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Andy Warhol Self-Portrait 1986
Self-Portrait, 1986Andy Warhol

Dissecting the idea of plastic surgery as art

Philippa Snow looks at the long-standing relationship between cosmetic surgery, body modification and the performance art world, asking just how deep the parallels lie

“I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re so beautiful. Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic,” Andy Warhol once said. “I want to be plastic.”

As a kingmaker for “superstar” celebrities and socialites, Warhol understood the power of physical transformation. As an artist, he believed in taking something pre-existing and banal – Campbell’s Soup, a Brillo Box, a girl with cash but not much talent – and transmogrifying it into a work of art. Little wonder, then, that plastic surgery in all its forms proved fascinating to him, given its ability to make even the plainest people fit for his beloved magazine advertisements.

At twenty-nine, Warhol got a nose job; he had frequent collagen injections, and when he began to lose his hair after a nervous episode, he compensated with a library of white wigs. Born “Warhola,” he also snipped off the “a” in order to seem less like the son of Slovakian immigrants, and more like a true-blue American. This is not technically a surgical procedure, but it does have the same energy: the sense of something real and biological being abruptly, strategically cut from his identity. With his output canonised, and with his personal appearance now as much a part of his persona as his movies or his screen-prints, Wharhol's self-editing looks as much like artwork as it does the result of insecure vanity. This Warhol, just as plastic as he dreamed of being, is the only Warhol that we ever picture. Andrew Warhola remains a mystery, as empty as a Warhol-issue Brillo Box.

“What does interest me about plastic surgery is its proximity to other transformations, more readily accepted as fine art rather than vanity.”

As a circa-2019 feminist, I find it borderline-impossible to decide how exactly I am meant to feel about elective plastic surgery, leaving me without anything particularly strident to contribute to the discourse: I believe that giving a nineteen-year-old girl a whole new face is, frankly, not exactly ethical, but I also believe in few things with more certainty than a nineteen-year-old girl’s right to bodily autonomy. There is no easy way to reconcile the two ideas, making it lucky that I also believe feminists can contradict themselves.

What does interest me about plastic surgery is its proximity to other transformations, more readily accepted as fine art rather than vanity — it is performative and public, and whether or not it means to, it reflects something essential about what we believe to be beautiful, or feminine, or worthy of our gaze. When we do gaze, it gazes back, making it not dissimilar to work by certain iconic, iconoclastic practitioners of gallery-sanctioned body art.

Where, then, is the dividing line?

That altering the body can be art is not an idea without precedent, nor without its supporters in the art world. Modifications of the body have played an intrinsic role in the work of performance artists since performance art began. The Aktionismus group, in Vienna throughout the sixties and the seventies, sliced up their genitals, had public sex and painted with their blood, all in accordance with a manifesto by the artist Otto Muhl which championed work where “material action is [a form of] painting that has spread beyond the picture surface, [so that] the human body…becomes the picture surface.”

In 1974, Marina Abramović, an icon of self-flagellating female body art, allowed an audience access to scissors and a loaded gun in Rhythm Zero, ending up stripped bare and bleeding in a homage to Yoko Ono, whose own Cut Piece (1965) only stopped short of becoming surgical because no audience member proved sadistic enough to cut Yoko rather than her clothes. In 1975, Abramović carved a pentagram into her naked stomach for a piece called Thomas Lips.

Chris Burden, in 1971 and 1974 respectively, first had himself shot in the arm for Shoot, then had himself nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle for Trans-Fixed. VALIE EXPORT peeled her fingertips and dipped them into milk for Remote…Remote… (1973). By the time Ron Athey was prickling himself with hypodermic needles like a porcupine in 1994, and Pyotr Pavlensky was photographed nailing his own scrotum to the street near Lenin’s tomb in 2013, self-harm and conceptual mutilation felt establishment, a little like old hat; as legitimate and familiar as an art form as a watercolour, a well-sculpted bronze.

