Is this really art?

Posted: Mar 07, 2001 12:00 AM
Gunther von Hagens has given new meaning to the term "culture of death." Von Hagens, a German anatomist, has created an "art" exhibit consisting of works that include a man seated at a chess board, his brain exposed; a woman whose pregnant belly is peeled back to reveal an 8-month fetus curled inside; a skinned man astride a horse, holding his brain in his right hand, the horse's in his left. Nothing shocking about this, you say, it's just what passes for modern art these days? Ah, but there's an important difference. Von Hagens' "Bodyworks" exhibit is not representational art -- the usual paintings or sculptures or even photographs -- but actual human bodies or body parts from 200 dead men, women and children preserved, dissected, mutilated and put on display to entertain. So far, the exhibit has toured cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan, where it has been seen by almost 2.5 million people in Germany alone and raised more than $1.4 million for its promoters. But in Berlin, where the exhibit opened last month, the Catholic Church has protested vigorously. Failing to get authorities to halt the show, the day the exhibit opened, the Church held a Requiem Mass for the dead on display. Von Hagens created the technique he calls plastination, which replaces body fluids with epoxy and other polymers to produce an odorless, non-decaying corpse or human body part. He claims there is nothing wrong with what he does. He compares himself to Leonardo da Vinci, who studied cadavers to better understand the human body. He even professes to be helping his dead subjects. A signed release form from one woman purports to be fulfilling her wish: "The thought that after my death I could be part of a museum is comforting and fascinates me. What a shame that I'll never discover how my dead body will be used," the woman's statement reads. What a shame indeed. Of course there is no way to verify that the subjects had any real idea what Von Hagens had in mind. Despite the credulity of the press in accepting the authenticity of these "consent" forms, can anyone really believe that the pregnant women who are part of his horror show knew that their bodies were to be cut open to expose their unborn babies? More likely, these poor souls signed some release form at some point before they died donating their bodies to science. And there is a real difference between using human remains for scientific purposes and exploiting them for shock value. Von Hagens' purpose is simple: He wants to reduce the human body to a mere object. How better to do it than to take real bodies and defile, manipulate and pervert them from flesh and blood into plastic for the purpose of amusing those with a particularly ghoulish appetite? In the process, he goes way beyond objectification. He denigrates not only the human body but life itself. So far, Von Hagens' collection has appeared only in countries whose pro-Nazi history makes them particularly suspect. You would think officials, especially in the former Axis nations, would be just a little queasy about public displays featuring hundreds of dead humans, their limbs, organs and flesh petrified by a German doctor. But soon, we, too, may have a chance to witness the spectacle of a dead runner whose entire skin, like a human suit, drapes over his arm. Von Hagen is apparently negotiating with museums in New York, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Seattle. No doubt, he'll be successful, with the museums defending their decision to display this little shop of horrors on First Amendment grounds. Extremists have previously invoked the First Amendment to protect all manner of vile activity that masquerades as art, even to insist that government pay for it. Remember the "performance art" of an AIDS-infected man who cut his body on stage and then attached blood-soaked rags to pulleys sent out to hang over his audience's heads? Or "Piss Christ," the contribution of a National Endowment of Arts- funded artist whose work consisted of a crucifix standing in a jar of urine? If Von Hagens succeeds in bringing "Bodyworks" to the States it will celebrate not only the culture of death, it will mark the death of culture in America.