Could Someone Die Over This Painting?

Art isn’t usually a life or death matter, but the controversy over South African artist Brett Murray’s The Spear (detail shown above) might end in bloodshed. When Murray decided to paint South African President Jacob Zuma along the lines of a famous poster of Lenin, but with the added detail of prominent genitalia, he knew he was courting controversy but may not have realized just how heated (and dangerous) the debate would get. Now that the painting has been vandalized, it’s natural to ask if that violence might extend to the artist or to those who support his right to free expression. Could someone die over this painting?

Zuma’s a controversial figure in South African politics. A polygamist, Zuma has been charged with raping a woman while serving as deputy president and has also expressed the belief that showering after sex will protect you from HIV. Aside from his sexual transgressions, Zuma is mired in a variety of scandals that have ruined his reputation. Murray titled the show in which The Spear appears “Hail to the Thief II,” a sequel to an earlier politically charged exhibition.

The prominent painted penis alludes to Zuma’s sexual escapades, obviously. (Apparently one South African cartoonist mocks Zuma by drawing him with a shower cap that refers to Zuma’s strange safe sex ideas.)  The pose itself pays homage to Victor Ivanov’s poster Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live, which refers to the Communist affiliation of Zuma's party, the African National Congress (ANC). Zuma and the ANC have asked the courts to shut Murray’s show down. "The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity," Zuma claims in the court affidavit. In a separate statement, the ANC condemned The Spear as an "abuse of freedom of artistic expression." It’s up to the court now to determine which takes precedence—Murray’s claim to freedom of expression or Zuma’s claim to personal dignity. Supporters of Zuma base their opinion on the idea that Murray’s crossed over the line from satire to insult. Supporters of Murray wonder how Zuma can claim humiliation when he’s become famous (and infamous) for his many women, many children, and many “scientific” theories.

While the court of law and the court of public opinion raged on, a small group of vandals made themselves heard.  As captured in this video, college professor Barend la Grange first painted red “X”s over the face and genitalia of The Spear. Lowie Mabokela then smeared black paint all over the work.  Both men were arrested by security, which acted slowly out of shock and the uncertainty over whether the vandalism was somehow part of the exhibition. Fortunately, the vandals used oil paint, which conservators should be able to clean from the acrylic surface of the painting, which has already been sold to a German collector.  Gallery owner Liza Essers responded post-attack that “[t]he extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much.” The ANC did not condone the attack, but probably didn’t shed any tears over it.

Is Murray just seeking publicity? South African art expert Ruarc Peffers told an interviewer that the vandalism wouldn’t decrease or increase the painting’s value and that “[i]n a week or two this will be a distant memory.” To those who would say that Zuma’s fueling the publicity fire with his lawsuit, Zuma responded in the court affidavit by saying that if he were to remain silent in the face of such indignity it would be like a rape victim remaining silent to protect their reputation—an astonishing connection to make for a man himself accused of rape.

Perhaps Murray knew that Zuma couldn’t remain quiet and guessed that a media frenzy would ensue, although I doubt he could even dream of the international press The Spear has attracted. Other South African artists, perhaps most famously William Kentridge, have taken aim on the tragic politics of that region through art, but somehow Murray’s painting struck a different nerve and emanates a much different vibration. I hope that Murray’s taking precautions against personal attacks, because, as Ai Weiwei has learned in his diplomatic dance with the Chinese government, even the most well-known artists can be made to disappear, especially when their art has become most inconveniently visible.

[Image: Brett Murray. The Spear (detail), 2012.]

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.