If the modifications made by Aktionismus or Abramović were scarifying rather than seductive, they also kicked off a movement towards art using the body like a canvas in the same way that a plastic surgeon might use an adventurous, attention-seeking client: to draw stares and to redraw the lines of possibility for human flesh. Erwin Wurm, the Austrian artist known in part for his One Minute Sculptures, which use viewers’ bodies to give meaning to inert and random-seeming objects, and in part for his supersized “fat” cars and “fat” houses, has been interested in the possibility of human transformation as an art form throughout his career, believing beautification to be as conceptually meaningful as pain.

“Arnold Schwartznegger [is] from my hometown,” he told AnOther magazine in 2012, “and he’d make a great piece of art. He’s a great sculpture! What he did with his body is fantastic.” Wurm remarked to an interviewer at BlouinArtInfo in the same year: “When you are making a sculpture in clay, you add volume or you take volume away. You do the same thing when you gain weight or when you lose weight. That puts different levels together: the social level, the personal level, the sickness of our time where everybody has to be slim.”

That social and personal level, and a different but adjacent "sickness", were explored by Amalia Ulman in her Instagram performance Excellences & Perfections, for which she pretended to have had a full surgical nose-job, a breast augmentation, and a druggy mental health breakdown. “People denounce my performance and say it’s like, you’re laughing at basic bitches,” she told ArtNews. “But, you know, I’m also a little bit of a basic bitch – I’m laughing at myself.”

“Surgery can be a logical tweak to a very Warholian, very online “personal brand.”

The idea that "basic bitches" – who are now able to achieve a very Warholian style fifteen-minutes of fame via Instagram – are most likely to get nose-jobs and breast-jobs is a modern one. Where surgery was once thought to be the preserve of models, actresses and millionaires, it’s now as accepted in the mainstream, as say, getting one or more finger tattoos, and is also much more common (if still, in some cases, controversial). It can be a logical tweak to a very Warholian, very online “personal brand”.

Either for pleasure or for the performance, Ulman actually spent $2,000 on a non-surgical nose-job and fillers, and was invited to the Swiss Institute in New York to meet the ‘Baron of Botox’, Dr Fredric Brandt, according to one article, “a contemporary art collector and celebrity physician who resembles nothing so much as an immortal, disarmingly un-creased blond vampire,” a description made haunting in retrospect by Brandt’s suicide one year later, in 2015.  

Brandt would have recognised art when he saw it on two counts: the first because he was one of the titans of his field, considered an artist in his own right, and the second because by the time he died, he had amassed an art collection that zig-zagged from Christopher Wool to John Baldessari, from Cy Twombly to Damien Hirst, the only force uniting each work being that Brandt found them to be beautiful, or interesting, or witty.

“A man of real vision in the field of cosmetic dermatology, his masterful work was beyond compare,” a breathless write-up for the posthumous sale of his pieces on the Phillips auction site exclaims. “His canvas, the face. His paintbrush and paintbox, the tools of his trade. His inspiration, the collection of contemporary art he amassed over the past 30 years.”

Art, despite sometimes feeling as if it might spring from nature, is not natural. It is as constructed as a new nose or a new ass. What is most outré in surgery may also be most like art, less about function than about beauty, extremity, or transformation. The sometimes problematic artist Orlan, who had numerous surgeries throughout the early 1990s “not to appear younger or better according to the designated pattern, [but] to disrupt the standards of beauty,” may have had horns fitted in her forehead a la Satan, but the metamorphosis of Kylie Jenner into an entirely different woman is no less surprising or extreme. No less problematic, either — Jenner’s new aesthetic, heavily inspired by the bodies and the style of certain desirable black women, has been criticised in much the same way as Orlan’s adoption of what she refers to as “non-Western referents.” Like art, it has invited criticism, and like works by Dana Schutz or Jeff Koons, it has provoked to the point of causing offence.

And yet: we do not think of Kylie Jenner as a “problematic artist” a la Orlan, only as tres problematique. Jenner’s mouth may be a famous logo, it may be worth a fortune, but it does not hold the same cultural value as a work by Marina Abramović, and although certain men online have disagreed with me about Abramović’s work, the only piece I’ve ever written that provoked a man to barrage me with messages suggesting that I kill myself was Jenner-and-Kardashian-adjacent.

