1545 woodcut by Charles Estienne.
Talmida has written a good post on the "Our Body: the Universe Within" exhibit in Detroit, inspiring me to post something I've been thinking about for some time. There is a similar exhibit in New York, in which supposedly "unclaimed or unidentified corpses from China" are displayed dramatically, posed in regular human activity, skinned, and often cut to reveal different anatomical features. This "educational" activity can be experienced at the South Street Seaport for the modest price of $27, and yours truly is forced to see the ads, complete with corpses, on buses and in the subway.
I have been surprised by the lack of controversy about the exhibit. The comments section of the article I linked to above
shows for the most part a concern about the origin of the bodies, but not about the idea of publicly displaying the physical remains of fellow human beings for the sake of entertainment. I have difficulty with the idea that this is purely educational. Would people pay $27 to see, for example, identical plastic reproductions of this exhibit, or an exhibit featuring only animals? I think morbid curiosity might have more to do with the success of the show that interest in anatomy.
There is something very revealing about our society in the fact that we can pay money to see human remains imported from China, just another consumer product that we feel we have a right to enjoy because we can afford it. I can imagine people who have enjoyed the exhibit reading this and thinking that I am a moralizing killjoy, or perhaps an anti-modern obscurantist. No -- there are times, as Talmida suggested, when the donation of a body is a gift of mercy, either to provide the ill with new organs, or to teach medical students who truly need to see the real thing to learn how to save lives. This exhibit, however, is deeply dehumanizing. In the end, the bodies are slashed and flayed like cuts of meat, and, most tellingly, the faces are removed. There is no sign that these were living, breathing individuals with families and dreams and personalities -- which should be enough to make you pause, even if you're not religious. If you are, think about what the exhibit promoters have done to the imago Dei. The depersonalized sons and daughters of God in this show are frightening metaphors for what our technological and commercial society does to all of us -- it divides us into soulless products and consumers.
"But Liam," someone may protest, "you blog about relics all the time. Isn't it hypocritical of you to complain that something is morbid?" Well, I certainly understand that a lot of people will not see eye-to-eye with me about relics, but even though we are talking about the public exposition of body parts, they have little to do with this show. The relic affirms two things: it exalts the individual whose relic it is, and it points to the glory and eventual permanence of the redeemed human body. When we see a relic, if we believe the theology behind it, we are reminded of the life, character, and deeds of the saint in question; and we gaze upon something that will one day be in paradise. The faceless corpses in the exhibit suggest that human beings are so much meat to be bought by the highest bidder, then to be flayed, cut and posed for our entertainment and eventually, one may suppose, be discarded when no longer profitable.
We need to remember that we are human beings.