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The Moral Skinny on Corpses as Art

Naveen Sunkavally

In Mannheim, lower Germany, human corpses are on exhibit. Not your run-of-the-mill Joe Schmoes propped up in glass containers, but stylized corpses, such as the "Runner," whose muscles are splayed back along his skeleton, the "Figure with Skin," who carries his skin as a coat on one arm, or the "Expanded Body," whose body is slashed open to reveal his innards.

According to the New York Times, the exhibit's creator, one Gunther Von Hagens, has termed his works "anatomical artwork." Hagens also perfected the process of plastination, which preserves the corpses by replacing all the water in their cells with plastic.

As expected in cases where art challenges the limits of morality, a controversy has ensued. The Times reports that both the Catholic and Protestant Churches, the premier of the province where Mannheim is located, and a local district prosecutor have all denounced the exhibit and are moving to close it.

But strangely, despite my moral qualms, I find myself supporting the exhibit. Not the content of exhibit, but the right to put up such an exhibit.

After all, these corpses that have gone nude beyond the skin did agree, when alive, to the conditions of their exposure and the principles behind the exhibit. The land upon which the exhibit stands seems fairly bought or rented, and people are not forced to view the exhibit. Thus, on the legal level, nothing wrong - no infringement of existing law - has occurred.

On a moral level also I contend that nothing wrong has happened. Is it not a common custom, for example, for humans to transform the heads and hides of animals such as bears and tigers into mantle-pieces or rugs for decoration? Similarly, have we not harvested the fur of minks and the tusks of elephants for decorating ourselves? What then separates, in our eyes, humans from animals?

Only our sense of closeness to ourselves, of course; humans are closer to humans than they are to animals. If animals had human characteristics, such as the ability to speak English, write poetry, or play football, we would at least hesitate before butchering them. When we see an exhibit of humans mutilated in various ways, we tend to imagine ourselves as having been mutilated and on exhibit. If we were to feel the texture of a human skin lampshade, we would recoil because we unavoidably imagine the process of flaying a human as one does an animal to produce the object.

I do not suggest that we make skin lampshades or become cannibals - I personally find the entirety of the exhibit repugnant, but if individuals make a contract, society has an obligation to uphold that contract as long as it does not affect other individuals. To me, the exhibit resembles the case in which two people are doing outlandish things in their bedroom, and they invite someone to observe. Or perhaps the case of a painter who uses a model in his painting which eventually gets displayed in a gallery.

My belief rests in a higher morality of inclusion, one that forces people to respect all moralities so long as there is no deleterious effect on people.

How do I define a "deleterious effect?" Saying "that exhibit repulsed me," or "that exhibit is against my religion" does not constitute a deleterious effect. On the other hand, if one of the exhibit's displays was alive, jumped out, and killed a spectator, then we clearly see a deleterious effect.

The counter-argument, I can ponder, is that such a disgusting exhibit can create a social atmosphere of desensitization that will promote future acts of violence. Thus, the contract between the exhibit's creator and those on display can extend beyond those people and have a negative effect on society.

I do not buy such an argument. People's conceptions of things, not the things themselves, bring about people's actions. For example, to censor a heavy metal rock band that spews out violent lyrics for its potential effect on people is ridiculous.

I would never like to go to the exhibit in Mannheim and would decline anyone's offer to go. I am much too human to see my humanity spread out before me. But I fully support Mr. Hagens' right to set up this exhibit and others' rights to attend.