When good taste is a straitjacket called good taste

It's not so long since curiosity about surgery was the hallmark of a cultivated mind. By Mark Irving There's nothing wrong with wanting to see the video 'Everyday Operations', says Mark Irving
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The Independent Online
"Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect," said Dr Johnson. Curiosity has come under considerable fire this past week in the controversy over the infamous video Everyday Operations. "We certainly shouldn't be frightened of curiosity," one newspaper declared, before recommending that buyers of the video should be held up for ridicule. But in all the outrage, the issue of exploitation has become muddled with that of public taste and this has laid critics of the video open to the charge of hypocrisy.

The former is a relatively straightforward matter for legal inquiry - did the doctors and patients agree to feature in a publicly-available film? The arguments about the latter - the question of taste - have been intriguing. They reveal how thoroughly, in this country, we have erased inquiry into the workings of the human body from the brief of amateur intellectual curiosity. "Amateur" is a key word here, for once it was decided that the video had little to teach the medical profession, it was deemed that any other interest in it would have to be perverse.

Who on earth, the argument ran, would have an interest in "53 minutes of flesh-slicing" if they weren't professional snippers of human tissue themselves? Surely such grisly material is fit only for those trained to see it? Is it not outrageous that such raw evidence of our feeble mortality should be publicly available? Etc. "Justified curiosity" in this context is an impossibility, an oxymoron, apparently. But can we really police curiosity?

The panic about this video, curiously British in its moral tone, has masked a certain confusion.Commentators have struggled, and failed, to mark clear distinctions along the sliding scale that includes intellectually- motivated curiosity, voyeurism and exploitation. In any case, if the film's makers are to be believed (and here I must confess to not having seen it) there has been no actual invasion of privacy since the identities of both doctors and patients are unclear. To be shamed or embarrassed, surely you must be identified. With faces hidden under equipment or behind green masks, the operating theatre must be one of the most anonymous places one can be.

But it is the motives of those behind the camera that are deemed most suspect (no one doubts those behind the doctors' masks), since it is the idea of commercial gain from such material which has so shocked people. The video's supposed confusion of purpose - education or entertainment - has been made all the more acute by the very nature of the medium. Placing the film on video cassette - a technology linked in many minds with pornography - has meant that its contents can be seen at home in the living-room as well as in the doctor's surgery or the lecture theatre.

And the British are not to be trusted when at home. To watch Everyday Operations at home is to be immediately suspect. Your home may be your castle, but, say our moral guardians, it is very likely to be your sleazy sex pit as well. We are all, they insist, irrepressible Frankensteins underneath, with more interest in the slab in the lab than is good for us.

Such hysteria over the display and investigation of the human body in our society today is clearly absurd. Of course, it does not help one's case that this video's producers also came up with the unjustifiable Executions. But even so, the idea that watching surgical procedures on video should be considered tantamount to criminal perversion is bizarre when set against the history of anatomy and its peculiar relationship to public spectacle.

Take Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, a staple of art historical discourse and a work of acknowledged sophistication. Painted in 1632, it was the artist's first public commission in Amsterdam, then the throbbing commercial hub of Northern Europe. It depicts the surgeon Nicolaes Tulp in the act of demonstrating the working movements of a corpse's hand both to a crowd of his colleagues and to the viewers of the painting. Like many others of its genre, it is fastidious as far as corporeal detail is concerned. In depicting an anatomical dissection - an event which took place fairly regularly in the city's Anatomical Theatre and which could be attended by the fee-paying public - the painting performs a clear educational function.

But it is also far more than that. It also represents a piece of calculated theatre. Rembrandt has resisted the traditional compositional mould of this genre of group portraiture and has instead created a work of dynamic rhetorical impact designed to demonstrate Tulp's stature as a sophisticated man with the intellectual and technical competence necessary to explore the mysteries of the human body, and to explain them to his professional colleagues and Amsterdam society in general.

Which is exactly what Tulp wanted. For this painting is a profoundly political work, one designed to increase his chances of being elected burgomaster or town council leader (he succeeded, and remained in power for more than 20 years) in a society that prized intellectual power as a form of nobility.

That Tulp should be demonstrating the mechanics of the human hand is also significant, since it was known that Aristotle held the hand to be the counterpart of human reason. Of course, deft use of the hand is also of critical importance to the artist, as Rembrandt would have been keen to demonstrate. Thus intellectual curiosity, social ambitions and a desire to play to the crowd are all underlying themes in this painting which we praise as a work of high art.

It is not that I want to equate the content of Everyday Operations with the artistry of Rembrandt. It is rather that this painting reminds us how complex the issues are surrounding the public display of the human body, its relationship to notions of public decency and its role as an effective forum for the demonstration of intellectual curiosity. Just as some people are revolted by the performance work of the French artist Orlan, who films herself as she subjects herself to cosmetic surgery, so some will find the idea of an interest in anatomical procedure offensive. But it was not so long ago that such curiosity was deemed the hallmark of the cultivated man.

The curiosity has not disappeared. You have only to channel-hop between the countless hospital documentary programmes and drama serials on television to see how medicine still fascinates us, even if the bodies and the gore are (usually) kept prudishly out of our view. But we abhor this video because it falls in between the categories we like to use: it does not fit neatly into "educational viewing", but nor is it "entertainment". Unlike Rembrandt's painting or the CD-Roms on the human body now available, it has not been mediated by oil paint or multimedia interfaces. Instead, the reaction to it has shown how, in this country, we have allowed the intellectual freedom so valued by Dr Johnson to be constricted by what is called good taste.