mammals—would also go extinct. Going vegetarian wouldn’t help much: An estimated three-fourths of the earth’s flowering plants and a third of crop plants depend on animal pollinators, most of which are insects. And organic waste would build up without any insects to help it decompose.
Q: Who was the woman nicknamed “7½” by the original Mercury 7 astronauts?
— Martha Kudlitz | New York City
Betty Skelton, a champion aerobatic pilot and car racer who was known as “the first lady of firsts,” was given her fractional moniker in 1959, while performing the same training exercises as the Mercury 7, all of whom were male. She did so at the behest of Look magazine, for a story that was published in February 1960 with the cover line, “Should a Girl Be First in Space?” Although it was something of a publicity stunt—Skelton was not considered for the space program—the question was taken seriously in U.S. news media, says Margaret Weitekamp, curator at the National Air and Space Museum’s space history department. Still, it would be 23 years before NASA sent a female astronaut, Sally Ride, into space.