Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

What’s So Wrong with Free Expression, Abusive Art, and Understanding?



What follows is a guest post by John Rapko about the recent Guggenheim Museum controversy.

The controversy

On Friday, September 22, a friend sent me an e-mail alerting me to an on-line petition. This time the issue was that the Guggenheim Museum in New York City had released a list of the names of the artists and their works to be included in the upcoming show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” Among the 150 works were three involving live animals, including a video of an installation by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu wherein dogs were strapped into opposing treadmills, where they ran in place, tugged, and snarled at each other to exhaustion. The two other pieces are by artists better-known outside China: a notorious piece by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World”, which shows a large structure wherein many reptiles and insects have been placed, with the animals left to willy-nilly eat each other, fight for space, or make some kind of mutual accommodation; and a video by Xu Bing that shows a boar and a sow, each densely painted with nonsense–Chinese and –Roman characters, mating in a gallery. Thousands of people, including myself after a scanning, were signing the petition. The Guggenheim quickly released a statement urging people to consider the works as a document of their times, and to reflect upon the situation of the artists who were driven to make such works. The signing of the petition only quickened, and by Tuesday, September 26, when the Guggenheim announced that the works would not be shown, supposedly because of the threatening tone of many of the complaints about the show, the petition had garnered over half a million signatories. What had happened? Was it simply a matter of an internet mob hurling electronic threats of violence towards the museum’s employees that forced the otherwise unjustified withdrawal of the works, as the Guggenheim stated? Was the withdrawal further a cowardly capitulation to thugs with an impoverished understanding of animal rights and human rights, indeed “tragic for a modern society”, as the artist Ai Weiwei said? Is this an act of “censorship” violating the artists’ “right to free expression”, as Huang Yong Ping, the artist behind one of the allegedly objectionable works has urged? Or had an inexplicable category mistake been corrected, as implied by the countless objections that “animal torture is not art“? 

The artistic right to freedom of expression

Consider the odd claim that artists have ‘a right to free expression’, an alleged fact that shares with so many other bits of contemporary ideologies the characteristic of seeming simultaneously self-evident and false. The expansion to infinity of the extension of the concept of a right is evident in my having, at this very moment, a right to be treated with the dignity due to a rational being, rights to clean air and water, a good education, free internet service, and to this particularly pleasant seat in the cafe, because I got here first. Where on this spectrum is ‘the artist’s right to free expression’ located? Three prototypical cases wherein artists are said to have the right to free expression suggest themselves: first, the artist conceives of such-and-such a work, and then has a ‘right’ to realize her conception; second, the artist, having made the work, has a ‘right’ to show it; third, having shown the work, the artist has a ‘right’ to be protected against harm stemming directly from the work’s having been shown, such as legal punishment for having expressed in the work views at odds with those of the government or powerful elites. Each case presents a scenario wherein the invocation of a right supposedly de-legitimizes interference in an artist’s making and exhibiting a work. The current Guggenheim controversy seems to fit the second case, the artist’s right to show her work, if one adds the point that the curator’s decision is the mechanism through which this ‘right’ is exercised. The claim that the internet mob’s activity amounts to ‘censorship’, and accordingly violation of an artist’s ‘right’ to free expression, presupposes that the second case embodies a robust conception of such a right.

One common objection to the existence to such a right is that in such cases the right is at most aspirational, that is, one might hope that such culture might arise wherein such a right is securely anchored in customs, beliefs, practices, ethics, and perhaps legal systems, though such anchoring is not now actualized. An alternative and more acerbic way of putting this point is that some people might wish such a right existed, but others might not, and the assertion of such a right is a bluff, simply a way of avoiding the work of providing an argument for the desirability of the requisite change in our practices. But in the context of the Guggenheim’s actions, the assertion of such a right reveals something more particular and more peculiar to the artworld, namely, a fetishisation of the curatorial decision.

The artworld’s fetish is this: an uncertain cultural arc, always subject to vicissitudes, stretching from the artist’s initial conceptualization of a work, through the exhibition of a work arising from an process of making tied to the initial conceptualization, and consummated in viewers’ appropriately attuned encounters with the work, is screened from view. In place of this arc, an unintelligible dogma is established and arrests reflection. The dogma is expressed in the taboo-ridden belief that once some curator, anywhere in the world, connected to some institution, anywhere in the world, has decided to show a work, then nothing, absolutely nothing, ought to be said or done to urge, or even perhaps force, the withdrawal of the work. The artist’s alleged right to free expression is just the gussied-up public face of this dogma. Nothing justifies this right, other than the dogma of the infallibility of curators—it’s not conceivable that a curator could have made a mistake in deciding that such-and-such a work be shown. A dogma is installed, an on-going cultural process is hidden, and a flag is planted proclaiming the binding nature of an aspirational right. The alleged right attached to the second scenario, the artist’s exhibition of a work, is a metaphysical fiction, grounded either in a vast over-estimation of the wisdom of curators, or in mistaking an aspirational right for some established right, that is, some right that is both rationally justified and actualized in institutions and legal systems that enforce the artist’s or curator’s decision to exhibit a work. As John Dewey would have noted, this is the philosophy of reaction: a right is posited in order to evade accountability and to silence and disempower critics.

