Matt Turner considers the relation between art forms, ethics, cruelty and freedom.
Disclaimer: I am against animal cruelty in all circumstances.
This summer at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, an open letter asked that Dana Schutz’ painting of brutally murdered civil rights icon Emmett Till, Open Casket, be removed and destroyed. For weeks afterwards, various articles, letters, interviews, persons and institutions sought to either defend or to figuratively destroy the painting. Eventually, two distinct stances toward the letter emerged:
1. The letter is principally wrong. Any artist is entitled to freedom of expression, and removing the work would amount to censorship. The work is an abstraction of a civil rights figure admired by the artist.
2. The letter is correct. The work had been chosen by curators for a private exhibition, and removing it would likewise be a curatorial decision. The painting is a mere beautification of a tragedy, created by a member of a community that was not directly affected by racism, the direct cause of the tragic event.
In addition, the artist stood to fortify her reputation, while the black community gained nothing from the work, except for knowing that their history of pain and suffering supplied the raw materials for the artwork. In the end, the painting was not removed, but a number of public discussions were held. The art world stayed the same. No interrogation had enough authority to change entrenched institutional practices. Nevertheless, numerous men and women who showed up at the museum to silently guard the artwork, as if at a wake, signify ethical responsibility. The painting was not taken down, but history and context were acknowledged, and the memory of the individual depicted in the painting, as well as the experiences he represents to the black community at large, came alive through familial acts of mourning.
Two weeks before the opening of Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World, the Guggenheim’s new major exhibition of Chinese art (1989-2008), an article appeared in The New York Times. It discussed several works in the exhibition that would fit into the animalworks genre — the practice of incorporating live and dead animals into artworks. The genre remained unnamed and unexplored in the article.The following day, a petition to have the works removed appeared online, on grounds of animal cruelty. Five days later, the petition amassed around 700,000 signatures, the Guggenheim employees received violent threats, and the three works that received attention in The New York Times were removed from the exhibition. People would have needed to independently investigated the works in question in order to see them.
One of the pieces, by duo Peng Yu and Sun Yuan, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, is a video of a 2001 performance in Beijing. Four pairs of pit bulls, obviously at a previous time used for dog fighting, faced off against each other for seven minutes. Each was placed on its own treadmill, never reaching or touching another dog, eventually tiring to the point of losing interest. They relaxed for five minutes afterwards, received water and back rubs from “coaches,” then went on for another seven minutes on the treadmills. For much of the piece, they appear distressed. Whereas no additional animals would be harmed in the exhibition of the video at the Guggenheim, many were concerned that the museum was sending a morally faulty message by endorsing the performance. In other words: this may have happened in the past, but to celebrate it is to encourage similar acts in the future.
Many people saw the Open Casket painting and instinctively recoiled. It caused emotional and intellectual pain in the black community, yet the work was ultimately defended on grounds of artistic freedom. Many people likewise recoiled from the perceived cruelty of Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other. Unlike those responding to centuries of brutality directed at their very persons because of their skin color, many felt compelled to speak on behalf of the dogs in the video, who were without voice. The video, though defended on grounds of artistic freedom, was removed from the exhibition.
The Guggenheim petition called the works “cruel.” It derided as “sick” those who would take “pleasure” in viewing the works as. It questioned the works’ status as art. Replicating the language of the petition, whenever Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other was discussed in online forums, it was referred to as “art.” The online world judged that the works breached the limits of ethics. Aesthetic explorations should not cross ethical lines. The “artwork” in question embodied “cruelty” and was even “torture.” Ethics, however constructed, should take precedence over aesthetics.
Open Casket was likewise considered an ethical breach by many, yet the connection did not seem to be there for others — Emmett Till was not lynched by Dana Schutz, so how can anyone make the comparison? Peng Yu and Sun Yuan put dogs in an ethically compromised setting themselves, and video-recorded it. For contrast, compare these works to the portraits that Paul Gaugin painted of his young sexual conquests in Tahiti. You may tell yourself that the local culture was different, but it is still hard to excuse the man — and we still look at the paintings. Because they are semi-abstract, it is easier to separate the image from what is being viewed. Some believe that the medium of painting is unable to portray suffering. Its subjects are treated as presentations of form alone. Although Tahitian girls suffered Gaugin’s abuse, they are not depicted during acts of abuse, so they remain presentations of form. Their abuse is literally immaterial — it does not transfer into the fact of the painting itself. Although abuse informs their subject, it does not inform their composition, technique or — in a word — form. The paintings exist in the present whereas the abuse does not. And although, many said that Open Casket caused pain and suffering in the present, because Till’s death is an event in the past, and because Open Casket is a painting, many can enjoy it on the level of form and intellectual inquiry. This is the line often drawn by the artworld between present abuse, past abuse, and art: being caught in the act.
