Censoring the Identity for the Sake of Morality: The Rights of the Artist’s vs. the Deceased

knfd

Illustration 1: Andres Serrano, The Morgue (Jane Doe, Killed by Police) 1992

The art world is no stranger to controversy. For many years, works have been constantly scrutinized over their artistic validity, medium, presentation, and almost always, their interpretation. But as culture evolves, new boundaries are being broken, leading to an influx of new ethical issues, which again bring up the question of censorship. This long read looks at the ethical dilemmas created when exhibiting the deceased and their identity in art. Focusing on four particular artists and their works, I will illustrate the use of the deceased in art and argue that artists have a right to use the deceased, provided identity and appearance is delicately considered. The first to be studied is Andres Serrano’s The Morgue, and his series of photographs revealing violent injuries of unclaimed autopsy bodies. Secondly, Damien Hirst’s With Dead Head 1991 and concluding with Body Worlds by Gunther von Hagens, each being justified as ethical exceptions of art. 

serrano-1

Illustration 2: Andres Serrano, The Morgue (Rat Poison Suicide, I) 1992

Death is inevitable and a common theme in art, far reaching into religious, cultural, and social aspects of societies around the world. But what has changed throughout time is our concern for the rights for the deceased when used in artists’ work. Unlike paintings of the dead which are portrayals of either real or mythological people, photographs and installations of real human beings are forcing critics to question an artist’s work, as to how much consideration the deceased rights are being adhered to, as well as if the deceased is being portrayed in a dignified manner. Andres Serrano’s works are not new to controversy. His 1992 series The Morgue was received with major moral outrage when first revealed.[1] Taking three months to complete[2], the series consists of approximately 36 125.7 x 152.4 cm Cibachrome photographs of unidentified human corpses in an undisclosed morgue[3]. There are many layers of violence in Serrano’s morgue series.[4] This includes graphic lacerations of body parts, full exposure of the naked body, and the concealing of the face, but in some cases revealing features of the face.[5] Despite the graphic nature of Serrano’s photographs, the most concerning are of identity, such as the eyeless corroded-skin woman entitled: Jane Doe, Killed by Police 1992.

serrano-rat-pison

Illustration 3: Andres Serrano, The Morgue (Knifed to Death, II) 1992

According to Andrea D. Fitzpatrick, Serrano’s deceased subjects are vulnerable to artist manipulation, creating an imbalance of control between the rights of the living and the dead.[6] Indeed this imbalance is evident, but it must be noted that Serrano did take some consideration into preserving the rights of deceased, which was to disclose their identity and not reveal the location of the morgue. Unlike that of Damian Hirst, Serrano has not shown complete identifiable faces. The Morgue (Rat Poison Suicide, I) 1992, has a cloth placed over the deceased’s face, only revealing the upper body. Fitzpatrick argues that despite the disclosed faces, small attributes indicate certain identities towards the viewer, which in this case are those impacted by acts of violence.[7] For example in The Morgue (Knifed to Death, II), the deceased’s arm is the focal point of the photo displaying fresh wounds and ink on the fingertips. This ink indicates that the police had undertaken fingerprinting prompting questions such as victim or criminal? Even from the title, one can identify that the deceased is likely to have come from a forensic morgue. In a serious case such as Jane Doe, the danger of publishing her face is having someone identify her though the photograph, leading to issues of consent.[8] Although Serrano shows her face, it can be argued he had still considered her right to no identity. Her skin is decomposing, distorting much of her appearance, which acts as a camouflage.[9] Furthermore, Serrano’s attention to detail and composition exhibits each person in a dignified manner. Many of the featured people are unclaimed dead, so it could be argued that Serrano is not manipulating the dead but focusing on the aesthetics; away from psychic mechanisms of identification and perhaps a new sense of worth, using them to illustrate the truths of death.[10]