In any case the target of the objection to showing the works, I would suggest, is not on the curatorial decision per se embodied in the second scenario, but rather is an attempt to reveal and contest the entire process across the first and second scenarios. Huang and Ai demand respect for the freedom of artistic thinking and making, the freedom allegedly embodied in the first scenario, but the criticisms of the second scenario’s ‘right to expression’ apply mutatis mutandis to the first: there it is the artist himself who is fetishized as infallible. The aspirational claim that the artist is and must be ‘free’ to do whatever he wishes falls to the same Deweyan point.  The artist’s freedom to create whatever, absolutely whatever, he wishes is of a piece with the freedom demanded by the southern slave owner in London in the mid-19th century, one who says “They say England is a free country, but no country is free where a man can’t beat his slave.” Likewise, we are asked to think that if an artist can’t abuse an animal as part of a piece, then he’s not free. Both statements of these two claimed freedoms are equally wrong-headed and grotesque.

The objections to the show, then, do not target the curatorial decision narrowly conceived; the objections re-frame, or at least attempt to re-frame, the issue away from the free-expression-fundamentalism of “if an artist made it, and a curator decides to show it, then it must be so,” toward a more direct and public engagement with the corrupt artistic content and presentation of the pieces, one which focuses not on the narrow point of censorship but to the entire process from the corrupt artistic thinking to the blinkered curatorial practice.

But is this affair is simply another instance of an ignorant and inflamed internet mob violating an otherwise uncorrupted artistic and curatorial process? No. The objections to the exhibition of these works draw a prima facie attractive limit: works may not be made and may not be shown if the artists, for whatever reason, have made works of art that constitutively involve the abuse of animals, either as part of the work’s content or in its manner of presentation, and where the focus of the appreciation of the work is the spectacle of animals being abused!

What justifies this particular restriction? Is it not just as stipulative and ill-grounded as the aspirational right to freedom of artistic expression and exhibition? I have attempted partial responses elsewhere (here and here). And the considerations I have advanced here put some burden of explication upon those who insist that there are unqualified rights to freedom of artistic expression, and that such rights protect the expression of content constitutively involving the abuse of animals.

Do we need to see the works in order to understand modern China?

Along with the claim that withdrawing the works violates the artists’ right to free expression, a second objection to withdrawing the works has been urged repeatedly: we need to see the works in order to understand recent Chinese art, and further to understand the cultural and political situation in China after 1989, and so ultimately to understand ourselves as part of an infinitely complex, inextricably intermeshed, globalized culture. This objection equivocates between two quite different claims, neither of which survives examination in a way that supports the inviolability of the relevant works and the unrevisability of the decision to show them.

One way of taking this objection is to treat it as stating what has been called the Acquaintance Principle in art, which claims that a work of art can only be understood by someone who has experienced the work in person. But in this context the Acquaintance Principle has nothing to say about the work’s capacity to reveal broader contexts; accepting the Acquaintance Principle is consistent with thinking that other works could reveal the social and political character of post-1989 China as well as or better than the contested ones. The force of the Acquaintance Principle is restricted at most to the revelation of the artistic merit of the work, and only that very work, that is experienced in person. Yet no one to my knowledge, not the Guggenheim in its initial attempt to ward off criticism, nor even the curator Alexandra Monroe, has argued that these works embody as such a high degree of artistic merit, and a fortiori a degree of merit that motivates the showing of the work in the face of claim that the torture of animals, and/or the filmed representations of such torture, ought not be exhibited as works of art (as opposed to, say, documentations of such torture). Monroe has only said, for example, that one of the works, Huang Yong Ping’s “Theater of the World”, serves as a good introduction to the style of “visceral realism” that pervades the 150 works in the show; no claim is advanced that visceral realism is best expressed in Huang’s work, or that other works could not serve equally well as introductions.

The second way to interpret the objection is this: It is not the artistic merit of the individual works, but the way in which these particular works enable understanding of Chinese culture and its politics, that would be sacrificed if the works were not shown. But this version of the objection falls to the same considerations that defeated the claim of the relevance of the Acquaintance Principle. Nothing has been offered to suggest that the disputed works uniquely convey cultural understanding. And if the point were that such works need to be displayed in order to demonstrate the kind of desperation that drove artists to make works that constitutively involve the abuse of animals, then one wonders why the even more grotesque works that were made during the period should not also be shown. One such work was a performance wherein the artist Xu Zhen threw a dead cat that he had previously strangled in private; another work by Sun and Peng consisted of the exhibition of numerous dead and dying animals that had been impaled. The fact that no one wishes such works to be re-created and shown points to the bad faith in this latter version of the objection.

