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Should museums display artworks that feature live animals?

29 May 2018

Victoria Dailey

One can look at this question from different perspectives, but in each case the answer is the same: No.

Before we treat the museum question, we must address an assumption embedded in the question itself: that work featuring live animals is actually art. I repudiate this assumption and assert otherwise: presenting live animals as art demolishes the meaning of art, while consigning living creatures to the impermissible category of object. Artists, who are called upon to invent and interpret, to transmute and transform, must recognise that to insert actual animals into artworks is not an artistic action, it is a literal one – it denies the creative, interpretative and imaginative acts necessary for the realisation of art. Animals may be depicted in art, but substituting a living, breathing creature for a work of imagination is prohibited by definition.

The ethical treatment of animals has become an issue in many realms in recent decades. At present, movies carry statements to the effect that no animal was harmed during filming. Animals headed for the slaughterhouse are frequently afforded better treatment at the very end of their brief lives than they receive during the rest of their existences . Many animal shelters abide by ‘no-kill’ policies. Zoos have reconstructed their displays to create more ‘natural’ environments for their inhabitants, while circuses have shut down because of the public demand for an end to the abuse of animals. Museums, taking an arrière-garde position, have not articulated clear policies on live animals. Perhaps this is because artists and museums often consider themselves exempt from various restrictions – they are (correctly) able to present many controversial issues in the name of artistic freedom and free speech. They must not, however, abuse these privileges by using live animals. When they do, they turn their power into that of a bully – the person whose ethical code is Might Makes Right. It would seem to be common sense that tattooing pigs, painting a dog pink or gluing computers to the backs of tortoises and exhibiting them are forms of cruelty; yet artists have done all these things. Any swaggering lickspittle can subject animals to abuse, but when an artist does so, and calls such an act ‘art’, he or she loses the right to be called an artist. In our post-Darwinian realm, in which human genetic kinship with animals is fully acknowledged, relegating animals to involuntary service in the name of art should be looked upon with aversion, not approval.

The art world is typically in favour of extending rights to as many beings as possible yet, oddly, there are those in it who support a macho, species-ist philosophy of domination, subjugation and control over sentient beings who have no say in the matter. Like sexism and racism, species-ism is something to be overcome, not an art trend to endorse. Let us remind ourselves that the question of whether slavery should be abolished once vexed humanity. Humans have wasted a lot of time – and lives – fighting over issues that now strike us as ridiculous. (We always condescend to the past, not realising that we are living in it.) The benefits of hindsight often blind us to the present; there is no doubt that our descendants will look back and condemn our clumsy thoughts and unexamined habits – including using live animals in art as metaphors, symbols, props and tools.

If definitions and ethics fail to convince, then for no other reason than kindness, shouldn’t museums decline to exhibit live animals? Since we don’t really understand animals’ emotions, wouldn’t it be prudent – and kind – to extend them the benefit of our doubts? They already bear the burden of being eaten, experimented on, displaced from their habitats, hunted for sport or to take body parts, cloned, forced to fight, race and perform – why must artists join the ranks of misery-inflictors? Are we to consider live animals as art supplies? Does art now prevail over the animal kingdom and take precedence over life itself? If museums endorse the inclusion of animals in artworks they exhibit, they are answering these questions with a Yes. They must be encouraged to respond with a confident No.

Victoria Dailey is a writer, curator and lecturer based in Los Angeles.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

Illustration by Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

Giovanni Aloi

Freedom of speech has, historically, proved a powerful tool for the emancipation of oppressed minorities. But more recently, in the age of social media and post-truth, we seem to forget too easily the underlying principle that should govern its practice: responsibility.

Last autumn, the planned inclusion of three works involving animals in a retrospective of contemporary Chinese art at the Guggenheim in New York led to unprecedented protests. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003) is a video work in which pit bulls harnessed to treadmills face each other in a ferocious suspended chase; Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994) documents a performance in which two pigs mate in front of an audience; and Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World (1993) is an enclosure in which insects, lizards, snakes, and spiders consume each other.

Following the protests, the museum put out a press release that said: ‘Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.’ Nevertheless, ‘Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World’ went ahead without the works that sparked the row. Now, the museum’s recent purchase of Xu Bing’s piece, along with the restaging of the exhibition at Guggenheim Bilbao, is reigniting controversy. Is this a deliberate provocation? A desperate cry for publicity? Or a political nod to the art-world voices – Ai Weiwei included – who criticised the museum for caving in under pressure? Did the Guggenheim hope the country of bullfighting would find these works less troubling?

From Jannis Kounellis’s tethered horses in 1969 and Joseph Beuys’ performative encounter with a coyote in a New York gallery in 1974 to Damien Hirst’s cows and sharks suspended in formaldehyde in the 1990s, animals, for better or worse, attract plenty of attention. They challenge the modernist purity that still lies at the core of the gallery space. In much classical and contemporary output, animals represent our shadow – the irrational, the unpredictable, the visceral and the primordial.

Considering how much art has changed in recent years, it is no surprise that audiences now might find such works unpleasant. But the unusual resonance of the Guggenheim controversy (more than 800,000 signatures collected) complicates matters. On the one hand, we need to take into account the difference in attitudes towards animal ethics of culturally and geographically remote countries. On the other, the urgency imposed on contemporary discourses by climate change and mass extinction is quickly shifting popular frames of reference. With the growing realisation that our relationship with nature has been characterised by unproductive objectifying tropes comes a new level of awareness, compassion and responsibility.

In these works, animals stand in for anything but themselves. They are nations, peoples or anonymous tokens in a capitalist system; animals as human proxies: the game is old and it’s no longer interesting. Allegory, the domain of classical art, today requires a more sophisticated slant in order to engage and move audiences. Today’s audiences gaze through the feeble metaphorical veil and animal abuse is all they see. Furthermore, the works by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping implicitly cast the viewer as sadistic voyeur. Do we need to see animals eat each other to contemplate the recklessness of capitalism? Is gazing at two copulating pigs a novel and nuanced way in which to conceive international affairs? Is harassing dogs a creative way to think about power and control? China has much more interesting and challenging contemporary art to offer and some of it is indeed in the Guggenheim’s show.

But we shouldn’t generalise: not all works including animals are to be demonised. The works of Beatriz da Costa, Mark Dion, Pierre Huyghe, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Ren Ri, to name a few, speak differently to contemporary audiences because their subject matter is human-animal relationships. The presence of animals in the gallery space is justified by the meaning of the work and it actively offers an opportunity to give serious consideration to our existence with them. These artists learn about the animals and ensure the gallery space is adjusted for their well-being; their artworks engage, provoke, reimagine, and educate. It is doubtful the same can be claimed about the Guggenheim pieces.

Giovanni Aloi is the editor of Art after Nature (University of Minnesota Press) and Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.

From the June 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.