Is it wrong to use a dead body for art?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Anthony-Noel Kelly, the sculptor whose case is currently before a magistrates' court in London, attracted a lot of media attention in April when he was arrested for the possession of human remains. His aristocratic background (cousin of the Duke of Norfolk), the fact that human remains were found at his country seat as well as his south London studio, and the opportunity to drag Prince Charles's name into the story (Kelly is a tutor at the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture) provided an irresistible combination of circumstances for some areas of the press. But this is an important case, posing questions about the role of death in art and, crucially for Kelly, the role of the artist in death.

Why are his activities regarded as bizarre and gruesome? Is it more acceptable for doctors and scientists to have access to human body tissue for their work than artists? What are the precedents for Kelly's kind of work, and why should anyone want to do it now?

The practice of taking casts of dead human tissue (Kelly's method) has a long history. Until the Anatomy Act of 1832 the flayed bodies of recently executed criminals were often cast in plaster for anatomical study by both science and art students. William Burke who, with William Hare, murdered 17 people in 1827 to sell their corpses to Dr Knox's anatomy school in Edinburgh, was himself publicly dissected following his execution and his body exhibited to an estimated 40,000 people. You can still see it in the anatomy school today, since the judge passing sentence ordered that it should remain in constant use. At the Wellcome Institute's recent Dr Death exhibition you could also examine a small card case, one of several such items made at the time, bound in Burke's tanned skin.

Visitors to the Reynolds exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1986 passed straight from the artist's palette to the cast of a flayed body, the corpse of a man reputedly hanged for smuggling. The purpose of this object, originally made in 1751 and cast according to the neo-classical fashion of the day in the heroic pose of a dying gladiator, was for the study of anatomy at the Academy.

Another cast of a flayed corpse, taken for more bizarre reasons in 1801, was later on view at Kenwood House. This was cast at the express wish of three academicians in order to resolve an argument about the anatomical veracity of the depiction of the crucified Christ by old masters. The still-warm body of executed murderer James Legg was nailed to a cross, suspended, and cast when it cooled. The academicians were pleased to find they were right, the old masters often wrong.

The interest in the body - live and dead - in contemporary art is not new in essence, only in context. That Kelly should have made a plaster death mask of his grandmother's face would once not have been considered unnatural at all. In 1633 Venetia Digby's grieving husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, commissioned Van Dyck to make preparatory drawings for her posthumous portrait, in situ, "the second day after she was dead". Van Dyck's portrait was the centrepiece of an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1995 and appeared on all the posters. Yet Kelly's integrity and taste are questioned when he exhibits, even on a small scale, sculptures that also represent the recognisable features of the dead taken from death masks.

We seem readier to accept art based on similar material when it is magically sanitised by the passage of time. Last month's Ancient Faces exhibition at the British Museum, full of haunting portraits of the dead from Roman Egypt and their mummy cases, shrouds and other objects, was a charnel house of stolen bodies. We were moved, but only after complacently laying aside any qualms about the ethics of moving ancient corpses from their hallowed resting ground.

Perhaps we are also uneasy about the idea of a price tag being attached to the art of death. Would this be an issue if Van Dyck's portrait of Venetia came up for sale? Until a couple of years ago you could buy replica death masks of William Blake and John Keats at the National Portrait Gallery shop. If they had only just died, would we have been happy to buy them?

The relationship between the living and the dead was raised in connection with the Kelly case. How would grieving relatives and friends feel if they recognised the features of the deceased in a work of art? For Sir Kenelm Digby this was a positive aspect of Venetia's portrait, made to remind him of the physical presence of the woman he loved at the point of her dissolution.

If, in acquiring the materials for his sculptures, Kelly has broken the law, then he is as answerable to its process as any responsible adult. Judging from his published comments ("I am not a monster, I am an artist, trying to co-operate with the police") he is aware of this. The 1832 Anatomy Act was meant to halt abuse of and profiteering from the dead, primarily for the purposes of medical science. But apart from allegations that Kelly has broken the law, his work appears to have transgressed other, much less easily definable "moral" laws regarding the suitable treatment of a corpse.

We probably all have differing ideas about this depending on our background and outlook. These ideas are no longer so clearly defined by religious and social guidelines as they once were. The legally sanctioned practice of dissecting the corpses of executed criminals dates from the early 16th century. It is an extension of society's moral attitude to criminals, which also allowed their bodies to be drawn and quartered. This terrifying judgement was intended to ensure that there was a fate worse than death: that there could be no possible resurrection on the Day of Judgment. .

What then is the acceptable use of the body in art and science now? How do we protect not just the public but also the individual scientists and artists? Much of the anxiety associated with Kelly's case seems to arise from the fact that he operates as a private individual, rather than in an official capacity as part of an institution. The Victorian framework for artists to work legitimately with corpses has largely fallen into disuse this century, as the rise of modernism has eroded the tradition of "objective" anatomical study in art schools. It seems that Kelly's taste in choosing, literally, to live with the dead, and his apparent ease with human decay, have brought his professionalism into question. Do we fear that he may have unacceptable motives for his activities, which only masquerade as art? No such suspicion attached to the academicians who were allowed to have a man's corpse crucified to settle a mere argument.

Kelly's published statements suggest an artist who is trying to make art that addresses the human condition. He says he attempts to dignify and immortalise the state of human decay after death; that he believes beauty may reside there and, to find it, takes casts of dead human tissue which he embellishes with precious metals. Beauty? Investigations into the corpse? Precious metals to connote value and longevity? When did we last hear of an artist publicly admitting to a quest for beauty? This is the shock of the old, not the new.

The urge to make art that inquires into the workings of the human body, its vulnerability and mortality, is as pertinent now, when medicine and science have so altered our expectations and experiences of life, illness, beauty, ageing and death, as it has ever been. If the relationship between art, science, society and death has become unbalanced it must be restored. Now is the very time to reconsider the social and legal framework in which artists may continue an age-old tradition in a legitimate and responsible manner.

The writer is a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and Winchester School of Art. This article appears in the current issue of the `New Statesman'.