Cynthia Freeland: Complaints about contemporary art that uses animals are not new. Apart from the artists mentioned here, Jannis Kounellis and Hermann Nitsch, we could also discuss Damien Hirst’s various animal-in-tank exhibits ranging from the notorious shark to a lamb, pigs, and sliced-in-half mother cow and calf; Marco Evaristii’s “Helena” which presented live goldfish in blenders including one that was pulverized, resulting in animal cruelty charges; Guillermo Vargas’s display of an allegedly starving dog in a gallery in Nicaragua; and Ann Hamilton’s Privation and Excess, which included three live sheep as well as thousands of pennies coated in what must have been gallons of honey. (Vegans would denounce the exploitation of bees as well as sheep in this work.)
|Ann Hamilton, Privation and Excess, 1989|
Protestors have vigorously campaigned against Eduardo Kac’s transgenic art, particularly his 1990 work “GFP Bunny” which created a bioluminescent green bunny using genes spliced from a jellyfish.
|Eduardo Kac, GFP Bunny, 2000|
The petition to stop the Nitsch exhibition planned for Palermo cites the UNESCO statement, “A Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare,” which succeeded a prior statement on Animal Rights from 1978 that did not glean enough support to have much international effect. The current statement, drafted in 2000 based on proposals from 1987, has yet to be approved by the UN and thus has no legal standing. The petition cites several principles from the 1978 document allegedly violated by Nitsch’s art, including Article 10, which maintains, “No animal shall be exploited for the amusement of man. Spectacles involving animals are incompatible with their dignity.” However, granting that the work is art would presumably rule out its being “mere” entertainment. The second point might seem more relevant, but Nitsch uses only dead animals and parts obtained from butchers. On this the petition cites another principle, Article 13, which maintains that, “Dead animals shall be treated with respect.” But of course for Nitsch and his followers, the rituals he creates and they participate in are deeply momentous, making it hard to establish the claim that the animal viscera are not being treated with respect.
Of the other cases I listed, the recreated Kounellis piece seems least troubling. The horses have plenty of hay, a rubber floor, and attentive grooms. The need to sleep lying down seems to have more to do with a horse’s preference than with attaining REM sleep. Indeed, horses are tethered in stalls all over the world and do lie down to sleep there if they want to. The more serious concern would be for them to get exercise. Some veterinarians would argue that all horses should live in herds, wild and free at best or in paddocks at worst, and that they should not even have shoes but be bare-hoofed.
|Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (12 Horses), 1969/2015|
The Eduardo Kac transgenic rabbit might seem especially outrageous, but the artist claims that he is only highlighting work done in the sciences every day of a much more extreme and potentially sinister nature. Damien Hirst obtained all of his animals for display in vitrines from knackers, except for the large tiger shark displayed in “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” He commissioned both the original shark and its recent replacement to be caught and killed by an Australian fisherman. Sharks are of concern now as endangered by various fishing practices and 100 million of them are killed each year by tuna fishing and also in order to make sharks’-fin soup. One might argue that this particular shark’s death is part then of the larger problem of shark endangerment. But in relation to the scale of the problem, one death seems minor; and on the other hand, this shark has been memorialized in a particularly striking piece of art that forces us to meditate on questions about life and mortality. And so does Hirst’s “Away from the Flock” (1994) — to me a more disturbing work. Again using a vitrine and formeldahyde, it presents a gamboling little lamb that looks beautiful and serene—and yet it is all alone, and very very dead.
|Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock, 1994|
It is inadequate to view any of these works on their face and pronounce them illegitimate as art because they don’t look like what many viewers expect of art, something pretty like a Monet, or at least something that takes the traditional form of a sculpture or painting, rather than a piece out of a science museum or weird work of performance art.
