This month an exhibition opened at the GV Art gallery in Marylebone, London, by American artist Andrew Krasnow, consisting of a sculpture of a heart made out of human skin. This is clearly intended to shock, and has attracted criticism from a number of sources including some US politicians. Krasnow seems keen to play on this, issuing statements to the effect that he only uses white skin since most of the suffering in America is caused by white people; which is silly, slightly racist and bound to upset someone.
Heart made from human skin by Andrew Krasnow.
Modern artists often insist that the purpose of art is to shock and provoke thought. Beyond the obvious fact that this is clearly wrong, since much perfectly good art does nothing of the sort (you may or may not like Constable, but his skill as an artist is hard to deny), it does occur that many artists have been relying on shock for over a century now, and that treading the same path as Mann Ray, Peiro Manzoni and Tracy Emin is not so much 'thought provoking' as 'safe'.
For art to have any real value as a thought provoking device it needs to extend beyond a gallery art enthusiasts go to be shocked in a safe environment and reach a wider audience. Thus Dickens and Hardy were able to shock a wide audience by inserting images of searing poverty into novels and HG Wells could shock by describing the fall of the British Empire in a science fiction story. Of course these artists also created paths that have become well worn by others; storytellers still use poverty to shock (Ben Okri's Famished Road, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire) or hide disturbing thoughts in science fiction (James Cameron's Avatar, Neill Blomkamp's District 9). The most shocking form of art we encounter in our daily lives is probably photojournalism, which brings us face-to-face with disturbing facts about the world we live in, rather than concept based instillation art like Krasnow's.
This image by photojournalist Jodi Bieber, of a young Afghan woman who had had her nose cut off for leaving her husband, is incredibly powerful and reached a very wide audience, appearing on the cover of Time, a magazine that appears on newsstands throughout the world, and winning the prestigious World Press Photo award.
All of which is slightly beside the point. I am not, and do not pretend to be, an art expert. What did strike me about the Krasnow exhibition however was the statement to the effect that Krasnow used skin from bodies donated to science. Donating one's body to science is a highly commendable thing to do. Much of our modern medical knowledge comes from work by anatomists, and work on bodies has become essential in fields such as forensics. But donating your body to science is not the same as just saying you do not want it anymore so you don't mind what happens to it. If we give money to a charity collector who turns out to be spending the money themselves we become upset, and possibly call the police. Worse still we may become discouraged from making future charitable donations. The same surely applies to donating a body to science. It might be that Krasnow specifically obtains permission from his subjects before they pass away, but this is not obvious. By stating that he uses material from bodies donated to science Krasnow may be discouraging other people from donating their bodies to science, thereby denying resources to scientists working for the greater good of all humanity. Which would of course be shocking.