Are Dead Bodies Art? What Can We Learn From Them? (Graphic Images)

Wherever they travel, the bodies exhibitions stir up controversy, and morbid curiosity.

Many people go to be entertained or even horrified, while others hope to learn about the inner workings of the human body. Some schools even take groups of children there as part of their science education.

For most viewers, these flayed and splayed corpses fall somewhere along the boundary between art and science.

And there’s the issue of ethics because previously only medical staff have been permitted to handle and dissect corpses, and there are strict regulations governing the whole process of working with dead bodies, including who gets to look at them.

Also investigative journalists and human rights groups have connected the exhibitions with communist China and organ harvesting, and the likelihood that at least some of the cadavers were not donated, but could actually be unclaimed bodies of people who died in police custody.

(Image: Wikipedia)

Bodies being hardened in gas chambers. (Image: Wikipedia)

The plastination process was patented in the 1970s by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens who owns the exhibitions called Body Worlds. Since his shows started touring the world in the 1990s, other exhibitions have sprung up like Body Works, and Bodies: The Exhibition.

Personally I find the whole thing pretty creepy, and wouldn’t go to see these myself, especially not knowing if the bodies really were donated—I’m sure it would give me nightmares! Also I don’t think it’s right to take a child to something like this because they’re not old enough to make that kind of decision themselves.

A plastinated man holds up his own skin. (Screenshot/YouTube)

A plastinated man holds up his own skin. (Screenshot/YouTube)

For me, true art is uplifting and inspiring, and there’s more than enough scientific research going on for us to learn about health, and the human body that way.

Here’s a collection of other people’s thoughts gathered from different sources over the years that explore some of the issues around these unsettling displays…

A chess-playing plastinate with its brain exposed. (Screenshot/YouTube)

A chess-playing plastinate with its brain exposed. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Guardian art critic Adrian Searle
“Body Worlds is a problematic exhibition. I can only wonder at and be fascinated by the exhibits themselves, which seem to me to be no more or less ghoulish than anything swimming in a jar of alcohol or formaldehyde in the Hunterian museum, which anyone, nowadays, may visit.”


Archaeologist Paul Mullins in "Dead Bodies and Archaeological Corpses: Aesthetics and Body Worlds"
“Yet Body Worlds brings death into the open without actually speaking its name. Instead, it invokes a narrow notion of education, a detached scientific rationality, and a candid curiosity about bodies and mortality. Body Worlds is partly a shallow health public and anatomical lesson and partly an artistic exhibit in which the elements of the works are plasticized flesh and organs.”


Another Guardian art review
“Does Von Hagens consider himself an artist, a Renaissance man like that other artist of human bodies, Leonardo da Vinci? ‘There are obviously aesthetic elements to what I am doing, but I am chiefly a scientist who wants to enlighten people by means of aesthetic shock rather than cruelty shock.’ Fetuses are to be exposed in revolving glass cases floored with black velvet, bodies are posed artfully, dismembered and reassembled in ways that remind one of cubist and surrealist works.”


Art review in The Age
“The shows are fascinating and confronting, and undoubtedly of some educational value, but concerns over the ethics of such exhibitions have been raised wherever they have been mounted around the world. Central to those concerns is the question of where the bodies have come from.”
The plastinated body of a pregnant woman. (Screenshot/YouTube)

The plastinated body of a pregnant woman. (Screenshot/YouTube)

ABC News report
“You’re going to be entertained by looking at dead bodies, by looking at cadavers that have been put in the most atrocious poses for our entertainment,” said Rabbi Louis Feldstein of Atlanta.
Feldstein says it violates a standard of “respect for the life that was lived.”


What do you think? Would you pay to go and look at dead bodies, and should human insides be kept inside or outside?

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