|06-02-2003, 03:47 AM||#1|
Join Date: Dec 2002
Is the Body More Beautiful When It's Dead?
June 1, 2003
By ELEANOR HEARTNEY
Unless the Ohio Supreme Court takes his case, the
Cincinnati photographer Thomas Condon will soon be
returning to jail for corpse abuse. The crime conjures
unsavory images of Victorian grave robbery and necrophilia.
Mr. Condon said his intention, however, was to create works
The case touches on American culture's ambivalence toward
death, public suspicion of "crazy" artists and questions of
privacy and free speech. It also shines the spotlight on
Cincinnati's contentious relationship to contemporary art.
In 1990, Cincinnati prosecutors tried Dennis Barrie, then
the director of the Contemporary Arts Center, on obscenity
charges for hanging a controversial retrospective of Robert
Mapplethorpe's photographs. (He was acquitted.) In 1995,
the city prosecuted the Pink Pyramid bookshop for renting
out a video of Pasolini's 1975 <object.title class="Movie"
idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="42652">"Salo, or the 120 Days of
Sodom."</object.title> (The Pyramid paid a $500 fine in a
In this case, Mr. Condon, 30, was arrested after a
commercial film developer gave police a set of negatives
taken at the Hamilton County morgue. Mr. Condon, who had
been negotiating with the coroner's office about making a
training film, said he took the pictures for a private art
project. He photographed corpses juxtaposed with various
objects signifying the cycle of life and death. Some of the
confiscated negatives were mysteriously leaked to the local
press, inciting a public furor as relatives of the deceased
and local pundits denounced Mr. Condon's project as "sick"
Despite support from civil libertarian groups like the
National Coalition Against Censorship, Mr. Condon was
convicted and imprisoned from April to August 2002, after
which he was released pending appeal. Now a state appeals
court has affirmed his conviction, meaning he may face
another 13 months in jail.
The complicated legal issues revolve around questions like:
Did the artist have permission to take photographs? Was
permission needed? Can a photographer be held responsible
for the unauthorized publication of his images? (Mr. Condon
said he intended to crop out all identifying details.) Does
photographing dead bodies in the company of objects like
shells and sheet music constitute desecration?
>From an aesthetic point of view, things are much simpler.
Mr. Condon's project is part of a well-established artistic
tradition. Dead bodies appear in everything from medieval
tomb sculpture to Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson" and Goya's
"Disasters of War." The case is even clearer for
photography. During the Victorian era, photographs of
family members on their death beds, often arranged as if
they were merely sleeping, were exchanged by relatives and
friends, made into postcards and encased in lockets. The
darker side of death was chronicled by photojournalists
like the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, whose
gruesome images of dead soldiers were widely reproduced in
illustrated weeklies. In the 30's and 40's, Weegee gained
acclaim for photographs of murdered gangsters lying in
pools of blood.
Sometime in the middle of the 20th century, things changed.
As death was relocated from home to hospital, post-mortem
photographs began to disappear. Survivors were counseled to
"move on" and avoid morbid attachments to the dead.
Standards of taste shifted. Life magazine got into trouble
in 1943 when it published a photograph by George Stock of
three American soldiers killed in World War II. Weegee
retired from the crime beat for a more respectable career
as an art photographer. By 1969, in her groundbreaking book
"On Death and Dying," Elisabeth Kübler-Ross could write
that death is a "dreaded and unspeakable issue to be
avoided by every means possible in modern society."
This issue came dramatically to the fore during the Iraq
war, when American photographers and news outlets revisited
a problem raised earlier in Vietnam and Somalia and
grappled with the question of how graphic their coverage
should be. In a report on National Public Radio, David
Leeson, a senior photographer for The Dallas Morning News,
discussed his inability to photograph a civilian casualty.
He said, "This man had been shot behind the wheel of his
car and when I got to the car he had no face. It just
didn't seem fitting for human life to be photographed in
that state. So, I just didn't do it. I walked away from it
and went and found something else to photograph." In the
end, American audiences saw far less explicit imagery than
their European and Arabic counterparts.
