April 16, 2007

"The doctrines of so-called ‘animal rights’ ... violently interfere with the rights of an art work to be freely exhibited in an art museum."

So says the artist. "They completely ignored the concept and ideology behind this particular art work." But that art exhibit put the toads, tarantulas, lizards, crickets and scorpions in an environment designed to provoke them into violence. "It’s pretty clear that the intention is that the observer is intended to witness potential conflict between the animals which frankly I think is kind of sick," said the Humane Society spokesman.

That terrarium was "a microcosm of global conflict and power dynamics" that "functions as a metaphor for the conflicts among different peoples and culture — in short, human existence itself." That is to say the toads, tarantulas, lizards, crickets and scorpions were supposed to do vicious things to each other to express the artist's ideology. The SPCA people wanted to add water bowls and hiding places and transform the gallery into something more like a pet shop -- which would destroy the whole concept of Huang Yong Ping's "Theatre of the World."

So: Artist's expression versus the welfare of toads, tarantulas, lizards, crickets and scorpions.

In the end, the animals were removed from the exhibit, which I think was the right choice. They were being mistreated, and to stop mistreating them would wreck the artist's message. The animals won, yet so did the artist. His show -- in Vancouver -- has received immense publicity. 5,000 people have already seen it with all that toad/tarantula/lizard/cricket/scorpion strife, and now everyone's talking about it.

Isn't the interaction with the animal welfare crowd part of the artwork, the larger performance -- in the theatre of the world? I think that statement from the artist, quoted above, shows him intentionally stoking the conflict in the world beyond the terrarium. The idea that his rights were "violently" interfered with -- surely, he meant to set you off. How can violence to an abstraction compare to the violence of the toads, tarantulas, lizards, crickets and scorpions attacking each other? He made you think that. He made you subordinate art to insignificant creatures. A powerful performance.

40 comments:

Sissy Willis said...

I guess it depends upon what your definition of "insignificant creatures" is. In my book, the "artist" would be the insignificant creature. For him, as for all narcissistic sociopaths, the other -- whether human or not -- is merely a prop in his fantasy.

Ann Althouse said...

Insignificant in the sense that we accept people squashing them summarily and for no reason.

Ann Althouse said...

Not a toad, perhaps, but only because it's big.

We accept people disposing of toads for no reason.

Paul Zrimsek said...

As Faulkner almost said, the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies but not even one scorpion.

cokaygne said...

The artist may claim that it is about censorship and freedom of speech, but I don't see how freedom includes the right to intentionally harm another living being. Most people eat meat and fish that comes from intentional slaughter of animals. They don't go around bragging about it or tieing it to some higher political purpose. As much as I would like to draw a line against eating meat and fish, I know it ain't going to happen in my lifetime because we are descended from a hunter-gatherer culture and still view meat and fish as necessary for survival, and they are in existing cultures like the Inuit. The least we can do is draw the line against gratuitous abuse of animals.

Paco Wové said...

We accept people disposing of toads for no reason.

We do? Some kid in your neighborhood goes out and kills 20 - 30 toads, and the neighborhood 'accepts' it? (True, he probably won't be locked up. In my neigborhood, though, there's a difference between 'legal' and 'acceptable'.)

The man's an asshole, and there's an end on't.

MadisonMan said...

I killed a toad as a teen. Didn't see it, and ran over it with the lawn mower. I don't think I actually killed it instantly, just took off a leg. I killed a dog once with my car; on a highway in the early morning as I rounded a bend, a dog -- a beautiful German Shepard -- appeared in the headlights. That was a queasy stomach moment. Humans are always destroying animals -- if this artwork makes people think about that for a little bit, I'm all for it.

Gahrie said...

There are hundreds of thousands of boys in this country who grew up "abusing" toads in ways that would make you animal "rights" nuts gasp and be nauseous.

Toad sticking, and putting firecrackers in toads mouths used to be part of growing up in many parts of this country.

SGT Ted said...

"There are hundreds of thousands of boys in this country who grew up "abusing" toads in ways that would make you animal "rights" nuts gasp and be nauseous.

Toad sticking, and putting firecrackers in toads mouths used to be part of growing up in many parts of this country."

