In recent weeks three artworks featuring live animals have been removed from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, following protests and petitions against animal cruelty. The artworks that were removed from the “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” exhibition include Peng Yu and Sun Yuan’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), Xu Bing’s A Case Study in Transference (1994), and Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993). The aim of the exhibition was to bring attention to cultural changes following the Cold War, and the rise of China in the global era.
Animal activists praised the decision, arguing that any form of animal abuse should not be depicted in the name of art. Indeed this line between creativity and exploitation has been under much scrutiny in light of the move. Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other is a seven-minute video of four pairs of dogs on treadmills, recorded in 2003. The dogs, who had been trained to fight, face each other but are unable to touch no matter how hard they run. The animals are seen to be salivating under extreme stress.
Activists have further emphasised that the practice of dog fighting itself is cruel and should not be encouraged in the name of proving an artist’s point.
For others, it is not just a question of whether animals are treated well or not. Even if animals are not directly harmed, using live animals in art can be seen as reducing their value to that of mere commodities. Theater of the World featured an illuminated cage containing live insects and reptiles that were to devour one another throughout the length of the exhibition. This “survival of the fittest” was intended to demonstrate the competitive nature of the political and economic world – animal activists however disagreed with the artist taking advantage of the functions of the animals, rather than showing appreciation for their lives.
Many are also angered by the use of animals to gain attention and make profit. Undoubtedly, controversial art turns heads, and the use of animals can bring interest to artwork that may otherwise be nothing special. However to risk the wellbeing of animals for a business plan is arguably unethical.
Artists are understandably worried that censorship undermines art by prohibiting freedom of expression. This raises an important question – to what extent should art be able to be regulated? To many creatives, art is a form of expression that the public has no right to interfere with. It has traditionally been used to give voice to the marginalized, protest against governments, and deconstruct social norms.
Through shocking the viewers, controversial art has the power to highlight important issues in society that may otherwise be neglected. In 2014, London’s Barbican Centre exhibited a performance art piece “Exhibit B” featuring black actors in cages. The artist, Brett Bailey, replicated “human zoos” that were present during the slavery era. This controversial art was met with petitions and accusations of racism, and was eventually removed. It provoked raw emotion in its viewers that would not have been as impactful had the artist decided to take a more nuanced approach.
Arguably issues of cruelty and inappropriate content could be avoided with prior consultation. For example, there have been successful cases where an artist has incorporated controversial elements into their artwork without it being subsequently removed. Pierre Huyghe featured a dog named Human as part of 2014 exhibit in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The museum took great care to inform the visitors that Human’s health was being monitored by authorized animal service groups, as well as being approved by the American Kennel Club. Human was never forced to be in the gallery at any time and could behave as she pleased around the gallery.
Though this was one example of successful incorporation of living animals into art, it still attracted some concern and complaints. This suggests that it is sometimes inevitable for art to deliver messages that are not perceived favourably by all. Creativity is extremely subjective, and drawing a line between what is acceptable and what is not always proves to be a difficult task.
Image: Jacques-Charles Oudry via Wikimedia Commons