October 15, 2017

SHERMAN | Animals as Metaphors and a ‘Cruelty-Free’ Guggenheim

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If, for the past couple of weeks, you’ve been following either the art world’s murmurings or the Most Popular Petition category on change.org, you would be well aware of the Guggenheim’s recent Animal Rights-related quagmire, a tiff with PETA advocates which resulted, on Sept. 25, in the removal of three pieces from its fall blockbuster exhibition.

Whether or not you’ve been keeping close tabs on both, you likely missed the fact that the show in question, Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World, opened to the public this past Friday, Oct. 6.

What reviews it has received have been, for the most part, somewhere between tepid and enthusiastically restrained (or else just petty), colored by and large by the Guggenheim’s milquetoast reaction and concession to those accusing it of complicity in animal rights violations. The 70 artist, 140 work-strong exhibition, which was supposed to be a milestone for U.S. reception and awareness of contemporary art from Chinese artists (Holland Cotter, in his review for the New York Times, calls it a show capable of reminding us that the country of 1.4 billion has given the world more than Ai Weiwei), has, it seems, been too profoundly marred by the museum’s willingness to nix some art at a cry of “Wolf!”

This cry began in the form of a change.org petition — written by Stephanie Lewis, directed at the Guggenheim’s curators, administrators and corporate sponsors and subsequently backed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — which garnered nearly 800,000 signatures. “The exhibit,” the petition read, “will feature several distinct instances of unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art.” These several distinct instances, in fact, number three: Peng Yu and Sun Yuan’s “Dogs Which Cannot Touch Each Other” (2003), Xu Bing’s “A Case Study of Transference” (1994) and Huang Yong Ping’s “Theater of the World” (1993). The former pits against each other two riled and vicious pitbulls, restrained inches apart so that they, of course, “cannot touch each other.” The second consists of two mating pigs, gibberish “composed” of invented Roman and Chinese characters scrawled on their bodies. The latter — from which the exhibition gets its name — stages the titular theater as a small, heated enclosure filled with bugs and reptiles, who, for the duration of their exhibition, eat, kill, live, mate, die, survive or fail to do so, their life cycles on display for gallery-goers through their chamber’s grated top.

The petition’s ultimate, unequivocal claim is, admittedly, hard to argue: “[A]nimal cruelty,” they wrote in their petition, “holds no place in art.” As it were, though, equally hard to argue are those of the many reactionary voices ringing on the other side of the debate, summed up well by a statement in the New York Times from Tom Eccles, the executive director of Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies: “Museums are here to show works that are difficult, uncomfortable, provocative. The chilling effect of [the Guggenheim’s decision to pull these three works] of course is [that] museums will now look to make exhibitions that won’t in any way offend.”

In a vacuum, both of these claims seem more than just valid; they’re nothing less than common sense. Who doesn’t want our animals happy and our art provocative, and why on earth can’t we have both? The disconnect, I think, stems from a handful of fundamental issues with the reasoning for outrage — both philosophical and practical — on both sides of the debate, and the implications are enormous for the questions both of free speech and artistic expression, and of the status of the animal in art and culture.

The arguments for wanting these pieces pulled, per the change.org petition, have at their core an unsettling tendency towards humanization, framing the animals’ plight as a problem of fundamental rights and appealing to would-be petitioners’ heartstrings on the bases of pure outrage and passionate, thoughtless, immediate understanding: “Guggenheim,” the petition read, “please do what you know in your heart is right.”

The problem with this is twofold. On the one hand, as Mary Wang pointed out for Vogue, the whole screed reeks of “a specific type of white liberalism that continuously elevates visible … social causes over interrogating more complex modes of ecological, racial and colonial oppression.” That is, petitioning the artsploitation of pups and pigs forced into acts of (paradoxical) inhumanity is sexy enough to get the world yelping in unison, but you’d be hard pressed to spin a deeper issue with, say, the impact of animal agriculture on climate change and its specific relation to warming’s disproportionate effects across race, gender and class divides into a petition capable of raking in 800,000 signatures. It’s in this way that the case against the Guggenheim  has been very much in line with, say, Jill Stein’s Green Party or your liberal, Facebook-prolific relative with a whole lot of opinions: They’ve made a big ol’ fuss about the issues that get people riled up really, really easily, but ignored the much grittier, much tougher steps, admissions and concessions it would take to even start effecting real change, for animals or for people.

The other issue (a little loftier, but no less pertinent) has to deal more directly with the age-old question of representing animals in art — or, rather, with the fundamental neglect in failing to mention it. In an exceedingly real sense, animals have always been symbols and metaphors first and lives, living beings, second. Very likely since people have been people, animals have populated our folk tales and fables, epic poems and didactic stories as things that, by being them, make us us. As John Berger put it in his famous essay “Why Look at Animals?”, “The first subject matter for painting was animal. Probably the first paint was animal blood. Prior to that, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the first metaphor was animal … If the first metaphor was animal, it was because the essential relationship between man and animal was metaphoric.” That is, since time immemorial it’s been almost necessary for humans to make animals into art for reasons more profound than the simple desire to paint a picture: it’s because the capacity for representation is what places us above animals, and our ability to represent them — to talk and think about ourselves in relation to animals in ways those quadrupeds never could — places us above them in a manner that makes us human. In this way, drawing or representing an animal isn’t so far removed from killing or eating it, in that both are more or less unnecessary acts that nevertheless serve to make us, perversely, the humans — who dominate nature and rule a world of our own design — that we are (or else strive to be).

The core problem of a campaign which focuses on “animal rights” (a more or less useless term when you realize that “rights” only protect citizens, and a citizen is sort of a human being by definition) is that it places the impetus for action entirely in the wrong place. An animal’s closeness to us as a “cohabitant of this planet” isn’t what’s going to stop an artist from forcing it to fight or to mate, or from fabricating a terror dome in which it can live and die. Instead, it’s this very impulse of the artist to use the image, the metaphor of the animal to spur on and mediate our discussions — be they about globalization or orientalism or neoliberalism or what have you — which is what necessarily comes before and makes possible our domestication, collection, herding, eating, use, torture and training of animals.

Troy Sherman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at tsherman@cornellsun.com