Philosophy of the Arts

God - religie

My remarks on the BODIES exhibition

I have been getting so many questions about things I have said inTrouw, that it seems appropriate to me to explain my point of view in my own words. For that I have to rely on what others have reported to me about the article in Trouw in which I have been quoted, because I have not read it. In the following I separate the serious arguments from the smoke screens.
German translation.

Chinese or Amsterdam bodies

To take away one misunderstanding: my objection to an exhibition such as this one (in the Beurs van Berlage) is not primarily about the rumour that the bodies have been illegally obtained (in China, it seems). It is clear to all intelligent parties that body-theft should be punished according to the usual legal procedures. But anyway, theft seems not to be in order, and as I said before: I suppose the organisers would not want anything to do with it if this indeed were at stake.

Nor am I primarily concerned about the fact that — if people should argue that the appropriate legal procedures have been followed — these people did not give their permission while alive. For the current case this is a smoke screen. So this is not my primary concern.
It has been objected that the exhibition is not of “unclaimed bodies”, but of criminals or political prisoners. Again: if that is the case it is a problem, but the human rights situation in China is another problem. This question functions here as a smoke screen. Although by the way, I am indeed afraid that we hide too easily behind the laws of distant China.
How would we feel about this exhibition if in it were the bodies of deceased drug addicts and homeless people from Amsterdam, which had not been claimed by their relatives?
I think we would all object that homeless people and drug addicts too have a right to that little bit of respect that they may have lacked during life.

1. The body is not an alienable property

My greatest concern is that our body is not our property, in the sens of alienable, and at our disposal. I told Trouw: You can paint your car in another colour or sell it to someone, within the appropriate legal conditions: signing a contract, transferring the title, etcetera. Such conditions do not apply to your own body. Your own body, even your own body we could say, is not tradeable, not even after it has died.

1a. It is about the body, not about the soul

The director of the Beurs van berlage (where the exhibition will take place) has said on the radio that a materialist would see the bodies as mere objects and should have no objection, whereas a religious person would see the body as a temporary vehicle for a soul, and he might have a problem. I myself am not religious and the reference to a soul seems indeed vulnerable to me, exactly because you first have to believe before you can object to the exhibition. But the alleged materialist position (assuming this position is really seriously defended) is not convincing either: a body may consist of material elements, but really differs from a stone. It houses, or better: coincides with a person, and a person is an animal that passes through life together with other persons.

1b. They are not bodies

The same director has said something like “These are not real bodies to begin with, because all bodily fluids and fats have been replaced by chemicals.” (I quote from memory). Some philosophers would really enjoy this, just like the idea that you are not the same person you were 7 years ago because in that period of time all your cells have died and have been replaced. This too is a smoke screen. Your identity is not just your body; it consists primarily in the social network that you function in. From the moment you get up, people in your environment see who you are and what you do, on a daily basis. Only in that context you are who you are. The only apparent exception to this is those neglected and ignored homeless people — but even their identity is constituted socially.
Finally, if they really meant that the plastic dolls resulting from plastination had nothing whatsoever to do with the real bodies, why then would they use real bodies to create them, and advertise this?? A smoke screen.

1c. The first objection

What is, according to me, wrong about the assumption that we can alienate our bodies from ourselves like we can our car, is that after we pass away, the body — like it has been shared property during life — becomes the property of our relatives. Even while alive, the person did not own it. The director of the Beurs claims all legal procedures were followed. With this he means, among other things, that the deceased handed over their bodies officially in writing. This may be legally correct, but it is profoundly problematic morally. To make it morally acceptable, those forms would have to be presented to the relatives (family, neighbours, friends and enemies!) and if a mere one of them would object then the body ought not to be traded.
The objection against this consideration — that it makes organ donation impossible — works only partially. In the present case one is not surrendering one’s body for scientific purposes, but in aid of an exhibition. (If it were indeed only for scientific purposes, the following arguments (2.) come into play.

2. Bodies have a moral right to respect

The second problem is that we find that the deceased should be treated with respect (and our culture is certainly not the only one — only cannibals seem an exception to this); in some cases with even more respect than when they were still alive (think of the earlier mentioned Amsterdam homeless people). This requirement of respect is hard to defend. But does it really need defending? I will get to that later. A slippery slope argument I mentioned to Trouw was: if we treat corpses without due respect, then this will, in due time, have an effect on the amount of respect that we show to living people (there is already a lot wrong with our respect for the living, but it is inappropriate when an exhibition like this one, from an unexpected side so to say, starts adding to that).
But is this exhibition so disrespectful? That question is, of course, very hard to answer. The exhibitors say they do nothing but educate people about how this beautiful and wonderful human body is built, and how it works.

2a. Anatomy classes form our only exception

I have already said in the Trouw interview, and I have just repeated this before the NOS radio news, that the plastination technique seems to me to be a blessing for humanity. Why?
Before, in anatomy classes people had to use either real, perishable bodies or (wax) models. The problem with real, decaying bodies is clear: once they have perished fresh ones are required. The problem with models is primarily epistemological in nature: they cannot produce new knowledge because they are made according to existing notions. Their sole value lies in anatomy classes where they are indeed used to illustrate the theories. In light of this point of view the plastination technique is an asset! We can now study real people—whatever disease of accident they died from—in every detail. This is of course of great educational value.
Yet, this educational value is, to my knowledge, the only exception to our moral intuitions about handling bodies, our ban on using bodies as mere material for external purposes.
Of course the result of this admittance cannot be a total allowance for each and everyone to start preparing and exhibiting bodies, at will. Ask yourself why this should not be allowed. The conclusion at this point should be: there is nothing wrong with bringing anatomical knowledge to larger groups of people. But let us realise before asdmitting it, that it is based on the assumption that of a firm, perhaps all too firm, belief in the blessings of medical science. Only as long as we believe in this, is it allowed to use bodies as material, and only with the purpose of developing our medical understanding. An exhibition like the one at hand has to prove that this is indeed its sole aim for showing real bodies.

