February 3, 2004

Art and shock, art and anatomy. I am tired beyond words of artists who make art out of shock, especially when the shock does not come out of challenging the conventions of art itself. It is no longer possible to shock in that manner, the way the Impressionists once did, and then Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp retired from the business early, because he had made all the points that could be made. No more shock points could be scored against art itself.

The only shock left is to offend sensibilities about human decency. The artist will probably want to avoid committing crimes, however, so some cleverness is involved. But art of this kind is too much the publicity stunt, it is just another Janet Jackson breast lobbed into the culture. It's okay to get excited, but it really doesn't matter. It is just too boring to write about other than to say I'm really, really bored--like I think that will make shock artists stop what they are doing.

But what if an artist makes something new and fascinating, and it is also deeply disturbing, challenging our anxiety about the body? No, no one is afraid of Janet Jackson's breast, which really could scarcely be more mundane, though tricked up in "dominatrix/Matrix" costumery. But people are deeply anxious about dead bodies, even to the point of fearing the thought of their own bodies dead some time in the future. Are we scared to think of the frightful skeleton that lurks inside us or the slimy handful of brains that some scientists would like to inform us is all that we are? Von Hagens has engaged with that.

I see Professor Bainbridge is duly horrified:
Yuck. Double yuck. I want it banned and the harm principle can be damned. Do I have a reasoned analysis of how to fit the yuck factor into a coherent political theory?
As Justice Stewart once said, "I know it when I see it."

But the fact is we haven't seen it. Fourteen million human beings have paid fifteen dollars to see it, but we've only seen little pictures and read about it. The exhibit hasn't come to the United States. You'll have to go to Germany and see it. But we ought to wonder what are all these people doing coming to see plasticized corpses? Keep in mind that the objects are not rotten or smelly or discolored. They are plasticized and retain the color of a living human being. Perhaps people are coming to terms with the realities of their own body, looking at the insides and being amazed by the beauty and the intricacy.

There was a time when any sort of dissection of the human cadaver was considered terribly wrong. My original reaction to von Hagens's work is that it was wrong, that he was trying to make money and get attention by taking advantage of the emotions we have about the human body. But look at how many people he has reached. Are these people depraved? Look at the people who willingly donated their bodies (like the people who donate their bodies for medical students). Consider the history of dissection, its role in the development of medicine and art. Consider Andreas Versalius:
In 1539 the supply of dissection material increased when a Paduan judge became interested in Vesalius' work, and made bodies of executed criminals available to him. For the first time Vesalius was able make repeated and comparative dissections of humans. This was in marked contrast to Galen, the standard authority on anatomy who, for religious reasons, had been restricted to the dissection of animals. Galen had worked mainly on Barbary apes, considered closest to the human race. As Vesalius dissected more bodies he realised that Galen's textbooks and his own observations differed, and that humans do not share the same anatomy as apes.
You may say, let the doctors learn by dissection, but keep that business under wraps out of a sense of decency. Von Hagens has completely the opposite notion:
"Yes, some of the specimens are difficult to look at. To see a mutilated body is hard because we have fears about our own integrity. We have a deep-rooted anxiety about when we see the body opened up because in this way we have feelings about ourselves," concedes Von Hagens. "But at the same time, many people who have seen the exhibition have discovered a new respect for their bodies. One girl I spoke to said she had tried to commit suicide twice, but after seeing the bodies in the exhibition she would never contemplate harming it again. It is edutainment." ...

Von Hagens sees himself on a global mission to end the elitism of the medical profession which, he believes, has denied the lay public access to a better understanding of their own bodies. He hankers after the heady days of the renaissance and the three centuries thereafter, when anatomists and artists explored the workings of the human body as never before and made their workings public at anatomical theatres.

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