Making a spectacle of ourselves

Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition in London is as degrading as it is fascinating.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

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Professor Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, Atlantis Gallery, The Old Truman Brewery, 146 Brick Lane, London E1 (until September 2002) (1)

When I was a medical student it was customary for post mortems on patients who had died in the hospital to be carried out at lunchtime so that any interested staff or students could attend.

Though I generally avoided lectures, I found post mortems fascinating and rarely missed one. They were carried out by senior pathologists, who removed and displayed the internal organs with great skill and dexterity, to reveal diseased tissues and confirm the cause of death. The process of ‘autopsy’ (literally ‘seeing for oneself’) was conducted before a substantial audience, in a scene reminiscent of that captured more than 300 years earlier in Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’ (2), and similar works.

One day I went to a post mortem on a patient I had got to know over a few weeks on the ward. Death had utterly transformed her: she had been a person, now her body was just a shell. The passing of her life seemed to have robbed her of everything that distinguished her as a human being. Her exposed ribcage was like a side of beef in a butcher’s shop.

Accused of lacking respect for the dead bodies on display in his Body Worlds exhibition, anatomy professor Gunther von Hagens said that: ‘a corpse has no dignity; the dignity is in our minds.’ Given the hostility towards the exhibition, reflecting the deep-rooted fears of mortality it provokes, it is useful to be reminded of the different approaches to the body appropriate to the pathology laboratory and the funeral parlour.

Whereas in the lab, the cadaver is merely dead meat, to be coldly and methodically dissected to reveal its secrets, in the conduct of the funeral the body is treated with ritualised respect as a means of containing the fear and distress of the living. One of the paradoxes of Body Worlds is that by opening up the private world of the mortuary to the public gaze, von Hagens invites the very accusation that he refutes.

The extraordinary rhetorical inflation of the abuse heaped on von Hagens reflects the uniquely terrifying character of the spectre of death in our society. In response to various critics, it is worth pointing out that Josef Mengele conducted experiments on living people, that Harold Shipman murdered numerous patients, that Ed Gein was a serial killer; that Frankenstein – fictionally – created a living human being; that nineteenth-century ‘freak shows’ exhibited living people with disabilities. All von Hagens has done is to exhibit dead bodies, as a whole and in parts, that have been preserved by his ‘plastination’ process and dissected for public display.

But is it art? The critics sneer that this exhibition is not in a proper gallery, not on the South Bank or in the West End, not even in Hoxton Square. They also complain that the display, with its potted plants and crude signs, is rather tacky. They consider the publicity – ‘discover the mysteries under your skin’ – unspeakably vulgar. The verdict on von Hagens, with his black fedora, his icy stare and his zeal for self-promotion, is that he is decidedly uncool. Yet, while he attracts the petty chauvinism and snobbery of the patrons of Brit Art, his exhibition can be favourably compared in aesthetic terms with the Spectacular Bodies exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last year, which attracted none of this bile.

Is it even anatomy? Body Worlds has also been criticised by medical authorities for sensationalising and trivialising human dissections. It is difficult to see how these criticisms can be justified, given the superb quality of the specimens and dissections on display. Though von Hagens has indicated that all his subjects gave their consent to being preserved, dissected and displayed after death, ethical commentators have raised unsubstantiated claims to the contrary. The government should be congratulated for resisting demands from such begrudgers – and from the sad ghouls of Alder Hey – to ban the exhibition.

Offering an ‘anatomical exhibition of real human bodies’, Body Worlds aims to provide ‘visible entertainment anatomy instead of school anatomy’ – a combination of education and entertainment, ‘edutainment’. I certainly found it educational – it reminded me of long-forgotten anatomy classes, without the slightest whiff of formaldehyde. Its funny moments have been widely noted: the man holding his skin up like a suit, another riding a horse comparing his brain with that of his steed, another sliced like a Salvador Dali painting.

I’m not sure whether the experience was very educational for my 11-year-old son and his pal, but they certainly derived considerable entertainment from comparing the rather pendulous genitalia on display. Given all the brouhaha over the display of a woman in advanced pregnancy with her foetus exposed – an image familiar from Leonardo da Vinci, William Hunter and others – I was rather disappointed not to see two plastinated cadavers sectioned in the act of coitus, after another famous da Vinci drawing. Perhaps modern sensibilities have yet to catch up with those of the fifteenth century.

Though most of the commentary on Body Worlds has focused on the 25 full body exhibits, the exhibition’s 175 body parts are less spectacular, but sometimes more interesting. I was particularly struck by a thigh bone (femur) cut lengthways (sagitally) to display the internal architecture, the delicate trabeculae of the bone perfectly preserved to reveal the full subtlety of this weight-bearing mechanism. This is not only educational, but an object of great beauty.

