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 and the smoke screens.
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
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 color or sell it to someone, within the appropriate legal conditions: signing a contract, transferring the title, et-cetera. 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.
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.
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been replaced by chemicals.”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.
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, neighbors, friends and enemies!)
and if a mere one of them would object then the body ought not to be
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).
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?
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 realize 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
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.)
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.
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 defenseless), and that is exactly the case here: life as well as a deceased have the of dignity that is defenseless: 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.
These are the arguments, whether or not explicitly proffered, with which BODIES forces us into defense:
Who are we to object to all this? We must be well-off to oppose the mechanisms of liberal capitalism.
In which situation (if ever?) is it morally in order to trade your body? (1c.)
"Everything of value is defenseless"
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.
© 1996-2007 Rob van Gerwen. All rights reserved.
note: this was originally published in Dutch on Rob Van Gerwen's blog on November 14, 2006. We are grateful for Professor Van Gerwen's permission to post the article, which he kindly translated.
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