With Dead Head 1991 by Damien Hirst born 1965

Illustration 4: Damien Hirst, With Dead Head 1991

Damian Hirst’s With Dead Head was not initially an art piece when first taken. Rather, in 1981 sixteen-year-old Hirst was at Leeds Anatomy School learning how to sketch. What is controversial about this image is its representation of both Hirst and the visible identity of the head who was originally donated for scientific research. Hirst is pictured grinning next to a severed head of a deceased man without proper permissions from either the School of Anatomy or of the deceased. What archeologists Sarah Tarlow and her colleague Matt Beamis find disturbing about this image is that  Hirst made no attempt to disclose the identity of the head, portraying the deceased in an undignified manner.[11] Beside the identity of the head, Hirst’s childish smile is what troubles many with this photograph. Yet one must ask though, how does Damien’s photograph differ from those taken by medical students that take ‘hard humor’ images? For medical students there is a need to overcome natural fears to be capable of understanding and interacting with the human body. It is believed that medical students being exposed to such intense experiences require mechanisms such as ‘hard humor’ to cope. Medical historian John Harley Warner argues these ‘hard humor’ images we intended to be comical and not for public view. Regardless of its intended secrecy, hard humor photographs have surfaced striking outrage within society claiming these images are disrespectful of the deceased.[12] Such images depict extreme indignities but is somewhat justified, claiming it’s necessary desensitization for only private viewing.[13] This perspective is highly biased to claim ‘hard humor’ has more merit than for artists. In justification of Hirst, it can be argued that artists too must be desensitized to be able to learn to sketch the body. Hirst described his first encounter with the dead as awful, feeling nauseated as if he were going to die himself. But he returned to draw them regardless of his experiences and soon became desensitized by what he saw stating, “it’s like I was holding them and they were just dead bodies. Death was moved a bit further away”.[14] This is by no means justifying the actions of Hirst and medical students, but rather illustrating that this kind of photography is present. Hirst is not only expressing his artistic expression but also expressing the difficulties inherent in attempting to comprehend our own morality, as what he states is “dealing with the unacceptable idea of death”.[15] Photography enables artists to gain a sense of their world and their identity within it,[16] as Hirst explains: “To me, the smile and everything seemed to sum up this problem between life and death. It was such a ridiculous way of being at the point of trying to come to terms with it, especially being sixteen […] This is life and this is death.”[17] Ethically, the default position for a deceased’s wishes should be complied with, being that in society deceased rights are recognized, which unfortunately Hirst fails to respect.[18]

Rearing Horse with Rider          body-worlds-by-gunther-von-hagens-2

Illustration 5: Body Worlds by Gunther von Hagens

Body Worlds by Gunther von Hagens had gained considerable outrage and enthusiasm towards his methods used to preserve human flesh when first shown in 1997/98.[19] His invention (plastination) is the process of body parts being dehydrated and filled with polymer resin. This method is much more robust than conventional formaldehyde which was also used by Hirst in his 1992 shark installation The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of someone Living.[20] Unlike that of the previous works, the people used in Body Worlds are not recognizable at all. What Hagens gains over works of Hirst and Serrano is that the technique of plastination is seen as a good cause, branching off from medical research and emphasizing the educational merit.[21] The identity is no longer a great issue being the works are seen to serve the community, to think about death and take an interest into the human anatomy.[22] Hagens himself states that this educates people about health issues, forming a view that his art gains legitimacy through the merge of a highly regarded profession with art. But unlike Serrano and Hirst, Hagens bodies no longer have an identity, which is argued to ignore the memory of the deceased due to them being reducing to its internals.[23] The medical community questions whether the performance is truly “educational” or just a rejection of Western norms for human dignity. [24] But unlike Hirst and Serrano, Hagens’ use of donated bodies (with appropriate paperwork) takes considerable consideration towards the participant’s rights, whereby they agree and are fully aware of what they are to be used for. Hagens has stripped the deceased’s background and identity to focus on the universal (that could be me; that is what I am).

damian-hirst-the-physical-impossibility-of-death-in-the-mind-of-someone-living-1992Illustration 6: Damian Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of someone Living, 1992.

There are many different ways to represent and preserve the deceased body in different cultures.[25] It can be agreed this essay surfaces more questions than it does answers. These works illustrate the inescapable experiences and realities of death in a vivid manner[26], which prompts the viewer to accept the idea of less adhering to ethical principles, and focus on the beauty.[27] In this case, censoring disturbing or even offensive material in art violates the intentions and spirit of an artist and what they are attempting to convey. All three works exhibit signs of medical merit but are designed to break through taboos of death, which are generally censored and marked as exclusive, not normally left for laymen to study.[28] The sheer explicitness of deceased body art may offend, but no matter how they are used, banning them is not likely to erase the pain of reality.[29] Identity is a major concern, but what these artists show is that death is both natural, unnatural, not always dignified, and cannot be censored because we are all vulnerable to it.

Illustration Index

Illustration 1: Andres Serrano, The Morgue (Jane Doe, Killed by Police) 1992

Illustration 2:Andres Serrano, The Morgue (Rat Poison Suicide, I) 1992

Illustration 3: Andres Serrano, The Morgue (Knifed to Death, II) 1992

Illustration 4: Damien Hirst, With Dead Head 1991

Illustration 5: Body Worlds by Gunther von Hagens

Illustration 6: Damian Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of someone Living, 1992.

Bibliography

Blume, Anna, “Andres Serrano”, BOMB Artists in Conversation, 1993.

Fitzpatrick, Andrea D. “Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue: Identity, Agency, Subjectivity”, RACAR XXXIII No. 1-2. (2008): 28-42.

Fok, Silvia. Life and Death: Art and the Body in Contemporary China, United Kingdom: intellect, The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Giovanni, Aloi. Art and Animals. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Hobbs, Robert, “Andres Serrano: The Body Politic” in Andres Serrano: Works 1983- 1993. University of Philadelphia: Institute Contemporary Art, 1994.