2b. Is it strictly scientific?

Watching the movies on the website and based on what I have seen of the exhibitions of Von Hagen’s plastinates another question arises: people do not normally die whilst playing chess, or soccer, or with their skin spread over a finger, like sculptures. The plastinators have pushed the bodies in these shapes; they have not just worked the bodies with scalpels, but also deformed them. From a scientific point of view this takes away any evidential power. Plastination could have provided us with real bodies, but what we get instead is manipulated ones. The motives behind these manipulations? Look at the models and you will realise immediately why they did it like this: not to help medical science develop, but to arouse curiosity with the general public. With amusement in charge, science is sacrificed.
The burden of proof is not with those who object to these exhibitions but with those who organize them: let them show that they acted on strictly scientific motives. (How much flexibility is there in this? Is the answer allowed to be: It has been done quite scientifically correct?)

2c. Suitable viewers

There are of course people whose stomach is not strong enough for anatomy class, but then they shouldn’t go, not even out of misplaced curiosity — and if they still go it can not be the fault of the exhibition that they are shocked. One can ask, narrow-mindedly, where the revenues should go to, and wether those millions shouldn’t be spent directly on science, but this looks like a smoke-screen to me (this time stemming from another party.

2d. Bodies used for other reasons

It seems to me that bodies should not be used to create art ever and the shortest way to make this point goes as follows: in a work of art it is from meaningless, inert materials that something “lifelike” is made: Picasso painted Guernica with common brushes, and paint from tubes that are for sale everywhere. The material itself means nothing; it is the artist who adds the meaning and the expression. When an artist, perhaps in an effort to explore the boundaries of art – as happens regularly these days – decides to take his material from deceased people (maybe with their permission, but as said before, this permission is at its best a precondition, not the last word), for instance, he decides to use plastinated body parts from his wife’s body, then, I’m afraid, no art theory can prevent this. This “artist” may have made probably an expressive piece of art that makes us wonder and feel deeply (what more can an artist wish for?), but is it morally right? Aesthetically appreciating this work, one sees remains of a human being being used in a way that has nothing to do with the nature (psychology, history, personality) of the deceased. The work has an artistic expression, that is in no way connected (except inside the head of the “artist”) to the way in which the woman has lead her life.
Between us: this kind of philosophical exercises makes me sick, sick for exhibitions like this to force one into defence: we are required to defend something here of which I, and others with me, feel that it can and ought not be defended.

3. The burden of proof is on the wrong shoulders.

This is not right! That is my third objection. It is not right when people are forced to defend the right to respect of the deceased. Lucebert has said, in a slightly different context: Alles van waarde is weerloos (Everything of value is defenceless), and that is exactly the case here: life as well as a deceased have the of dignity that is defenceless: if we must defend life and corpses against this kind of onslaught, the battle is already lost, because it assumes that reasoning can make us see why life and bodies are so valuable. And when the arguments do not suffice, that means we can do with them whatever we want? We do not have to explain to a psychopath why killing is wrong, do we? I have already referred to cannibals: the Dakai, if I remember correctly, make work of exhibiting their defeated enemies. One of the reasons they have for doing this is to humiliate their enemies, and to prevent them from returning. It makes you wonder what they would make of their enemies exhibiting their own group members like this. Above, I cited the cannibals as people that do not take our kinds of precautions with corpses, but I am afraid that they too wouldn’t be too happy with the BODIES exhibition.

3a. How is it that we are forced into defense?

These are the arguments, whether or not explicitly proffered, with which BODIES forces us into defense:

  1. This is a grand exhibition, it is supported by important societal institutes; big money is behind it
  2. The exhibition travels around the world, it is not culturally biased (it satisfies everyone’s curiosity)
  3. It is legally in order (Von Hagens uses “Spendeformulare”, I assume that in the case of the BODIES exhibition the papers are “in order” as well)
  4. It draws huge masses of audiences
    • and makes them think (a.o. about ethical issues)
    • It teaches them human anatomy (but see 2b)

Who are we to object to all this? We must be well-off to oppose the mechanisms of liberal capitalism.
This is a naturalist fallacy though: “it happens and, therefore, it cannot and should not be stopped.”

4. Conclusion

In which situation (if ever?) is it morally in order to trade your body? (1c.)
The burden of proof should be on the shoulders of those who organised the exhibition (or, of Von Hagens): what legitimises this exhibition of corpses? (2a.)
Why is our desire to respect and protect our dead forced into a defense? How can our intuitions defend themselves? Can they? (3.)
“Everything of value is defenseless”
Aaron Ginsburg has set up a website protesting the BODIES exhibitions, and included this blog-entry. A German translation is in the making.

Algemeen Dagblad, 15 november 2006, interview door Maaike Ruepert, over Bodies. The Exposition, De Beurs van Berlage
Radio 1, 14 november 2006, NOS-Radio 1-journaal, interview door Govert van Bakel, over Bodies. The Exposition, De Beurs van Berlage

“Expositie van lijken roept ethische vragen op”, interview door Mariska Jansen, over Bodies. The Exposition, De Beurs van Berlage: Trouw 64:19020, De Verdieping, 14 november 2006, p. 1.

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