Like the Kounellis piece, the works I have mentioned all require, for either appreciation or legitimate criticism, some grasp of the relevant art context and conventions. None of these works comes out of nowhere. Both Nitsch’s work, which typically involves symbolic crucifixions, the transformative use of blood, and enacted rebirths, and Hirst’s vitrines, at least in the lamb piece, draw upon centuries of traditions of western, particularly Christian, art.
|Hermann Nitsch, Crucifixion, 2005|
The right artistic precedent for “Away from the Flock” is Francisco de Zurbarán’s magnificent and moving “Agnus Dei” (1635-40), a lamb tied up readied for sacrifice.
|Francisco de Zurbarán, Agus Dei, 1636-40|
Neither work is really “about” lambs or sheep, but about the Christian belief in the sacrifice of Jesus for human salvation, the metaphor of Christ as shepherd, etc.
|Francisco Goya, Tauromaquia 35, 1816|
Rubens’s huge dynamic hunting scenes present nightmarish visions of boars hunted down while dogs flail nearby after being pierced by their tusks, or of a tiger tearing at the flesh of horses and men while a brave tiger mother tries to protect her cubs. Rubens seemed to render the animals with more character and emotional vividness than the humans in these scenes—despite the fact he had probably never seen most of them in life but only in other images or taxidermy collections.
|Rubens, Tiger, Lion, and Leopard Hunt, 1617|
Anthony Cross: Let me begin with what I think is a pretty unobjectionable moral principle, namely: we shouldn’t cause suffering unless there is a good enough reason to do so. Something like this principle is in the background of quite a bit of our daily moral decision-making. It’s why we think it’s OK to send kids to the dentist—even if it means certain drilling—and it’s also why we think it’s not OK to shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
Of course, humans aren’t the only animals capable of suffering. Cows, pigs, chickens, horses—and yes, probably even lobsters—also have the capacity to suffer. This means that, if we’re to be consistent in our moral reasoning, the same principle should apply to animal suffering as much as it does to human suffering. Two test cases for the principle: Gustatory pleasure likely isn’t a very good reason for factory farming animals, whereas primate testing of human vaccines is maybe OK, because of the possibility of saving countless human lives. So far so good.
This principle also gives us a starting point for thinking about the recent controversies surrounding the restaging of Kounellis’s Untitled (12 Horses) and Herman Nitsch’s show in Palermo, respectively. In particular, it prompts us to ask two questions: first, to what extent does the use of animals as artistic material in each case involve causing suffering on the part of the animals in question? And second, to what extent is there a good reason for causing such suffering?
Do the horses in Kounellis’s piece suffer? In the piece as it was recently installed in Gavin Brown’s gallery, I suspect that the answer would be: they don’t suffer much. The horses were treated largely as they would be in a comfortable stable. They were provided with ample food, water, a staff of three dedicated grooms, and a rubberized floor for comfort. Granted, the horses were forced to stand tied for the opening hours of the gallery; they couldn’t exercise or lie down at will. In this respect, Kounellis’s piece does seem to involve animal discomfort—albeit no more than might be experienced when tying or transporting a horse normally.
Is there a good enough reason to cause such discomfort? Another way to put this question is to ask what value or values the work might realize through its usage of live animals as artistic materials, and to ask further whether these values outweigh the suffering caused by the piece. Not having seen the piece myself, I’ll defer to Roberta Smith, who writes in the Times: “The horses are just there, standing, eating hay, occasionally snorting and relieving themselves, attended by three grooms. Their accommodation in a space that is recognizably an art gallery foments an especially concentrated encounter with the brute power of art and its ability to transform space…the elemental, curative force of animals and their size, and quiet, are felt more keenly in this setting than in a stable.” Smith highlights the experience of the animals as one that is calming, peaceful, and restorative. She credits this largely to the presence of the horses in the otherwise sanctified space of an art gallery—one which, perhaps, allows visitors to truly look at the animals in a way that more familiar settings might not invite.
Some will no doubt argue that—marvelous experience or not—this is still no reason to cause any pain or discomfort to animals. Art, as “mere entertainment”, doesn’t warrant anyone’s non-consensual suffering. But I think that this is to shortchange the importance of the arts. Mary Deveraux writes: “Artists possess talent and training that make them capable of showing us what we might not otherwise see or see clearly…if we accept that artists are specially equipped—technically and imaginatively—to help us see things, then they naturally have a special social role to play. They can function as critics, reformers, revolutionaries—or even, as defenders of unappreciated aspects of the status quo.” (p. 214) So just what is it that Kounellis is helping us to see clearly? Perhaps it is a demonstration of the relationship between man and animals—a relationship which, as John Berger has incisively discussed, is one of almost utter marginalization. In bringing animals into the space of a gallery, Kounellis elevates work animals to the status of art objects—thereby challenging our ordinary lack of regard for them. This important function is, I think, enough to warrant a bit of temporary equine discomfort.