Linkman, Audrey. Photography and Death. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

O’Neill, Mary. Images of the Dead: Ethics and Contemporary Art Practice. in Cultural and Ethical Turns: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Culture, Politics and Ethics, ed. Robert Fisher and Daniel Riha, Oxford; United Kingdom: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2001.

 Hirst, Damien and Burn, Gordon. On the Way to Work. Universe Publishing, 2002.

Macnaughton, Jane, “Flesh Revealed: Medicine, Art and Anatomy” in The Body and the Arts, Corinne J. Saunders, Jane Macnaughton & Ulrika Maude, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Miah, A. “The Public Autopsy: Somewhere Between Art, Education, and Entertainment”, Jouranl of Medical Ethics, Vol. 30 (6)(2004): 576-579

Preub, Dirk. “Body Worlds: looking back and looking ahead”, Annals of Anatomy: Chair of Applied Ethics, Friedrich-Schiller-University, Zwatzengasse 3, (2008): 23-32.

Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva, “Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Freedom of Expression”, (London: The New Press, 2006), 255.

Tarlow, Sarah. “Damian Hirst insults the dignity of the dead” 22 July 2013. The Conversation, <http://theconversation.com/damien-hirst-insults-the-dignity-of-the-dead-16210>(15 June 2014).

Scarre, Chris, and Scarre, Geoffrey. The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, Cambridge: University Press, 2006.

Footnotes

[1] Mary O’Neill. “Images of the Dead: Ethics and Contemporary Art Practice” in Cultural and Ethical Turns: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Culture, Politics and Ethics, ed. Robert Fisher and Daniel Riha (Oxford, United Kingdom: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2001): 129.

 [2] Robert Hobbs, “Andres Serrano: The Body Politic” in Andres Serrano: Works 1983- 1993. (University of Philadelphia: Institute Contemporary Art 1994), 42.

[3] Andrea D. Fitzpatrick, “Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue: Identity, Agency, Subjectivity”, RACAR XXXIII No. 1-2. (2008): 28.

[4] Fitzpatrick, “Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue: Identity, Agency, Subjectivity”, 30.

[5] Fitzpatrick, “Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue: Identity, Agency, Subjectivity” 29.

[6] Fitzpatrick, “Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue: Identity, Agency, Subjectivity”, 28.

[7] Fitzpatrick, “Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue: Identity, Agency, Subjectivity”, 31.

[8] Fitzpatrick, “Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue: Identity, Agency, Subjectivity”, 39.

[9] Fitzpatrick, “Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano’s The Morgue: Identity, Agency, Subjectivity”, 38.

[10] Robert Hobbs, “Andres Serrano: The Body Politic”, 21.

[11] Sarah Tarlow. “Damian Hirst insults the dignity of the dead” The Conversation, (2013).

[12] Jane Macnaughton, “Flesh Revealed: medicine, Art and Anatomy” in The Body and the Arts, Corinne J. Saunders, Jane Macnaughton & Ulrika Maude, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 73.

[13] Jane Macnaughton, “Flesh Revealed: medicine, Art and Anatomy”, 74.

[14] Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, “On the Way to Work” (Universe Publishing, 2002): 36.

[15] Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, “On the Way to Work”, 22.

[16] Audrey Linkman, “Photography and Death” (London: Reaktion Books, 2011): 167.

[17] Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, “On the Way to Work”, 35.

[18] Chris Scarre and Geoffrey Scarre. “The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice(Cambridge: University Press, 2006): 124.

[19] Dirk Preub, “Body Worlds: looking back and looking ahead”, Annals of Anatomy: Chair of Applied Ethics, Friedrich-Schiller-University, Zwatzengasse 3, (2008): 23.

[20] Aloi, Giovanni, “ Art and Animals”, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 1.

[21] A Miah, “The public autopsy: somewhere between art, education, and entertainment” Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 30(6) (2004), 577.

[22] Preub, “Body Worlds: looking back and looking ahead”, 25.

[23] Dirk Preub, “Body Worlds: looking back and looking ahead”, 27.

[24] A Miah, “The public autopsy: somewhere between art, education, and entertainment”, 577.

[25] Silvia Fok, “Life and Death: Art and the Body in Contemporary China”, (United Kingdom: intellect, The University of Chicago Press, 2013): 77.

[26] Silvia Fok, “Life and Death: Art and the Body in Contemporary China”, 83.

[27] A Miah, “The public autopsy: somewhere between art, education, and entertainment”, 577.

[28] Anna Blume, “Andres Serrano”, BOMB Artists in Conversation, 1993.

[29] Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva, “Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Freedom of Expression”, (London: The New Press, 2006): 255.

– Jacqueline Johns

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s