Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sweet Sweetback

Tattoos as art? How about live pigs? The definition of art is a hard one to nail down, but I have come to learn that it has more to do with the process and less with the finished product. That is, an artist starts with a thought, a theory or a practice, and sees how far he or she can stretch it.

The NPR show All Things Considered recently aired a show about Belgian artist Wim Delvoye who incorporates tattooing into his art pieces. Two of his works discussed were a back piece on a live man—a sort of compendium of tattoo’s history—and some tattooed pigs, now forever studded with Disney characters and Louis Vuitton logos. The pigs are an apparent anti-consumerist message, though they were removed from the Shanghai show for not being “art.” The gentleman with the back piece, however, was considered art, and now sits in galleries taking off his shirt.

What may be most shocking is that the piece has been bought by a collector. When this man dies, his back skin will be cut off, stretched onto a canvas, and framed. The collector must wait patiently for his expensive purchase until then.

Morbid? Yes (though much great art possesses a tinge of morbidity). Kinda gross? Maybe. The thought of a human-skin canvas can conjure some pretty horrific images. I keep thinking of the Necronomicon from Evil Dead. It also conjures some questions. What are the moral ramifications of such a piece? Is it cannibalism—or recycling? And finally, is it art?

I know people who have had stunning tattoo work done. But somehow I can’t see swatches of their bodies being sold off for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Delvoye answers that his piece is art particularly because it has sold for that kind of sum—a dangerous sentiment, I believe, that turns art into a commodity, much like the Louis Vuitton handbags Delvoye himself mocks.

Art pieces may be bought and sold for large sums of money, but art is something beyond price. A piece created out of thought, performed with care and talent, that communicates something new to its audience, can be considered art whether it costs millions or nothing at all. Let’s keep that in mind before we start selling off our skin.

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