This morning the press is reporting on the birth in Brooklyn yesterday of a baby boy, known as “Baby X”, to a woman who describes herself as a performance artist. If you have missed the stories leading up to this event, the “artist” in question set herself up in a gallery, and invited people to come and watch her give birth to her son, as a form of art. The fact that this woman and those who supported her in this concept are shameless exploiters of both herself and her own innocent child, goes without saying. And yet when examined in the context of Western society’s attitude toward the concept of human life, it is not surprising that something so decadent and perverse would attract an audience.
I do not care to know what those in attendance thought of the event, because the type of person who would attend such a thing – so reminiscent of a “happening”, that old Baby Boomer nonsense – is not someone whom I would care to know, socially or otherwise. It is not a question of taste, as if one was deciding whether to have the Chateau d’Yquem or the Pedro Ximenez with dessert. It is a question of associating with people who try to turn the birth of a child into an entertainment and a commodity, thereby contributing to the deterioration of our culture.
The so-called performance took place at a time when Western society continues to sputter and spin in confusion over how we treat our unborn children, as well as how we treat our children once they arrive. For every good decision on the unborn, such as the European Court of Justice ruling yesterday that one cannot patent a process to create human life only to destroy it, we learn of horrors such as that of a prominent Catholic hospital continuing to seemingly gleefully go on committing infanticide. And once our children arrive, they are not safe, either. If you know who I am referring to when I write “The Duggars”, “The OctoMom”, “Jon and Kate”, or “Toddlers and Tiaras”, then you know that the popular media is more than happy to exploit young children in unusual circumstances, just as their parents are more than happy to collaborate in selling their children to the highest bidder.
The realization that the murder of unborn children and/or the exploitation of children once they are born can lead to wealth and fame drives many people, not just modern-day Dr. Mengeles experimenting on human life, supposedly in the name of science, or untalented artists from Brooklyn looking to draw attention to themselves, supposedly in the name of art. With respect to the issue of the child before it is born, far more has been written far more eloquently than I could hope to do in these brief few paragraphs about the importance of protecting human life from the moment of conception. We shall have to leave further consideration of how our present-day Western culture treats the unborn, for the moment.
And so we return, as regrettably we must, to yesterday’s birth in an art gallery, and what this event tells us about the West in the present day. In his much-loved book, “Mere Christianity”, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis observed that we could tell a lot about the health of a culture by its media and entertainments. In discussing the attitude of contemporary society toward sexuality, Lewis made the following analogy:
Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?
Lewis’ point about media titillation in the 1940’s – which has become even more outrageous in our day than in his – is equally applicable to a society where people would attend the birth of a child as they would an opening of an art exhibition or a play. Are we now to have a special columnist assigned to the New York Times who will critique births across the city? Will there be stars awarded in Variety based on whether the mother takes an epidural, or off-track betting on the sex of the baby?
I am not so myopic in my loathing of the “artist” in question nor my deep sense of pity for what her new child is going to have to grow up with as to deny the fact that in different cultures, and indeed at one point in our own Western culture, the birth of a child often served as a ceremonial moment for a tribe. I cannot speak about tribal life and the process of birth in places like Sub-Saharan Africa or Australia, not being from these places nor having traveled to them. How and why communities in these places look at the moment of birth, I leave for them to explain. Though if you are familiar with the history of Western art as I am, you know that in paintings depicting the birth of someone like St. John the Baptist, or a future king or queen, such occasions often featured numerous amounts of attendants and observers. In the case of European monarchies, of course, birth could mean the difference between dynastic continuity and civil war.
Yet for the vast majority of those of us who reside in the Western world, pregnancy and childbirth have come to be viewed as intimate events, and collectively a private, family matter. It is our responsibility to protect our children from exploitation, for ultimately we will have to answer for how we have treated them – whether because they turn out maladjusted and injurious to society, or when the time comes that we must give a final accounting of our lives and how we spent them. To make the arrival of our child on this planet an occasion for public entertainment is to make of ourselves and our child a mockery. And while I am free to make as much of an arse of myself as I choose (and indeed often do), I am not free to do the same with someone else’s life – particularly when the life in question is that of an innocent child whom I helped bring into the world.
Detail of “Mother and Her Children” by Mary Cassatt (1901)