Can animal torture be art?

Even if these responses to the two major defenses of showing the disputed works are persuasive, the reader no doubt again notes that I have not yet said anything to defend, or even explicate, the objectors’ central positive claim that animal torture is not art. If animal torture is not art, then would-be artworks that constitutively involve such torture are not to be exhibited as works of art. What sort of considerations might render this claim intelligible, if not fully justified?

The statement that animal torture is not art conflicts with a basic ideology of contemporary art in its typical, as it were post-Duchampian conception. In contemporary art, it has been said countless times, “anything can be a work of art.” This dictum is silent on the question of what then makes “anything” into a work of art, but it does not seem uncharitable to think that it implies that animal torture could be, or be a part of, a work of art; correlatively, the claim that animal torture is not art seems to imply that under no conditions could it be (part of) a work of art. So it seems the two dicta conflict.

Alternatively, one might take “animal torture is not art” not as a descriptive statement, but as expressing a moral-cum-political imperative: forget ontological questions; we must forbid animal torture as something that can be constitutive of a work of art. Here I can only suggest one way of rendering the claim, whether taken as ontological or as moral, more intelligible. At one point in the essay “The Sheep and the Ceremony,” Richard Wollheim explores the connection between ritual and art, in particular in the ways in which they confer value upon expressions of mental states. First, Wollheim suggests with particular reference to ritual, the sheer fact that some expression is an expression of a mental state motivates us to assign value to the expression. Wollheim suggests the quasi-Hegelian point that the basis of this valuation is the fact that the sheer expression of mental states; the expression fits the mental state, and through this fit “we make ourselves at home in the world.” But, second, “how do we set value upon mental states themselves?” One criterion recommends itself: “inner states are of value just in case their outward manifestation is something that lends itself to calm and steady contemplation . . . [and] [i]f the outward manifestation repels contemplation . . . then the inner state stands criticized.”

Applying this criterion, as unusual as it is suggestive, to the case of animal abuse in art leads to one thought: a mental state that could find expression in the torture of animals is not one that can find expression in a work of art, as such a mental state repels contemplation, where contemplation consists in part in the mental activities, induced by and attuned to the work of art, of imaginative exploration, dwelling upon details, considering the play of possible frameworks of interpretations, and indefinitely much more. Animal torture, live or filmed, induces a repulsion that blocks such activities. It would be as if the content of a work of art included documentary footage of the struggles of a drowning person, and the work attempted to induce contemplation of the spirals of water generated by the doomed person’s flailing. Some things cannot be (the content of) works of art; or so this line of thinking suggests. If this is right, then animal torture is among the things that cannot be a work of art, except on pain of a de-sensitization and moral self-degradation of the spectator, who is asked to view the torture and to think, “Well, what does this tell me about Chinese culture after 1989?” It is for this reason that I have on other occasions referred to works constitutively involving animal abuse not as not being art, but rather as a certain kind of bad art, namely “evil art”, a kind of art that induces mental states that tend to undermine the practice and point of art.

So perhaps this is, if anything is, what is so wrong with animal torture in art. Likewise I have tried to state what is wrong with the unqualified and dogmatically stated appeals to the right to artistic freedom and understanding. It is a sign of the difficulty of the issues, the passions they induce, and the taboo-ridden character of contemporary art, that I do not for a second imagine that anyone not already sympathetic to these considerations shall be swayed.

Note on the Author
John Rapko, a Bay Area-based philosopher of art and art critic, is the author of Logro, Fracasco, Aspiracíon: Tres Intentos de Entender el Arte Contemporáneo (Achievement, Failure, Aspiration: Three Attempts to Understand Contemporary Art). He currently teaches art history at the College of Marin and St. Mary’s College, and writing at UC Berkeley. His writing has appeared in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the British Journal of Aesthetics, and the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, and his art criticism in Artweek,, and the San Francisco Arts Quarterly. A second book on the philosophy of contemporary art, Return to Darkness, based upon a series of lectures given in July 2015 at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, patiently awaits its final editing.

Image credit: via NYTimes


  1. I agree! Good piece. Thank you for writing it. I’d like to remind readers of a previous roundtable on similar issues, including something I wrote. You can find it here:

  2. BRILIANT. Especially the invocation of Wollheim on the question of why animal abuse cannot be art — that it repels contemplation. I am also reminded of Adorno’s essay on commitment when he says (approximately) that a simple “is” in a statement that clearly “is not” so disrupts our formal apprehension of the text or artwork that we can no longer see it for the totality it purports to be. It becomes a lie and non-artistic.

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