The recent controversy involving the Guggenheim Museum’s decision to pull three art works from an upcoming exhibition has the art world and animal rights advocates abuzz. The art pieces in question were scheduled to appear as part of a much anticipated exhibition “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” slated to open October 6. The three works are intended to symbolize oppression in China. One 7-minute video titled “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, shows four pairs of Pitbull dogs on non-motorized treadmills, struggling to make contact and seemingly fight. Another video, “A Case Study of Transference,” shows two pigs mating in front of an audience. The third work removed is an installation, “Theater of the World,” which features hundreds of live lizards, snakes, crickets and other insects and reptiles on display under an overhead lamp. Protesters in favor of removing the works ranged from the ASPCA to PETA and the AKC, plus a host of vocal animal rights activists. An online petition demanding the museum remove the works garnered more than 600,000 signatures over five days, contending that the three works depict animal cruelty.
An initial response to the protests drew this comment from the museum: “Reflecting the artistic and political context of its time and place, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other is an intentionally challenging and provocative artwork that seeks to examine and critique systems of power and control,” the Guggenheim said in a statement. “We recognize that the work may be upsetting. The curators of the exhibition hope that viewers will consider why the artists produced it and what they may be saying about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share.”
This week the museum relented to pressure and withdrew the controversial works, citing “concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists.” They now face criticism from the art community for bowing to public pressure in dictating what is acceptable art and what is not. This dilemma challenges those, like myself, who are both staunch supporters of artistic expression and advocates for animal rights. I have not seen the video featuring the dogs but the written description is sufficient to sicken me at the act of subjecting the animals to unnecessary violence, stress and harm. There is no intellectual argument for allowing this that I can accept. For now, knowing that it is wrong will have to suffice.
Others, such as Sarah Cohen, an art historian at the University at Albany whose research examines the artistic representations of animals, have wisely articulated the reasoning behind the emotions. She cited a perceived failing by the museum curators thus:
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The curators themselves do not appear to have considered very deeply the problem of humans forcing certain behaviors in animals,” she said in an email. “Nor did they apparently stop to consider that using pigs as performers to ‘inform’ human spectators about their cultural hangups is a shopworn strategy—as old as dancing bears and the circus.”
“In my opinion,” she added, “the exploitation of animals to make artistic points is, well, bad art.”