For sculptor of real bodies, surgery is art


June 18, 2010 Updated Apr 29, 2009 at 6:11 AM EDT

Sculptors have for centuries used wood and stone to carve the human body, but Doctor Anthony Berlet prefers the real thing.

Berlet is curator of an exhibition in New York that aims to spark a debate over the idea that plastic surgery is art.

While an ordinary face-lift is routine, nose reconstruction, or rhinoplasty, is entirely different, according to Berlet.

"To understand it structurally and to be able to alter it to the point where you can say this is what I want to create for you, this is how I'm going to create it, I think that takes artistic skill, a good eye and a certain amount of creativity," Berlet says.

The exhibition, titled "I Am Art: An Expression of the Visual and Artistic Process of Plastic Surgery," features gruesome video footage and stills of operations, deformities and the results of accidents.

They are meant to show that beauty, like the artistic process, is not easily achieved.

"I wanted to show so much," Berlet says of a nose operation. "It's a whole sculpting of the tip... It's not just a simple cut cut trim. There's a whole creative process to it."

The pictures require a strong stomach of visitors to the exhibit, but that does not mean they are not, in their own way, beautiful.

"The process of getting from here to here is as beautiful as the final product," said Berlet, who also has training as an architect.

The video of the nose job lasts six horrific minutes in which a nose is turned inside out while latex-gloved hands saw and cut and remodel the cartilage.

Mary Lou, a visitor to the exhibit, conceded that the final result was an improvement.

But she was in no hurry to make herself the canvas for one of these surgical artists, saying she'd rather keep her "Asian nose" and avoid the trauma. "I wouldn't go through it because the operation is too much for me."

Mark Melamed, an ophthalmologist, said he had mixed feelings about the art-meets-surgery concept.

"You know hospitals are very strict about letting people into the operating room and it's for exactly this reason," he said, looking at the gory pictures.

"It is an intensely personal thing and I don't know that it needs to be exhibited. There's an uncomfortable voyeuristic sense to this whole thing."

Melamed said he found the exhibit "fascinating more from a scientific and more of a cultural point of view than an aesthetic or true art... I'm not sure it's art by my definition of it."

But for proponents of the idea, there are is a close relationship between the scalpel and chisel, or the live model in an operating theater and the one posing in a studio.

As Harold Gillies, the British-based father of plastic surgery in the first half of the 20th century, put it: "Plastic surgery is a constant battle between beauty and blood supply."

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