I have less to say about Nitsch’s shows, in part because I know much less about his process and his use of materials. As I understand it, Nitsch uses animal carcasses obtained through commercial butchers for his performances. I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of his materials are the product of factory farming—and, whether or not the animals were slaughtered specifically for Nitsch, this would mean that the production of Nitsch’s pieces require a great deal of animal suffering. Is this suffering warranted? Given that factory farming practices involve intense and prolonged animal suffering, the bar for justification is correspondingly much higher than that set by the discomforts of twelve horses in a gallery. Although Nitsch claims that he is an “animal protector” and that “from [his] point of view factory farming is the biggest crime in our society”, his usage of these materials—even in a critical role—seems rather difficult to me to justify. (Although it’s possible that Nitsch uses only animals that are humanely raised and painlessly slaughtered. This would largely address my concerns with his work.)
I’ve been focusing solely on the justification of animal suffering in art-making practices. My aim has been to defend the incorporation of animals into artworks insofar as a) this involves realizing a specific value that couldn’t be realized without the incorporation of animals; and b) this doesn’t involve an especially high amount of pain or discomfort on the part of the animals in question.
Suffering aside, there are still plenty of questions that one might raise about the appropriateness of these pieces. Here are two that I hope we might discuss further below: First, are Kounellis and Nitsch demonstrating adequate respect for the animals and animal bodies they incorporate into their show? Do animal carcasses, for example, deserve not to be mutilated in the context of an artistic performance—even if this involves no suffering on the part of the animal? Second, suppose that we grant that there is something morally problematic about Kounellis’s and Nitsch’s pieces. Even if this is the case, should we nevertheless allow artists some leeway morally, in the name of producing good art? If so, how much?
Anthony Cross is a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles. www.anthonycross.com
Ross Cameron: A protestor showed up to a recent presentation of Jannis Kounellis’ 12 Horses with a sign reading ‘It’s not art, it’s animal abuse.’ I’m not sure about the first claim, but I agree completely with the second: this work is, to my mind, inexcusable animal abuse. It is simply not okay to tie sentient beings to a wall, deprive them of the ability to exercise, to lie down, to turn around, or to properly sleep throughout the day for our own amusement.
Why are contemporary artists drawn to use animals in their works? Evidently there is neither a single nor definitive answer to this question, but one thought that suggests itself is that non-human animals stand for a realm of what the anthropologist A. David Napier has called ‘natural resemblances’, aspects and parts of the world wherein we seem to find elements that manifest themselves as laden with meaning prior to our awareness of them, and the encounter with which tends to undermine our sense of our uniqueness, whether as individuals, social groups, or as a species. The emergent interest in incorporating animals into art is also coeval with the emergence of performance art as a genre of visual art distinct from theatrical performance; indeed, Beuys’s two best-known performances involve his interaction with animals. Arthur Danto argued that a central aim in performance art is the self-transformation of the artist in the service of the collective self-transformation of the audience. Danto judged the attempted realizations of the aim futile and pathetic, both because the artist was not in fact transformed—she retains her identity qua artist, and indeed augments her status as an artist in doing and repeating the performance–, and because the audiences remain untransformed in witnessing the performance—the institutional staging of the performance as art neutralizes the action and returned them to the artworld as just yet more instances of novel artworks. But animals in art retain a kind of otherness that incites an imaginative project that cannot be completed: what is it like to be a bat? The concomitance of the emergence of performance art with use of animals in art suggests that the use attempts to address the failure to fulfill performance art’s aims, and accordingly touches on an essential contradiction in contemporary art, the routinisation and institutionalisation of characteristically avant-gardist attitudes and practices –boundary-breaking; the range of attacks on the bourgeois conception of art; and the self-transformation of the artist– that aimed in some sense to overcome the limitations of art.
