Body and Soul
These early artists considered the human body . . . a poor vehicle for the expression of energy, compared to the muscle-rippling bull and the streamlined antelope. . . . [I]t was the Greeks, by their idealization of man, who turned the human body into an incarnation of energy, to us the most satisfying of all, for although it can never attain the uninhibited physical flow of the animal, its movements concern us more closely. Through art we can relive them in our own bodies, and achieve thereby that enhanced vitality which all thinkers on art . . . have recognized as one of the chief sources of aesthetic pleasure.
From earliest infancy, our own bodies, those places of sustenance and desire, concern us intimately; nor can we look upon the body of any other person with neutral eyes. For every human body is a variant of our own, a commentary upon it, even—in the case of a corpse—a foretelling of its destiny.
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Body Worlds, a trio of anatomical exhibitions that have been touring North America for nearly two years, has aroused so much fascination. This show, whose focus is some 200 genuine human bodies that have been “plastinated,” is currently finishing its runs in Boston and Vancouver, and will soon be on view simultaneously in Chicago, Phoenix, and Dallas.
Body Worlds is the creation of Günther von Hagens, a refugee from the former East Germany and a trained physician who in the 1970’s patented a technique for preparing bodies for study by medical students. Discovering how to remove all residual fat and moisture from cadavers, von Hagens replaced these components with plastic polymers. To these he gave shrill neon colors that served to differentiate the various muscle groups, organs, and blood vessels.
Soon von Hagens realized that there was a much larger market for his product than medical schools. In 1995, he organized a public exhibition of his specimens, arranged in lifelike poses. First presented in Japan, it was a phenomenal success, seen by three million visitors over the next few years. In the West, with its different social and religious mores, von Hagens moved in a more gingerly fashion. But here too he would meet with success. By 2001, he had amassed enough funds to construct a plant in Dalian, China, which is now the principal center of his far-flung plastination enterprise.
Visitors to Body Worlds who are nervous about encountering prepared cadavers are instantly put at ease by the exhibition’s bright and cheerful tone—and by its humor. These are bodies that appear to be having fun: a skinless rollerblader executes a neat handstand; a basketball player dribbles a ball, dodging a blocker, their muscles visible in palpable tension. Even the macabre is treated with a sense of play, as when a doleful cadaver holds up his own flayed skin as if deciding whether to send it to the cleaners.
By these means and others, von Hagens helps us overcome any initial squeamishness. For these are bodies and yet they are not bodies. There is about them not the slightest hint of putrefaction or liquefaction, qualities inextricably bound up with our instinctive dread of corpses. Instead, there is only the dry glossiness of plastic. The figures do not even appear to have passed through the extremis of death, seeming rather to have been arrested in stop-motion, like photographic creations. To remember that they were once alive requires a constant act of will.
And von Hagens certainly knows how to sell his enterprise. Under the disclaimer that the purpose of Body Worlds is “health education,” his website offers backpacks, baseball caps, and mouse pads decorated with skinless bodies. A helpful link even encourages you, when the time comes, to donate your own body to the project. According to the website, nearly 20 million visitors have by now gaped at Body Worlds, whose flayed candy-colored forms tell us as much about our culture as Michelangelo’s David does about his.
The way a body is treated aesthetically is always an index of a society’s understanding of itself. In classical antiquity, the depiction of the human body became, indeed, the central preoccupation of art, and hence of subsequent Western civilization. Although every culture lacking an explicit taboo on figural art has addressed the human form, none has done so with the passionate intensity of the sculptors of ancient Greece. While their predecessors in Egypt and elsewhere showed the body as an inventory of parts, proportioned more or less elegantly, they were first to treat it as a dynamic whole, its various masses and muscles balancing one another in vital equipoise along the supple axis of the spine. Here the totemic rigidity of Egyptian sculpture became a latent repose, suggestive of both action and freedom. This is the quality of idealism that marks classical sculpture, expressed not only in its pursuit of ideal proportions but in its conviction that the beautiful human body expresses an ideal moral good.
The changed understanding of the body that developed in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages required a radically different art. Christianity, too, cared very deeply about the body—its central tenet, after all, is an incarnate God—but it sought to subordinate the life of the body to that of the soul. For the sensual nude of pagan antiquity there could be no place. The artistic challenge now was to make the body corporeal but not carnal.
To achieve this, the function of drapery was turned on its head. In classical sculpture, the role of drapery was to articulate the human form; wispy lines traced and caressed the body’s contours, calling attention to the nakedness beneath. Medieval drapery did no such thing. It masked the body under a turbulent landscape of folds and furrows that followed their own geometric logic without reference to the limbs and torso beneath. Dynamic contrapposto gave way to Gothic ekstase, the S-curve that showed the body to be in a state of rapture.