In response to his critics, von Hagens claims that, in his public displays of human anatomy, he is merely following in the great traditions of ‘anatomical theatre’ pioneered in Renaissance Bologna, Padua, Leiden and beyond. Indeed, this tradition can be traced back to Galen, who conducted public vivisection of pigs in Rome in the second century AD. It was revived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and raised to a new level in the sixteenth century by Vesalius and others, who systematically revised Galen’s human anatomy (having realised that it was largely derived from the dissection of animals). The study of human anatomy through the dissection of corpses became – for the first time – an integral part of medical education; it also had a wider impact on artists and others.

Yet, though von Hagens can readily claim a historical mandate for his self-publicising and theatrical pursuit of anatomical studies, the wider aims of earlier researches were quite different. In the early modern era, conducting anatomical dissections in public was part of the process of winning wider legitimacy for the emerging medical profession. As historian Roger French explains, ‘since the rationality of medicine was largely anatomical, the public display of human dissection underlined the learning, rationality and political power of the physicians’ medicine’ (3).

But whereas the pioneers of anatomical studies sought to show the public that the rationality of medicine lay in its anatomical basis, the promotion of human anatomy today seems designed to confirm the basic animality of man, rather than his higher aspirations.

In his discussion of the depiction of the human body in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cartoons as the ‘hideous abode of unruly and irrational passions, nasty and disgusting urges’, the late Roy Porter quotes the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin: ‘To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy and birth.’ (4) From this perspective, dissection was a ‘humiliation upon the flesh’ – often inflicted on convicted felons. Whether it was also meant to ‘nauseate, thrill or awe’, the moral was that ‘hideous flesh was the sign of evil deeds and base minds’.

For all their technical perfection, the flayed and flawed bodies, the diseased lungs and brains and other organs in von Hagens’ exhibition, seem closer to this conception of degraded humanity than to the rational and enlightened outlook of an earlier era.

The exhibit that best illustrates the crude reduction of humanity to its corporeal form is that of a man playing chess. Viewed from the front, he leans over the board, his brain exposed over a thin strip of forehead, his hand outstretched in the act of moving a piece. From behind, an elaborate dissection reveals the spinal cord emerging from the brain and every peripheral nerve as it branches out from its root. It is true that the act of moving a chess piece depends on the functioning of the central and peripheral nervous systems. But what about the decision where to move a chess piece?

The most sophisticated dissection can tell us little about the working of the human mind, because this is a product of human society and cannot be reduced to any anatomical structure. Stripping away the layers of skin and flesh and bone ‘beneath the surface’ of our bodies does not bring us any closer to the essence of our humanity, which is to be found in a quite different place: in that most distinctive of human creations, our civilisation. The emergence of the mutilated body as a public spectacle reflects the degradation of contemporary humanity at a time when there is widespread disillusionment with the state of our society and its prospects for the future.

Though Body Worlds has provoked intense hostility – shortly after the London opening a man threw a shroud over the display of the pregnant woman and poured paint on the floor – it has also proved a popular attraction (six million people have attended exhibitions in Germany, Japan and Belgium). Public fascination with displays of dead bodies follows on from the cult of the living body and the narcissistic quest for health through austere regimes of diet and exercise, abstinence and discipline.

One of the ironies of the exhibition is its organisers’ claims for its value as public health propaganda: the spectacle of diseased organs is supposed to encourage people to pay more attention to their health and to the measures required to delay the inevitable demise of the body. Another is that at a time when dead bodies and body parts are being displayed for public entertainment, the Retained Organs Commission set up following the Alder Hey inquiry (5) is engaged in breaking up museums of pathology specimens maintained for medical education and surgical training, so that organs can be returned to relatives. As a result of this morbid preoccupation with body parts, it is now easier to acquire the organ of a dead relative than it is to get a living organ for transplant.

While the human body has become the object of public spectacle and mawkish ritual, it has become less available as an object of scientific study or medical treatment. Art critic Waldemar Januszczak’s comment that Body Worlds is ‘an invitation to civilisational regression’ is more accurate as a characterisation of these wider social trends than as an aesthetic judgement on this exhibition.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: Body parts

(1) See the Body Worlds website

(2) See ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’

(3) ‘The Anatomical Tradition’, in the Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, Volume 1, Routledge, 1993, p 85-6

(4) Bodies Politic: Death, Disease and Doctors in Britain, Roy Porter, Reaktion Books, 2001, p41-42. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(5) See the Retained Organs Commission on the NHS website

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