Animal rights and art

The recent controversy regarding the Guggenheim’s “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” show again highlighted an important issue that has affected the art world for a very long time; that of animal rights in art.

Of the exhibitions featured, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s piece “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” caught the public’s attention. The piece features 4 dogs, in pairs, facing each other 2 vs 2. A harness holds the dogs in position, nose to nose, barely out of range of the other’s bites, while a treadmill makes their attempts at running towards each other futile. The dogs growl, snap and howl, in a perpetual state of aggression, fear and agitation as they never get free and never get to make contact, so with no release for the building stress and tension they are ‘all bark and no bite’.

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“Dogs that cannot touch each other”, however, is tame compared to Sun`s earlier pieces. A large number of snakes, frogs and lobsters as well as other animal life was bought from stores and skewered alive on wires. Writhing in pain and agony, the animals suffered a long and painful death in front of an audience. In her defence she said they would be eaten anyway and was actually confused as to why people cared.

While it is true that about 56 billion animals are killed to feed people every year, plus an estimated trillions more in sea life, we shouldn`t accept that cruelty, torture and death is acceptable provided worse happens, or at least on a larger scale, around the world.

Looking back at other examples of animal abuse, Guillermo Vargas drew criticism for“Exposición N° 1″ where a homeless dog was taken from the streets and placed into a gallery, chained and left to starve to death. If that wasn’t bad enough, Vargas wrote on the wall “you are what you read” in dog food, just out of reach of the dog. The dog in question, depending on the reports, either died of starvation there or escaped from both the gallery and its tragic fate and was never seen again.

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Like Yu and Yuan, in answer to criticism Vargas points out people’s hypocrisy regarding animal life; people turn a blind eye to animals suffering and dying in massive numbers yet protest an exhibition showing cruelty towards and the death of a single or few creatures. The big revelation it seems, is that people are hypocritical, but is this something we don’t already know? Do we need this kind of “art” to remind us?

Imagine if we applied that morality universally? A death of a child in UK is nothing compared to the infant mortality rate of Afghanistan. The starvation of a single homeless person in the US is a drop in the ocean compared to the emaciated millions that perish in Sub-Saharan Africa. The thought of a torturous slow death of people in a gallery to“highlight” the hypocrisy is ludicrous, immoral, illegal, and for any artist who would attempt it a quick route to life imprisonment or even the death sentence.

By comparison, punishment seems no deterrent whatsoever to the people killing these animals. Animal rights laws are notoriously lax and light the world over and it’s worth mentioning that extreme animal abuse in the name of art is not an issue limited to only a small number of countries. In the US, Kim Jones for his piece poured lighter fuel on rats and burned them alive; the fine he received was insignificant but then again, most are not even fined.

Damien Hirst, the world’s richest living artist is also, probably, the art world’s greatest animal killer. Whilst mostly made up of insect life, Hirst has a current death count in his pieces to date estimated at 913,450, and, although some of the animals were sourced and already dead, many were not.  Nine thousand butterflies died in one exhibition alone.

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Hirst’s influence on the younger generations of artists is clear. In the signature work of“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” a table with a transparent wire mesh dome houses a variety of insects and reptiles in a kind of gladiatorial fight for survival. They kill, eat, starve and do what they can to survive. When numbers dwindle they are re-stocked with more lives thanks to local pet shop owners.

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Art is providing a kind of justification and validation for people to abuse animals. People with serious and potentially dangerous psychiatric disorders can find a kind of safe haven of sorts in the art world. Backed by collectors and galleries they find a kind of acceptance which in itself encourages and funds more abuse of living things. When Xu Zhen bought a cat, strangled it to death and then beat its corpse until it was a bloody pulp his comments were particularly revealing. “In order to release my frustration without violence towards the public, the cat was a substitute.”

The people responsible for these atrocities as well as the galleries, collectors, critics, and others backing these people must be held accountable. We have a situation where morality, ethics and animal lives are literally and figuratively being sacrificed for notoriety, exposure and money.

The good news? In the face of so much public protest and campaigning against “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” the Guggenheim felt forced to remove 3 of the most controversial pieces from their exhibition. A small victory but an important reminder about what can be done in the face of such cruelty. Vargas, when questioned about the starving dog coldly remarked that none of the visitors to the gallery tried to help the dog in question, that he simply placed it there and the dog’s fate was decided by the people who came to see it. For me the message is clear; people must not be reduced to spectators. Animal lives can be saved if the public is aware and active enough to do it.

-Peter Leghorn

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