Yes, boys do some pretty odd crap. But, we never called it "art" and if our mom and dad ever found out, our butts got warmed for it.

Oligonicella said...

This was not art. Look on YouTube and search animal and fight. You'll find loads of smaller animals being forced to fight by dumbass cretins with a phone cam.

This mythcal "we" doesn't work for either side. There are asses that run down cats and people who won't squash a spider. Where "we"?

Art involves thought, talent, technique and work. This displayed none.

He was just a dumbass without the phone cam.

Ann Althouse said...

Necessary cultural reference: Frog Baseball.

On the subject of abusing frogs/toads: I think this is just about the size of animal where we start to care if they are killed wantonly. (We care about torture down to the insect level.)

When I was a child, I discovered some of the boys in the neighborhood in the middle of their game of throwing frogs in the air and shooting them with BB guns. The girls were all shocked. These were boys we knew. And here they were: bad boys!

(We lived by a creek, and there was so much access to frogs. That was the only time I saw any frog-related nastiness. Or anything having to do with guns. Location: Newark, Delaware.)

Gahrie said...

Art involves thought, talent, technique and work. This displayed none.

Really?

I suppose Maplethorpe's works, and Piss Christ displayed all of these?

I see this little contretemps in a very ironical light......the Left complaining about objectionable art. For decades the Left has been busy removing all standards the art world...why impose them now?

MadisonMan said...

Art involves thought, talent, technique and work. This displayed none.

I disagree completely. This isn't artwork that I would hang in my home, or go out of way to see. But the artist obviously decided what to do, and executed it, and engendered quite a response -- rather similar to an althouse vortex posting, actually.

Maybe we have different definitions of art.

Ignacio said...

20 years ago or so in his film "The Holy Mountain" Alejandro Jodorowsky dressed up lizards as Aztecs and conquistadors and spilt a lot of blood. It was quite a spectacle.

In his earlier, most famous film, "El Topo," hundreds of white rabbits were killed -- by the director himself, with karate chops, as no one else could come up with a more humane yet bloodless way to have the bunnies alive in one scene, then piled up dead.

The artist Joel-Peter Witkin has exhibited b&w photographs of crucified monkeys. I don't know if he killed them himself or purchased their corpses.

Brian said...

As much as I would like to draw a line against eating meat and fish, I know it ain't going to happen in my lifetime because we are descended from a hunter-gatherer culture and still view meat and fish as necessary for survival, and they are in existing cultures like the Inuit.

That's absurd. That is not why most people eat meat at all. There's no necessity to it. People eat meat because they like it and don't see anything wrong with it.

Oligonicella said...

gahrie -- "I suppose Maplethorpe's works, and Piss Christ displayed all of these?"

Nope. That wasn't art either. People have fallen for the "it's the process or statement" crap.

madisonman -- "Maybe we have different definitions of art."

You said you disagreed. I presumed we have different definitions, then.

I'll be more blunt: Crap on a stick ain't art, regardless of what the guy trying to sell it says.

Just my opinion.

TMink said...

Olig, we disagree about Maplethorpe. That man was a fantastic printer and photogrpaher. His more traditional work was amazing and beautiful.

When he turned his eye to the disturbing, I turned my eyes away because it was just gross and disgusting. Color me provincial, but that is where I am on the homoerotic or bondage work.

But take a look at some of his photos of more traditional, or at least non-pronographic materials, he had the skills. I guess he just did not know how to use those skills, and his personal obsessions and kinks overwhelmed his art.

Trey

LoafingOaf said...

"It is extremely disappointing that a major exhibition of this important artist’s work has been overshadowed by competing concerns," said Augaitis.

Yap yap yap. He's "important" because he jumped on the bandwagon of artists unethically using animals in his art? There's some people who consider cock fighting a great "sport" just as this museum lady thinks this is great art. Whatever.

Seems to me you can just summarize this artwork's "statement" and make the same "deep observation" without ever having to see it executed: If you put snakes, toads, tarantulas, crickets, millipedes, etc., in a confined enclosure they will hurt each other, and this can be a metaphor of international relations between peoples. Stop the presses. Why do ya have to set the thing up and actually cause harm to living creatures to make this point?