The dogs in the video of Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other were not physically fighting. What is caught in the act is past emotional trauma caused by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan. It was recorded on video. Although no dogs are being harmed in the display of the video, their suffering is implied. The video is what is on display, however, and not the act. The dogs were recorded, yet the recording is a video — not dogs. If we divide the subject and the object like this, we must call the video something besides a documentary recording. Like Open Casket and the Gaugin portraits, it is a form.
As many have said, the real issue is that Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other has crossed the line; the line separating art from ethics. Either art should never be unethical or cause physical harm, or art can be unethical, and can harm how it wishes.
Culturally, it is unavoidable to point towards specific art criteria, but a historical survey of Chinese art begs what cultural criteria should be applied. Since this is a survey located in New York, it makes sense to exclude works that are unpalatable to New York sensibilities.
We make artworks exemplary of our cultural norms. Displayed as artifacts of an alien culture, we do not acknowledge that Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other may be an act of transgression in its own cultural context.
If the video is included as an act of transgression, it can be accepted as unethical while maintaining its integrity as an artwork. Cruel art can be exhibited as art.
Think back. Stories about how The Rite of Spring caused vomiting and riots are often met with bemused comments about the impact of art today. But today in the US we rarely associate form with morality, and even if we do, one can easily walk away. There is little at stake in formally experimental work that challenges what we think exists, or what we think is just. But imagine if we could not walk away and turn a blind eye, because the existence of such a work would mean immediate consequences of immorality and even cruelty, as far-fetched as that may seem. Yet, due to the time between it and us, we cannot touch each other.
And so it is difficult to make transgressive art today. Sexual transgression, as in works that undermine gender binaries or explore unconventional sex (think S&M), only bothers those who are prejudiced, and unlikely to see the artwork in question. Political transgression can be expressed in the arts, but the goal of political dissent is recognition and assimilation, not art. Real political transgression would be something unforgivable, like terrorism. Yet no one is asking for the transgressive act to be forgiven. It is not a revaluation of values; it is a transgression of values. Display a murdered man in an aestheticized form and it is not so much a transgression as it is a demonstration of institutional racism in the art world. Transgression is out there, but in far less curated environs than the Guggenheim, New York City, or the online spaces in which petitions happen.
It is not ironic. Works have been removed from the exhibition; we have touched them. But imagine if we had not. It is possible that some individuals would go see them with view for inspiration or out of a misanthropic drive. Maybe they hate animals, and want to torture them. Yet it is ridiculous to think of the works as promotional materials for animal cruelty. It betrays an unimaginative attitude towards artworks as well as nearly any event. The unimaginative mind is an exhibition of the bottom line yet things rarely have a bottom line. Recently I met with a friend, a lawyer, and discussed this exhibition. He suggested an analog would be pornography. Through commercial repetition it persuades people that it is a document of real life, although it is also an act. Even when it succeeds at prescribing action, pornography has this dual nature — it is always a real fake. And in another context, pornography can be used against itself to demonstrate unequal relationships, and be used as an argument against exploitation. Again, a video like Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other can be a document of real life, a performance, and about unequal relationships as well. Although pornography is built upon a contract between individuals, whereas Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other is not, both can be read as forms to be promotions as well as condemnations of their depicted subject matter.
Transgression is contingent upon moral values, but does not itself have a moral message aside from upsetting the dominant morality. Transgression that does not do that is in bad faith, and enforces the dominant morality.
Transgressive acts can be read as endorsements, interpretations, and contradictions.
Public voices of dissent, like PETA, have offered their own interpretation, from the outside. They have made the case for public assembly against the work, that the work itself — the video — constitutes a public act, and that being the case it violates public norms of ethics — hence the intense public disapproval. But by stating that the work is a public act, they make the case that any removal of the work is a removal from the public eye. No one at the Guggenheim has cried censorship, yet the removal of a public act that does not violate the law is indeed a kind of censorship. If the law should be changed, appeals to the market along with private threats replicate systems of control. This zero-sum game — if you do not give me what I want then I will take what you value — is refreshing. For who has the authority to display an artwork, things often without purpose yet usually inscribed with many? Seen from this angle, the removal of a work from the public eye is also a denial of private power, and an appeal to a new constitution of the public. The dissenting voices and interpretations of protesters and activists, in a sense, depend on and have become part of the work — a reaction to cruelty that is frozen in a form for an unclear purpose becomes a call to public redefinition as much as it is an aesthetic judgement. They are as much part of the work as the video and the dogs it depicts running at each other, never meeting on screen.
Matt Turner is a writer based in New York City and Beijing. His work has appeared in Seedings, Cha and The Asian Review of Books, and is forthcoming in Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books and The World of Chinese. He is the translator of Lu Xun’s Weeds.