In a provocative post on WebEcoist, Muhammad Saleem excoriates artists for apparent cruelty to animals for the sake of their art. He points out the ultra-controversial exhibit by Costa Rican Guillermo Vargas of the now-infamous "starved dog," Damien Hirst's killing of a shark to replace the famous one entombed in formaldehyde (after it started breaking down), the "animal snuff film" by Parisian Adel Abdessened at the San Francisco Institute of Art and Wim Delvoye's tattooed pigs.
In answer to the shock-value question Is It Wrong to Kill Animals for Art?, this writer answers unequivocally yes (and I'm guessing a high number of TDG readers would say the same). However, as in most things creative and artistic, there are nuances worth exploring here, and perhaps truth can be found at the margins.
I was just discussing Saleem's post with Starre Vartan of and Greenopia, who is a vegetarian and life-long supporter of animal rights. She didn't see what the big deal is. "The artist is right, there are thousands, perhaps millions of starving dogs around the world every day. I've seen plenty on the streets, in Egypt and elsewhere, and people don't do anything about it," she said. "Anyone who eats seafood results in the death of many sharks in bycatch, so in that sense it's not a big deal that the artist killed one." (Of course, many people also eat sharks directly as well, and shark populations have plummeted worldwide.)
My friend who served in the Peace Corps in Armenia relates terrible stories of the awful way he saw many dogs treated. "I knew kids who would automatically throw rocks at any dog they saw," he once told me. He said he saw dogs that were chained up in front of houses as guards, and which were beaten by their owners. Others were not fed at all, and were left to roam around and find their own scraps, often having to fight for them. I once received a letter from an animal welfare activist in Romania who related heartbreaking stories of rampant abuse and neglect.
It's clear that drawing public attention to the nasty underbelly of society has often resulted in positive change (The Jungle; Fast Food Nation; Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number), and it's a fact of provocative art that it will often draw criticism from those who claim it went too far. We see this tension with Michael Moore's films, tabloid reporting and the actions of PETA.
On one level, what's most important is the greater issues for society: are slaughterhouses and specific techniques cruel and inhumane? How do we police those who would abuse dogs? Which animals deserve more protections and rights than others, and should they in the first place? Is it right that animals are property? What are the limits of free speech and expression, if there should be any at all?
But of course, as in all things, the specifics of how art is made matter, just as it mattered that the public had concerns about the source material for the Bodies exhibit.
In the case of the animal exhibits profiled by WebEcoist, it's hard to say. As Saleem points out, Vargas' dog was allegedly only present for a few hours, and was otherwise cared for. According to Snopes, the museum director once told reporters that the dog had only been kept for a short time before escaping. It's hard to say where the story originated that the dog was starved to death on display, and no one has been able to conclusively prove what happened. (Remember all those tales of "baby rapers" and "rooms full of bodies" in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina that never materialized? All stories have to be taken with skepticism upon lack of evidence, especially the macabre.)
The industrial band Skinny Puppy knows all to well how art can be misunderstood, after they ended up in jail when concert goers mistook their elaborate Anti-Vivisection stage shows for the mutilation of real dogs, instead of commentary using stage props. How many rubber bats has Ozzy bit the head off over the years?
In the case of the animal snuff film, the museum's officials told the San Francisco Chronicle that Abdessened had videotaped the slaughter at a farm in Mexico, where the practice was standard, and where the animals were being killed for agricultural purposes, not just for art (in other words it would have happened even if the artist wasn't there). Even if the institution is telling the truth, they failed to disclose this detail in the exhibit, so it's not surprising that many saw the footage as purely sensational violence. (In fact, the exhibit was closed after activists threatened to bludgeon to death the children of museum staff.)
Society needs more open discussion of what goes on behind closed abbatoir doors. Artists, like all professionals, need ethics, and sometimes they go to far. But everyone needs to see what the world really looks like, at least some of the time. Meat doesn't grow in little plastic packages in the supermarket. Over bred dogs don't always live in warm, loving homes.
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