Now, starting no later than Newton Harrison’s Portable Fish Farm: Survival Piece 3 of 1971, which proposed to display the raising, electrocution, and eating of two dozen catfish, artworks that incorporate animals have incited protests and, more recently, petitions aiming to prevent or end the display of such works. The works also typically have their defenders, and anecdotal evidence suggests that a great many members of the contemporary artworld would endorse most instances of the use of animals in art, and offer a range of justifications in terms of a variety of artworld truisms, such as the supposed right of artists to unrestricted free expression, and the consequent inviolability of works arising from the exercise of that right, or the claimed fertility, importance, seriousness, iconicity, or unimpeachable pedigree of such works. Nor correlatively is there any consensus that I can discern among those who object to such works precisely what it is that is objectionable. The quoted statements of those objecting to Kounellis’s exhibition suggest a range of objections from the illegitimacy of treating animals as objects of visual fascination generally to the alleged specific mistreatment of the horses in this particular instantiation of the piece.
A beginning of insight into these matters might arise from considering the range of objections and defenses of Kounellis’s and Nitsch’s works in light of a schema offered by Tzachi Zamir for thinking about the moral dimensions of the use of animals generally. Both objections and defenses crucially employ two concepts: use and exploitation. How is the distinction between them to be made out? Is there a distinction in artistic practices between the (morally neutral) use of animals and the (morally malign) exploitation of animals? Zamir urges that the distinction be drawn in terms of benefits to the well-being of animals. Exploitation characterizes a subset of uses that are substantially detrimental to what is being used, and in which the use furthers the user’s well-being. To fail to make the distinction between use and exploitation in practice is the metaphysics of the factory farm. Those who object to the very idea of benign uses of animals in art seem to presuppose that no such distinction can be drawn, and that the terms collapse into the malign pole: all (artistic) use is exploitation, and accordingly such works are objectionable and should not be displayed, regardless of their alleged artistic merits. The quotation from Danny Moss suggesting that having the horses tethered for a lengthy period need not imply the complete rejection of the piece; the period of daily exhibition could be readily shortened from nine or six hours to, say, two or three hours.
With regard to these two recent cases, my sympathies are very much with those objecting to the display, though I find myself uncertain on account of the fragmentary and scattershot presentation of the evidence in both cases: how problematic is it for a horse to be tethered amongst others horses for six or nine hours? What sort of horse? And what is the relation between the works by Nitsch proposed for display and his notorious killing of animals as part of some of his past performances? For what it’s worth, I have no settled attitude towards Nitsch and his work, and I consider some of Kounellis’s works to be among the greatest works of the past fifty years.
Perhaps one route for deepening reflection here is provided by that inexhaustible resource for ethical thought and practice, the third book of the Analects of Confucius:
Tzu-Kung wanted to do away with the sacrificial sheep at the announcement of the new moon. The Master said, ‘Ssu, you care for the sheep, but I care for the ritual.
A major part of Confucius’s efforts were devoted to the restoration of the rites after a long period of cultural decay. But restoration is not mere repetition, as on the Master’s understanding it must include recreation of the spirit of the rite, which includes the motivation to participate and the ways in which the rite animates and is animated by its cultural context. Note that Confucius does not dismiss Tzu-Kung’s concern, and it would be in the spirit of his thought to treat the restoration of the rite as an occasion for collective re-thinking and improvisation, and not simply to produce new instantiations of an iconic ritual.—So too with these iconic works of contemporary art?
Note: in the spirit of the rite of blog posts, I have not included citations, but I wish to note that my thinking on these matters is greatly indebted to three works in particular: Richard Wollheim’s essay “The Sheep and the Ceremony”, Tzachi Zamir’s Ethics and the Beast, and A. David Napier’s Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology.
John Rapko currently teaches ethics at the California College of Arts and art history at the College of Marin, and is the author of Logro, Fracaso, Aspiración: Tres Intentos de Entender el Arte Contemporáneo. Some of his writings can be found at www.academia.edu