week 4 \ the (a)morality of looking inside ourselves \ ben marafino

Art’s purpose is not simply aesthetic: it may also provoke controversy, but only - as I argue - from an incredibly shortsighted minority that concerns itself with tenuous matters of ethics. In this regard, art should enable us to examine our common humanity:  the human condition is experienced by all, uniquely inescapable, and thus all the more conducive to this sort of examination. Perhaps those two previous qualities may be disconcerting to some, as they raise difficult metaphysical questions: this may explain in part the existence of ‘bioconservatives,’ a curious turn of phrase which existence I wasn’t even aware of until now. The BodyWorlds exhibition certainly has and still continues to stoke these sorts of furors; for instance, religious figures have decried it for not showing ‘proper reverence’ for the human body. Just what does ‘proper reverence’ entail? For as long as we have been able to observe, a human body is simply a collection of tissue – ordered, yet nightmarishly complex, yes! – but not much more. One of the most beautiful things about the body is that it is extraordinarily amenable to the reductionist methods of science, as with all else that exists in nature. Spiritual and metaphysical matters, on the other hand, are not. To claim that we should be reverent of a body beyond matters of basic decency – which really apply only when the body itself is ‘alive’ and thus endowed with a ‘personhood,’ however you like to define it – is irrelevant and unnecessary.

To require the consent of the previous ‘owners’ of the bodies is a certainly reasonable compromise, but saying that a body has got an ‘owner’ certainly does sound a bit daft. A body is its owner, and vice versa – a distinction cannot generally be made except to satisfy some sort of ambiguous dualistic hope, a wish that the mind is somehow distinct from what is physical. Must we prostate ourselves to these issues of cosmic irrelevance, and in the process, lose sight of the beauty, the marvelousness of what we have got inside ourselves? The human body is indeed a rare thing in nature, but it is by no means the most complex or even the most numerous example of such a system. There exist things that we have discovered and deconstructed, as well as those the complexities of which we have not even imagined, and may not even come close to realising in our lifetimes. Is there really a better or more natural place to begin than with the investigation of the wondrous systems of the human body, including (but fortunately not limited to) the immune system, protein and signal transduction networks, and eventually, the brain – with all the attendant implications of such knowledge? Perhaps not, and this body art is just the beginning – a motivation, if you will. Artists, no matter their domain, should take it upon themselves to push the limits of inquiry, and in the process, to raise the questions which we mere mortals may have been afraid to raise. The more provocative their work, so the better.

(By the way, Bill Gates apparently released an angry pack of mosquitoes at his TED talk. Video nowhere to be found.)


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