Yet this sensitivity exposes a contradiction in
contemporary culture, part of which also finds a
voyeuristic thrill in images of death presented in a pop
context. One of HBO's top-rated series, "Six Feet Under,"
takes place in a funeral home. Popular film directors like
Quentin Tarantino and Wes Craven bury appreciative
audiences in gore and body parts. "Body Worlds," an
exhibition in London last year of real flayed bodies
stiffened with plasticine and arranged in lifelike poses,
drew 840,000 visitors.
These mixed messages have made death an almost irresistible
subject for artists seeking to get under the skin of a
complacent society. One of the most remarked upon works of
the last Whitney Biennial was A. A. Bronson's photograph
"Felix Partz, June 5, 1994," which presented his friend and
partner moments after his death from AIDS. Mr. Partz's eyes
are still open, gazing from a skeletal face whose starkness
contrasts oddly with the gaudy mix of patterns and colors
in the surrounding bedclothes. Likening the picture to
medieval funerary sculptures depicting the dead in early
stages of decomposition, Mr. Bronson said: "The image
becomes universal. It is about the death that each of us
must face, our own death."
References to traditional Christian images of death
reappear in the work of the photographer Andres Serrano,
whom Mr. Condon cites as an important influence. Mr.
Serrano's `Morgue Series" are lush photographs of bodies in
an unidentified morgue that have been cropped to echo
Renaissance representations of themes like the Nativity or
the Deposition of Christ. Despite the often grisly
circumstances of death, Mr. Serrano invests these images
with a luminous beauty, reminding us that in the Christian
tradition, death is simply a threshold between two states
of being. He said in an interview: "I never saw the bodies
as cadavers or corpses. I called them my models, my
subjects. I was interested in the way they still had a
human presence, that something of their soul was intact."
Other artists find inspiration in the field of medicine,
which, many have argued, serves as secular society's
substitute for religion. This approach is evident in
"Mütter Museum," a recently published book filled with
beautiful photographs of dead bodies, medical abnormalities
and assorted body parts. A production of the Mütter Museum,
a 19th-century style medical museum maintained by the
College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the book chronicles
the institution's long and fruitful interaction with
Gretchen Wordon, director of the museum and author of the
book, said, "Artists come to the collection for different
reasons - some are fascinated with death, deterioration,
deformity, while others are interested in the presentation
of the past, or the inherent beauty of the body."
Paradoxically, she argues, "there is even more beauty in a
body which is no longer living. There is no pretense. It
says: this will be you someday, just as this was someone."
Allan Ludwig, in collaboration with his wife, Gwen Akin,
has created numerous photographs that play the romantic
beauty of the platinum print process against morbid subject
matter like the Mütter's sliced heads in formaldehyde or
skeletons of fused twins. He sees a double standard in the
raised eyebrows. "If this is done under the cloak of
science it becomes palatable," he said. "Scientists get a
cultural free pass. They say they are not interested in
macabre stuff but there they are in the lab sawing skulls
DO artists have a different set of responsibilities when it
comes to death? The artist Alfredo Jaar suggests they do.
In 1994 he went to Rwanda to document the aftermath of the
genocidal massacres between Hutus and Tutsis. But after
taking more than 3,000 photographs, he decided not to show
them. He had seen many images of Rwanda victims in the
European (though not the American) press. He said: "Now, I
said to myself, I have the same kind of images. But these
no longer provoke any reaction. I need to create a new
strategy of representation." So he enclosed the photographs
in black boxes and attached a written description of the
hidden images. In so doing, he said, "I hoped that words
would help people focus on the real meaning of images that
had been decontextualized by the media."
In the end, it would appear that Mr. Condon's real crime
was to meddle with a set of unspoken cultural taboos in a
city that does not take such matters lightly. Death at a
historical or emotional remove may provide safe
entertainment, but death in actual fact still scares us.
Mr. Condon began with very different expectations. "I
wanted to help people come to an acceptance that this is
what the body is," he said. "The body represents a life
lived. It's a road map to the person's life. When the body
is opened up and exposed this way, its a very beautiful
Eleanor Heartney is the author of ``Post modern Heretics:
The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art,'' to be
published in February by Midmarch Arts Press.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
T. S. Eliot
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