Further underscoring this same quality, medieval artists abandoned the compact canon of classical proportions and instead expressively elongated the body to make its twisting even more anguished. The peculiar writhing and squirming of medieval statuary functioned as a kind of seismograph, recording the spiritual tremors below the surface. In this way Christianity had added a crucial element to the rhetoric of the body—namely, the trope of beatific suffering, typified in the image of the crucified Christ, the scourged and tormented Man of Sorrows. Although the ancient world had also found pathos in the defeated body—see the poignant images of dying Gauls—these were not ideal nudes. Christian belief in the bodily resurrection now ensured that a corpse—even one in such an ostentatious state of rigor mortis as Hans Holbein’s entombed Christ (1521)—could at the same time represent an ideal.1
During the Italian Renaissance, the properties of weight, volume, and gravity were restored. For the Renaissance sculptor, as for his classical predecessor, there was no lovelier, more exquisitely proportioned object in all of nature than the human form—a temple indeed. This is the humanism embodied, literally, in Michelangelo’s David, and neatly encapsulated in Hamlet’s soliloquy: “What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel.”
While much of the edifice of Renaissance humanism has since collapsed, in one respect its legacy is with us still: life drawing, the practice of drawing from a nude model, remains the principal instrument of artistic education. Of course, what that body actually means today is another question, but, in the Renaissance, classical artistic practice and Christian theology crisply aligned. The body was beautiful because it was created in the image of God and because it was the repository of an immaterial soul, its forms recapitulating the Platonic geometric order of the universe. The quintessential image is Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated Vitruvian Man, an outstretched form inscribed within a sphere and box.
After the Enlightenment, by contrast, the humanist understanding of the body gradually gave way to a materialist one, with paradoxical results. Modern artists demonstrated a rigorous anatomical understanding of the human body that Polykleitos would have envied. Thanks to the vaulting medical discoveries of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment science, they could lay bare the hydraulic and mechanical apparatus of the whole with forensic exactitude. But as the workings of that mechanical system were perfected, there seems to have occurred a corresponding leaching-out of any sense of higher aspiration and purpose.
With the progress of modernity, the confident, exhilarating idealism of the Renaissance nude came to be displaced by a dispirited and vulnerable nakedness, a standard type in 19th-century art. The result was the body as depicted by an artist like Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), an unsparing inventory of minute sags, slouches, and fidgets. Eakins’s knowledge of the body, like Leonardo’s, was based on considerable experience with the dissection of cadavers; unlike Leonardo’s, though, his bodies were not abstract articulations of cosmological order but mechanical contrivances subject to mechanical forces, and above all to the nervousness of modern life.
Eakins’s utter lack of idealism is the expression of a culture in the process of losing its unconscious dualism—its conviction that the body and the spirit are two distinct entities, yoked together and working in tandem but belonging to fundamentally different spheres. Instead, we have come to think of the body as all we have and all we are. Much of the modern world, and certainly most enlightened opinion, would appear to subscribe to the belief implied by the title of the popular feminist handbook Our Bodies, Ourselves.
If our bodies do in fact comprise our selves, it is little wonder that they have come to dominate so many of the political and legal battles of our time—over birth control, abortion, suicide, euthanasia, organ donation, elective amputation, and more. This development in itself suggests a vast cultural change in our understanding of the body, its autonomy, and its moral relationship to society.
To some, the change signals nothing more than the possibility of a welcome return to the pagan conception of the body, joyously carnal and unfettered by moral inhibition. In this conception, the body is not a shameful thing but a proud and strutting one, and the world an everlasting Woodstock without disapproving stares or poison ivy. But here another paradox is to be noted: our more materialist conception of the body does not seem to have led either to greater autonomy—witness the recent puritanical spate of anti-tobacco legislation and attempts to enforce healthy diets by regulation—or to unrestricted hedonism.
It has certainly not led to hedonism in art. There, the focus on the physical body as the sole constituent of our identity has accompanied not a revival of the beautiful and ideal forms of classical antiquity but, if anything, a conception of the body as the repository of every sort of degradation and humiliation. In the past two decades, artists have presented the body covered with simulated sores (Hannah Wilke), smeared with chocolate as a surrogate for excrement (Karen Finley), outfitted with grotesque and misshapen sexual prosthetics (Cindy Sherman), and in a state of rigor mortis and incipient putrefaction (Andres Serrano).
Some of this aesthetic morbidity can be ascribed, directly or indirectly, to the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980’s, with its highly visible wasting process. But only some. Well before the onset of that epidemic, a growing number of artists had begun to experiment with grotesque manipulations of the body. In 1974, Wilke had herself photographed semi-nude in provocative poses, covered with small pieces of chewed gum that from a distance looked like skin lesions but upon closer inspection proved to be shaped like female sexual organs. Francesca Woodman worked in a similar vein; before her 1981 suicide, she repeatedly photographed her nude body in settings of squalor.
