Illustrated Men and Women: Body Art — Is It Really?

…the man was a walking treasure gallery. This wasn’t the work of a cheap carnival tattoo man with three colors and whiskey on his breath. This was the accomplishment of a living genius, vibrant, clear, and beautiful. – Ray Bradbury

…the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. – Walt Whitman

Imagine that a reputable institute of higher education, let’s call it Edgewood College, is debating whether or not to initiate a new degree program for “Body Art.” Such an initiative would call for a curriculum drawing primarily from the departments of fine arts and pre-med, setting up a marriage, in a sense, of the arts and science. Graduates will have practiced safe, hygienic surgery techniques and gained a degree of aesthetic sensibility at the same time.

This has not happened yet, at least not to my knowledge. However, I have little doubt that such a program would be of great interest to young people. The college would likely see a spike in applications as hitherto disenfranchised youth begin to think about how a formal education might actually benefit them. Of course, from the college’s perspective, such a new line of student/customers would be most appealing in terms of revenue. Despite problematic issues regarding admission standards for this new brand of non-traditional student, administrators would likely find a way to get them in, boosting enrollment numbers and possibly securing more government funding.

Of course this would be a controversial proposal on many fronts, and foremost would be the debate over whether or not tattooing should qualify as a fine art. But before venturing into that complex philosophical realm of the definition of art, it might serve to look at the issue through a sociological and psychological lens: why has tattooing (along with other forms of “body art”) gained so much popularity and social acceptance, especially over the last decade?

Historically, there is evidence of tattooing dating back 5000 years, when, according to archaeologist Don Brothwell, Otzi (the mummified “Ice Man”) might have used it as a kind of therapy for joint pain, a practice similar to acupuncture. Mummies of three 4000-year-old Egyptian women reveal tattoos on their thighs, possibly a mark of ownership or status. Our modern sense of the history is derived from Captain James Cook’s excursions into Polynesia in the 18th century, particularly Samoa. The popular understanding was that, among men, the tattoo was a status symbol that communicated a particular aspect of his disposition, character, or accomplishments, often taking the form of an animal or sea creature. Beginning at puberty, females were likely to be tattooed on their extremities, which enhanced their attractiveness and signaled their readiness to participate in cultural activities.

In general, tattoos and other forms of body art have been used for purposes of identity, status, and entertainment. Prisoners and social outcasts were branded. Sailors tattooed themselves so that they could be identified if their dead bodies washed up on shore (and perhaps to while away the monotony of sailing). Warriors flaunted them as symbols of their prowess. In Pagan culture, dancers and actors used them to define their roles in dramatic or religious ceremonies. However, despite the myriad and wide-spread uses, body art was prohibited by Christians and, until recently, generally considered averse to mainstream culture and indicative of immoral, marginalized citizenry.

I grew up when a select few kinds of people dared to alter their bodies: sailors (for reasons described above), idealistic lovers (inscribed with the lover’s name and “forever”), ex-convicts, veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars, and “greasers” (typically teenagers from low income, often dysfunctional homes who clung to the old styles in spite of the socialites, hippies, yippies, yuppies and whatever other new chic came along). The one common characteristic among all these was that they purported to march to the beat of their different drummers and didn’t give a damn what the common person thought about them. Today it seems almost the opposite.

I wonder about the reasons for such physical self-alteration in today’s America. Beyond the general social acceptance, I can think of several ego-related possibilities:

