From the BBC, we have this story of a mother who decided to look like her daughter. Twelve thousand British pounds and at least four surgeries later, she achieved her goal.
This isn’t the world’s newest story. When I was 16, I met a mother and daughter who had had hers-and-hers nose jobs to “look like each other.” (The real goal was to “look less Jewish,” but they would never have said that.) Full body mods aren’t new; we just have more and more sophisticated techniques for them.
In this story, Janet Cunliffe had a bad relationship breakup in her late 40s and was feeling bad about herself. Looking at her daughter made her feel better, so she set out to make herself feel better from top to bottom.
I can’t fault an individual for making a choice that gives her self-esteem and satisfaction. At the same time, I’m also aware that whatever she did to keep herself from looking 50, she didn’t change the fact that her body is aging. Unless something much worse happens first, the day is coming when Jane Cunliffe (the daughter) will have to watch her mother get old and eventually die, and no amount of plastic surgery postpones that experience. (Janet Cunliffe is fortunate that her surgery doesn’t appear to have hastened it.)
More and more, we live in a world where, if you have money, you can decide how you want to look. The simple nose job is a thing of the past, and has been replaced by “fine art” plastic surgery, as evidenced by this (videotape and photography only, thank goodness!) gallery exhibit in New York City’s fashionable Tribeca district.
The curator is a plastic surgeon who has training as an architect, experience as a medical illustrator and a busy practice in northern New Jersey. Along with his own work he has selected that of three colleagues: an Italian specialist in pediatric plastic surgery; a partner in the Cosmetic Surgery Center of Maryland and a breast surgery specialist who also paints, sculptures and collects art; and another New Jerseyite, with a particular interest in body contouring, a sideline in painting and drawing, and a membership in the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
Not caring to advertise these surgeons, I’ve taken their names out of that paragraph.
How is their art, which is also their surgery, best described? The human body is their medium, the operating room their studio. The tools of their craft include multifarious cutting, clamping, probing and sewing devices, as well as digital and laser technologies. Most of the work that results is a living art.
For purposes of a gallery display, however, we get photographs and videos of those bodies, often seen before, during and after surgery, in the process of being patched and stitched, augmented or reduced, subtly adjusted or utterly transformed.
Holland Cotter, New York Times art critic, sums up the exhibit:
Personally, I have no problem with accepting the work in “I Am Art” as art. A thing of beauty is a joy, whether forever or for a day, and if a doctor-artist can turn you into one, that’s art to me. And if he can rescue a body from serious ruin and a soul from despair, God bless him; he’s as good as Michelangelo. Does he cater to the rich and charge too much? Check out all the drecky Picassos still selling for huge prices at auction. Do all those nose jobs look pretty much alike? Check out paintings in Chelsea galleries these days.
The big problem with the Apexart show, as least for certain sensitive types, is looking at some of it. Dr. Cohen’s pictures of breast enhancement are as agreeable as lingerie advertisements, but his colleagues deliver some pretty strong stuff. Many artists do their work in private and give you only a final, polished product, leaving the scraps, scrapings and splots on the studio floor. Here you get the whole schmeer — the blood, the guts, the slice, the equivalent of Counter-Reformation paintings of martyrdoms, but with real bodies.
These two stories feel like the same story to me: they’re about wanting the results without confronting the underlying truths. Leaving aside the standard rants about culturally simplified definitions of beauty, prejudice against aging, class divisions in who can have this, and so forth, I’m left pondering two questions:
First is how much does changing our looks, fundamentally changing our looks, really change who we are and what’s in store for us? And second is what does it mean to look at perfectly sculpted bodies without looking at what it takes to get them there? When I saw America the Beautiful I was struck by the clip showing a woman whose simple facelift left her in permanent nerve pain; that story doesn’t get told often enough.
There’s an old dictum that laws and sausages are better if you don’t see how they’re made. Maybe “conventionally beautiful faces and bodies” are being added to that list. In this context, I’m actually rather grateful to the plastic surgeons for including the disquieting bits in their exhibit.
Thanks to Kerry Ellis for the Cunliffe pointer.