How can we label animal cruelty as artistic expression?
Freedom of speech and expression is a value our society fights to protect, while trying our best to elegantly determine what is hateful or harmful, and what is our right to express. These are important discussions, even if we may not always know the right answer.
Some of the most prolific works of art, whether visual or auditory, come from the depths of human suffering. Turning this pain into art can be what saves an artist, what offers comfort to someone who feels alone, or what opens eyes and creates change. Typically, we see depictions of abuse, dramatizations of abuse, or performers consenting to actions which may make a viewer uncomfortable.
But what about when it comes to animal suffering; can we agree animals cannot consent to being exploited for art, or do we take a dog eat dog perspective, that it’s all a part of nature’s hierarchy?
On Monday, September 25th, The Guggenheim posted a statement confirming the removal of three art pieces from a scheduled show, “Art and China After 1989”.
In only 10 hours, a Change.org petition received half a million signatures, leading to the museum’s decision to pull the works. While China doesn’t have the best international reputation for showing humanity to dogs, the exhibit exists to show China’s transformative period following the democratic movement.
To warn you, one of the three pieces in question involves dogs, and a particular breed who has suffered greatly, the Pit Bull.
From the Change.Org petition:
In one example, artists Peng Yu and Sun Yuan tether four pairs of American pit bulls to eight wooden treadmills for a live exhibit. The dogs are faced off against one another, running “at” each other but prevented from touching one another, which is a stressful and frustrating experience for animals trained to fight. The dogs get wearier and wearier, their muscles more and more prominent, and their mouths increasingly salivate. At this live 2003 “performance” in China, a video was recorded, complete with close-up shots of the dogs’ frantic, foaming faces.
Is there a difference in watching a video of abuse in the name of “art” rather than witnessing live abuse?
Hundreds of thousands felt compelled to sign the petition while many posted passionate responses on social media. In demonstrating the level of depravity of this type of animal entertainment, some took an ‘eye for an eye approach’ including frustrated animal advocate, Ricky Gervais.
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) September 24, 2017
Artist Sophie Gamand, who you may remember from her flower crown Pit Bull project, has also been vocal online, starting the #ArtIsNotTorture tag.
#TortureIsNotArt! The petition has received almost 500K signatures so far (well, 433K), it’s amazing!! We need to keep the pressure on though, because both the @Guggenheim and the mainstream media have been awfully quiet. I know you must already be tired of this, but please keep spreading awareness! This is an important battle for our world culture! The exhibit opens Oct. 6th, and the torture pieces are still planned. If they ignore us, trust we won’t ignore them. So here is a new one for them: contact the Museum by all means necessary this week (their sponsors too?), and ask them (keep it polite and to the point): ? Where did these animals come from: the dogs and the pigs in their respective videos, and which NYC pet store will be providing the insects, reptiles and amphibians to be sacrificed in the name of art? ? What happened to the dogs and pigs featured in the videos afterwards? ? Why were the dogs all scarred in their video? If they really, deeply think these pieces are completely ethical and necessary, they should be able to provide very clear, specific answers to these basic questions. ??? Contact: email@example.com but also firstname.lastname@example.org since these are questions about the pieces themselves… Call their main line: (212) 423-3500. Ask your questions on social media. Repost this and tag Guggenheim as well as add their location to your post, so that tourists of the world will witness this uproar. Remember to use #TortureIsNotArt so that we can also somewhat measure the wave of contestations on social media. The catalog of the exhibit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” is also being sold in bookstores and various online platforms like Amazon. Not a bad idea to also report it so the Guggenheim can't further profit from their cruelty. I am actually really saddened for the Guggenheim, that they let this go so far. They should have swallowed their ego and removed the cruel pieces immediately. Now they have more 1* reviews on Facebook than the 5* they deserve, as a prestigious cultural institution. Such a sad moment ☹️, but they made their bed. . #tortureisnotart #guggenheim #GuggenheimTortureIsNotArt
Stephanie Lewis, who created the petition, is not a professional activist, but a software consultant, animal lover, and vegan, who felt compelled to do something when she found there was no petition to sign.
The petition hopes the Guggenheim and other institutions of their stature will continue to stand for “bold, controversial art that breaks barriers and challenges social norms, which does NOT include the promotion of cruelty against innocent beings.”
It’s high time Pit Bulls are depicted and allowed to exist like this: peaceful and happy.
While we may collectively stand together for #TortureIsNotArt, animal suffering for food and fashion remain as almost empathy empty zones.
We pet our own dog lovingly before we prepare a factory farmed chicken for dinner, ignorant or amnesiac to the horrors of the animal’s short life.
The art in question may be a case of clear cut right and wrong for most, but there are still many other areas of animal based entertainment and animal agriculture that are more collectively grey. So as we applaud the brave for standing up to cruelty and the powers at be for listening and reacting, let’s continue to have these conversations, even when they make us uncomfortable about our own behavior. Few can claim to be perfect, but we can all strive to be better. Imagine how the world would feel if we all showed a little more compassion.