One might have expected the spread of AIDS, and the ensuing cult of the AIDS victim, to encourage a renascence of the tradition of the beautiful sufferer in visual art. Not so: artists were more likely either to avoid the gruesome specifics in favor of sublimated images (as in Robert Gober’s misshapen bathroom fixtures, meditations on themes of filth and cleanliness) or to give them a scintillating lushness (as in Serrano’s photographs of bodily fluids like blood in richly colored cibachrome). As for those who insisted on regaling viewers with the sufferings of AIDS patients, their message had nothing beautiful about it: in Four Scenes from a Harsh Life (1994), the performance artist Ron Athey sliced the back of another performer, wiping the blood away with a cloth that he then hoisted over his flinching audience.
The despoiled body also engaged artists with no explicit relationship to AIDS. Much of this art was explicitly feminist, supposedly aimed at presenting the female form in a manner that would thwart any prurient enjoyment by a male viewer. Thus, the photographer Cindy Sherman, previously known for her disorienting still pictures from fictitious films, began to assemble prosthetic devices into misshapen and monstrous bodies; Karen Finley achieved fame when a federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts was retroactively withdrawn in 1989 for her performance piece We Keep our Victims Ready.
In 1993, the art of sullied and debased bodies was given a name and a place of honor at the Whitney Museum, which devoted an exhibition to the theme of Abject Art. Through it ran a loathing for the human form as a huddled, diseased, and cringing thing, an easily punctured container of excrement.
Liberated from the moralizing hang-ups of the past, the emancipated body has come to dominate the art of our time. But it has yet to produce anything that looks like Michelangelo’s David—unless we are to assign that place of honor to the plaintive and plastinated bodies of Günther von Hagens.
But herein lies still another irony. While, in North America, Body Worlds is now touring in three versions, in Europe it has disappeared, having gone unexhibited since 2004. For in that year, the German newsweekly Der Spiegel published a lengthy exposé of von Hagens, the burden of which was that at least some of his subjects showed evidence of bullet holes in the back of the neck, the preferred Chinese method of executing prisoners.
Since the Chinese government is von Hagen’s principal supplier of bodies, this certainly seemed plausible. For his part, von Hagens fought the charge furiously, obtaining a court order enjoining Der Spiegel from repeating its findings. But in the meantime he also destroyed any potential evidence, cremating remains before they could be examined.
Von Hagens’s public-relations problems in Europe have recently worsened. Barred from Germany, he had sought to establish a plant in nearby Poland, for which purpose he sent his eighty-eight-year-old father, Gerhard Liebchen, as his negotiator. Liebchen, it was reported (again by Der Spiegel), had been in Poland once before, as an SS officer in 1940. He had later been charged with compiling a list of 60 Poles to be sent to concentration camps.
It is embarrassing that the nations of Western Europe, which have advanced so much farther than we along the road to a universal right to death by demand, should turn out to be so much more readily censorious of von Hagens’s ends and means. The reason may be that, historically, the mixing of murder and medicine is, to Europeans, a more familiar and more horrifying cultural theme. In any case, the fact is that American journalists have demonstrated remarkably little curiosity about von Hagens’s methods, and very few news stories about Body Worlds have even referred to the charges in Der Spiegel. Instead, most stories about the exhibition have the character of breezy press releases.
Perhaps, in this country, another, different template is at work—the one according to which the progressive forces of science and enlightenment are still fighting the waning forces of religion and societal repression, and must be given every possible support. In this simplistic conceptual division, any public squeamishness about von Hagens’s cadavers places the squeamer, as it were, among the retrograde ranks of the defenders of Terri Schiavo, the opponents of euthanasia, and the dissenters from assisted suicide. In order to avoid the dread of association with such types, our defenders of personal autonomy have chosen not to question the allies on their own barricades.
In the end, what is so off-putting about von Hagens’s grinning, open-eyed, ineffably sad cadavers is not the gruesomeness of their flayed limbs, or their vulnerability. Long ago, the Capuchin monks of Palermo created catacombs in which bodies—mummified in the dry Sicilian air—were arranged in comic scenes: grotesque families at dinner, group portraits of naval officers. Here too was high ghoulishness, of a sort requiring strong stomachs. But the ghoulishness had a distinct moral agenda, intended both to demonstrate the monks’ indifference to death and to steel them to it. With von Hagens, his protestations about health education notwithstanding, ghoulishness serves no higher purpose and indeed no other purpose at all.
There is good reason to be suspicious of art that deliberately and primarily seeks to offend—always an infantile impulse. But von Hagens may give us an unexpected sympathy for Karen Finley and those other “abject artists” of the 1990’s who pursued their morbid themes. Insofar as they made art that was intentionally repugnant, they at least consciously presupposed the capacity to be disgusted—which placed them in an intelligible moral universe. No such presupposition, and no such capacity, are apparent in the Day-Glo candy-colored universe of Günther von Hagens, whose work is forever antiseptic and clean, and whose sensibility seems as efficient as a bullet at the base of a grinning skull.
1 Outside the West, this idea encountered resistance. Early Christian missionaries to China, for example, found that images of the crucified Christ aroused little empathetic response, being regarded merely as humiliating images of a condemned prisoner. For this reason, missionaries shifted to images of the holy family, which enjoyed greater resonance in the context of Confucian culture.