Should the Guggenheim have pulled controversial animal artworks?
Last week New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum announced it would be pulling three works from its next big exhibition, "Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World." It did so after angry criticism from animal rights protesters that the works were -- according to an online petition that has attracted over 700,000 signatories -- "distinct instances of unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art."
What were these artworks of "unmistakable cruelty?" The work that gives the show its name, Huang Yong Ping's installation "Theater of the World" (1993), is a domed enclosure into which insects and reptiles are introduced; the animals live and die and sometimes prey on each other throughout the course of the work's display.
Peng Yu and Sun Yuan's video "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other" (2003) records a performance staged in Beijing, during which fighting dogs were harnessed to treadmills -- set face-to-face, the dogs attempt, without success, to run towards each other, getting more exhausted in the process.
Xu Bing's video "A Case Study in Transference" (1994) is also a recording of a performance -- two pigs, one marked all over with nonsense words in English and the other in invented Chinese characters, are seen mating in a pen before onlookers; the "Western'" pig is the boar, the "Chinese" one the sow.
These works have outraged animal rights advocates: the campaign group PETA fumed that "people who find entertainment in watching animals try to fight each other are sick individuals whose twisted whims the Guggenheim should refuse to cater to.
Only a little more tolerantly, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) declared that "the ASPCA fully supports artistic expression, but strongly oppose any use of animals in art or entertainment if it results in pain or distress to the animals, which is clearly the case in this video," referring to "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other" (2003).
Stung by the criticism, the Guggenheim initially tried to defend "Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other," stating that the museum recognized that while "the work may be upsetting," it reflected "the artistic and political context of its time and place ... an intentionally challenging and provocative artwork that seeks to examine and critique systems of power and control."
The following Monday, however, the museum caved in, announcing that the three works would be withheld, "out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists." Stating that it was "dismayed that we must withhold works of art," the museum declared that "freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim."
"In consultation with the artists, the curators have given a great amount of thought as to how their absence (the works) will be memorialized on site," said a spokesperson for the Guggenheim.
Animal rights advocates have always disliked artists who use animals in their art; Damien Hirst, for example, has long been a target for his use of living butterflies, flies and various dead animals. The godfather of performance art, Joseph Beuys, once shared a confined space with a wild coyote for three days, in his work "I Like America and America Likes Me" (1974).
But this latest outcry comes at a time when contemporary art is subject to increasingly vocal protests, often by minority groups. In the US particularly, a number of controversies have blown up, often around issues of race and identity, such as the protesting of Dana Schutz's painting "Open Casket" (2016) at the Whitney Museum, and the dismantling and destruction of a sculpture by Sam Durant at the Walker Art Center, after protests by Dakota activists.
The Guggenheim's appeal to freedom of expression was, to say the least, feeble. But what is striking is how little the principle of free speech seems to matter to the show's critics, and how few seem keen to rally to the museum's defense.
Freedom of expression now seems entirely negotiable when it transgresses whatever protestors themselves hold dear -- "We believe in freedom of speech... but..." has become a frequent refrain and the Guggenheim's critics couldn't wait to dismiss the free speech argument.
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Writing on ArtNews, art history professor Stephen F. Eisenman scoffed that "freedom of expression has nothing to do with it," instead expressing outrage at "a highly-respected institution showing ... videotapes of artworks that feature animal use, abuse, and torture."
Meanwhile, writing in New York's Daily News Jessica Scott-Reid, scolded the supposed privilege of art and artists, "though often existing in a world of its own, afforded special leeways and licenses, art is still expected to abide by the law, if not of the land then of humanity." What these critics seem to miss is that their opinion may not be shared by everyone -- their opinions are neither "the law of the land" or even "the law of humanity" -- whatever that is.
But disturbingly, few in the art world have voiced a defense of the artists' right to show their work. Ai Weiwei, veteran artist-activist and an individual often on the sharp end of Chinese government censorship, was moved to declare that "pressuring museums to pull down artwork shows a narrow understanding about not only animal rights but also human rights."
Indeed, what seems to matter least to these protestors are the artworks and the artists themselves, or the place and time that gave rise to them. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which hundreds of pro-democracy protestors were shot dead, and the ensuing years of crackdown, many Chinese artists found themselves unable to exhibit, and many others emigrated.
Xu left for New York. Huang, who was in Paris at the time of Tiananmen, never returned to China. That these artists might have made works that reflected their bleak experience of political and societal repression -- of people being "treated like animals," perhaps -- seems to be of no importance to the protestors. What only matters is their own virtuous concern for animals -- not defending fellow humans' rights to express their view of the word as they see it, even if you find this offensive.
This poses some serious problems for museums, art historians and the rest of us, the art-viewing public, since in effect, such outrage means that works from art's past, and the possibility of learning about the history of a particular period and perspective in art, becomes less available to us.
The Guggenheim controversy also reveals how timid and risk averse cultural institutions are becoming, faced with the firestorms of criticism that blow up over contentious issues. Indeed, by citing "safety concerns" as reason for pulling the works, critics have accused the Guggenheim of dodging an open debate, while also accusing the museum for supposedly insinuating that their critics are raving, violent extremists.
But one wonders how sincere the Guggenheim's critics are about having an open debate. If anything, the controversy shows how narrow and intolerant the climate of public discourse is becoming in many Western societies, where some views and ideas are now deemed so unacceptable that cultural institutions find it difficult to defend the principle of pluralism that allows artworks that might be disagreeable, or even offensive to some, to be shown.
What really needs to be had is a truly open debate, for sure: one which is free to challenge the prejudices and orthodoxies of those who believe that animals matter as much as humans. To tolerate that disagreement, and to respect that artists may not share your views, does actually matter more.