  • Self-deprecation – I am dissatisfied with or ashamed of my appearance, and the idea of changing it can only be an improvement. And I will be stronger because I am not afraid.
  • Self-aggrandizement or narcissism – I am already beautiful and this, my own artistic choice, is the icing on the cake.
  • I am competitive and want to one-up the next person, and I will go to extremes to alter my appearance and separate myself from the pack. I will be the Most Different!
  • Celebrity and bandwagon appeal – if Chris “Birdman” Anderson is doing it, then I should follow suit. Everyone who I think is cool is doing it.
  • Rebellion I – I hate my parents and my teachers, and they hate body art. This will make them rue the day they stifled my creativity. Their suffering will be my victory.
  • Rebellion II – Despite what anyone or any group thinks or says about me, I am not afraid to alter my appearance permanently and show my conviction to the image I have created for myself. This is my story, and I’m sticking with it.
  • Rebellion III – Organized religion, which touts the body as a temple wherein cleanliness is next to godliness, is a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites; I make my own temple!
  • Aesthetic sensibility – I believe body art is a marvelous art form. There are numerous examples of excellent piercing and tattooing that are pleasing to my eyes and inspiring to my soul.

Moreover, I participate in the artistic process by instructing the artist and by exhibiting the work.

In the classical sense, approved categories of the arts include music, painting, sculpture, drama, architecture, and dance. With advances in technology, new categories or subcategories will arise. But all will face the same difficulty in terms of assessing the quality of individual works of art: the evaluation of art is highly subjective, with very little quantifiable or objective criteria to judge by.

Because there is no final word among philosophers on what constitutes real art, I’ve attempted to form my own generic (and fallible) set of criteria. (Note that I lean on Dennis Dutton and a consensus from other philosophers.)

  1. The work of art or performance stands as evidence of high-level skills of the artist. Creating a symphony requires great ability on the part of the musician/composer in terms of his “inner” ear and his ability to create manuscript. The painter must have a deft hand and sharp eye. The playwright must have insight into human behavior and a slick way with words.
  2. The work or performance is an example of a particular prescribed style. It adheres to standards of composition within a particular artistic category. A painting must have paint on it. A musical composition must have instrumentation. A sculpture must be three-dimensional and composed of solid material.
  3. It must be subject to criticism or some kind of societal interpretation. Especially in free societies, the people may decide the value of a work of art.
  4. It transmits a sense of pure pleasure (or other emotional response) that goes beyond the five senses and is not dependent on intellectual awareness. The audience reacts based on the artistic forms employed. Barber’s Adagio for Strings elicits an ineffable sense of sublime beauty. Picasso’s Guernica somehow disturbs us even if we know nothing about the atrocity it represents. The Statue of Liberty inspires us not only because of its symbolism, but by virtue of its magnificence.
  5. It conveys the feelings of its creator as a consequence of the historical and cultural milieu in which he or she worked. It represents something that is happening or has happened at a particular time and place and cannot be extricated from the intent of the artist (despite the theory that the art ultimately sheds the artist like an old coat). Dickens and Blake are not to be removed from their respective Londons.
  6. It is uplifting on some moral and/or personal level. There must by a kind of buy-in on the part of the audience that embraces the work as worthy of attention and praise. It speaks to one’s super-ego, to one’s sense of what is meaningful and true and right.
  7. It is more than an artificial representation of reality. Contrary to Plato’s teachings of art being twice removed from Reality, it can serve as a gateway to the realization of some Truth about the mysteries of the universe, even if only through a fleeting glimpse. On some metaphysical or extra-sensory level, art may serve to transport us, or even, as Aristotle suggested, to heal us through a sort of catharsis. Through Wagner, I witnessed the terrible power of Darkness. Through the Moody Blues, I almost met God!

Beyond all this, most of us agree that great art will stand the test of time. It is destined to be sung throughout the records of human experience, and be almost as relevant today as it was when it was created. Therefore, it must be somehow preserve-able as well as representative of universal awareness.

So the question remains for our Edgewood College: is body art a legitimate art form? Does it convey the kinds of emotional and intellectual responses elicited by the works of Beethoven and Van Gogh? Or even of the Beatles?

Or is it a mere fad that has come in and out throughout man’s history of self-imaging? Is its recent surge in popularity evidence of the latest version of a hedonistic, narcissistic social trend that flouts organized religion and moral responsibility?