Chris Burden, despite being consensually shot and crucified, is generally not judged as harshly as a Kardashian sister paying for her new waist to be carved, her sharper jaw cut into shape. One difference is intent: that a Kardashian probably does not imagine herself as an artist, and probably does not have any message in mind other than to telegraph her hotness. One more might be gender, with art still being seen as a primarily male-coded discipline, and plastic surgery and reality television coded as feminine and therefore, in some people's minds, as dumb. More crucial still is audience — the fact that teenage girls, even if they are arty, morbid teenage girls, are unlikely to want to imitate Chris Burden, but are likely to be tempted by the idea of being a perfect-looking, California-dwelling billionaire with the minute ski-jump nose of a cartoon Disney princess. Such desires are understandable but unimaginative, making the line between self-editing for art’s sake and self-editing for vanity’s sake more distinct.

In direct contrast to most plastic surgery, fine art has an expansive and elastic view of what is beautiful or worthwhile, so that while Kylie Jenner’s features are believed to fit a tiresome beauty standard only when they appear on a rich Caucasian girl, art can be angular or challenging or sick, can be made by or can depict a person of any race, gender, age or sexual orientation, and still be seen as good art.

“Anybody who performs surgeries, or injections, has to be a student of beauty” – Dr Raj Kanodia

Dr Raj Kanodia, who is less the Warhol of the plastic surgery world than its Rodin, has created several famous faces so exquisite and so realistic — “realistic” being, as in art and in AI, one of the best compliments that one can give a face that’s surgically-enhanced — that to identify their owners would be borderline-litigious. Like Dr Brandt, he sees a strong affinity between art and surgery. He identifies, not necessarily incorrectly, as an artist. “Art,” he tells me over email, “is the most important component [of plastic surgery]. A surgeon has to be obsessed with art and beauty.”

“Beauty can provoke emotions like happiness and euphoria because its optics are so pleasant,” Kanodia suggests. “It’s perceived both by the human eye and by the lens of the camera. For that reason, anybody who performs surgeries, or injections, has to be a student of beauty: to be able to please the human eye and the lens of the camera equally.” The brain, research shows, reacts to a work of art the same way it reacts to love. Who would not dream of their face playing the same trick on everyone who sees it?

Kanodia’s work, as pleasing to the eye and to the camera as it’s possible to be, is fine enough that Twitter is awash with women begging for a signature Kanodia nose, a pair of perfect Kanodia cheekbones. Most of them cannot afford them. This is one last way that plastic surgery is like fine art: to look at it and to take pleasure in its loveliness or in its bold extremity is free, but to possess it is expensive. As a financial investment, Kylie Jenner’s overhaul is rumoured to have cost as much as a minor Picasso, two-thirds of a work by Sterling Ruby, or about half of a Lisa Yuskavage. It is undeniable that a good surgeon can make a prospective supermodel or Instagram influencer a celebrity by doing smart work, but the work will only be done if the would-be supermodel or Instagram influencer has the money spare to pay for it. This is not un-Warholian, either: people who had family money were the artist’s bread and butter, being both the girls that he made into “superstars,” and the ones buying Marilyn or Jackie silkscreens in a shade that matched their living room. In surgery and in art, money opens doors whose thresholds are invisible to a civilian.

“Making money,” Warhol once said, “is the best art.” Spending it on making yourself into art seems like a logical next step. Selecting the right new face is like hanging a Richard Prince up in your living room: it shows your wealth, your good taste, your ability to spin what you have or are given into something everyone else wants. I said I had no definite opinion on elective plastic surgery. Perhaps I meant to say that, given cash to burn, I would not personally have any at all. It is invaluable to me to recognise myself when looking in a mirror, just as the best art feels invaluable and unlike anything, exactly, other than itself.

When Warhol made his silkscreens, they appeared at first to be identical even in different colours, every Marilyn or Jackie carbon-copied from the last. In fact, the process is too human and imperfect to create a truly perfect copy. There will always be some flaw — some minor act of nature in the manufacture — to make each one its own work of genius.

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