If Mr. Important Artist must, then I'll call myself an artist, too, and set up a bigger pen and shove Mr. Important Artist in it with a tiger, a grizzly bear, some rattle snakes, and a few crocodiles. If someone stops me, they will be censoring me, and subordinating art to the insignificant Huang Yong Ping.

LoafingOaf said...

Nope. That wasn't art either.

I think it's all art. The main controversy over Piss Christ was that taxpayers were forced to pay for it even though it offended many thousands (perhaps millions)of them. Piss Christ didn't offend me, but I don't think tax dollars should fund art that significant portions of tax payers are offended by.

And the issue here is that disgusting, attention-starved people running museums are welcoming the opportunity to showcase art that uses live animals in a manner that is cruel, unnatural, harmful and/or fatal to them.

(Needless to say, many of the people who were insisting on forcing taxpayers to fund art that offend Christians would not insist on tax dollars paying for art that offends Islam. And I'm waiting for the Left to demand that PBS air the suppressed film about radical Islam.)

LoafingOaf said...

People eat meat because they like it and don't see anything wrong with it.

I'm willing to bet all those folks out there who love their dogs and cats will find a lot wrong with the practices of the meat industry towards pigs, cows, and chickens. More and more people are waking up about that every day and change is inevitable as the spotlight gets brighter. Burger King is already starting to squirm and take baby steps. In my observation, most people don't like cruelty to animals at all.

PatCA said...

Yes, humans are always killing animals, but more importantly, animals are always killing animals. We cannot rationally deny this, although the animals rights people seem to be trying. Witness the pathetic producers of the Earth series apologizing on Oprah for the graphic shot of the lions taking down an elephant in the wild. "It was the only time we saw something like that." Lions are nice?

OTOH, this art spectacle is quite creepy and sadistic. Not to go all theoretical, but the act of viewing art is voyeuristic, and to have people voyeuristically observing an ongoing, live dance of death assembled like a film by an "artist" for his and our pleasure, is sick.

Dr. NeoCon said...

Hi Ann,

I am a long-time lurker and first-time poster. This blog seems to maintain a reasonable balance between thoughtful, provocative discussion and issue advocacy. So, I thought I would add my $0.02.

IMO, Animals do not have rights. Only creatures capable of cognitive mediation and independent thought have rights. (To be generous, I will include rabidly partisan lefties in that definition).

However, I believe that humans have the moral obligation to treat animals with respect. I eat meat, but I trust the producers have not needlessly inflicted pain upon the creatures they harvested.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

"The idea that his rights were..."

Ann-

I think you miss an interesting point. The artist is not claiming that his rights were violated. What was violated was the "rights of the art work to be freely exibited in an art museum"

So how do we balance the rights of animals against the rights of art work?

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Interesting that two ways of approaching this exhibit are so diametrically opposed; art and meat production. I doubt any other topic would mix the two.

On art, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, let the beholder pay for beauty as he sees it, within legal limits. Do I find this exhibit beautiful? No, but then I'm not paying for it (I hope). Do I find it within legal limits? No, I don't.

There is a difference between the natural order of one beast killing another in the battle for survival and the purposeful mixing of beasts for the sport of watching them battle.

If two of my roosters fight in the chicken yard over a hen or two that is Darwin's natural law in action, but I would never cause two of them to fight for the (alledged) sport of watching.

On that same point I occasionally have to knock off a head or two for Sunday dinner. Catch one, stretch his neck, pluck and cook. Not that I wouldn't consider that torture if it happened to me, but I am a sentient being, and I never met a rooster I would say the same thing about.

Bottom line; call it art or sport forcing two animals to fight for human entertainment is wrong, but I see nothing wrong with our natural ability to enjoy them for dinner.

Richard Dolan said...

This story reminded me of an old post Ann did (Aug. 10,'05)about a sculpture (at least that's how I pictured it then) called "fetusbird" by another Chinese artist, Xiao Yu. I also seem to recall that Ann did a blog on "Bodies," the travelling exhibit of skinned (Chinese) corpses that tries to bring to life (!) that Gerard David painting that also got some play here a while back as well.

There's more than one thread connecting all of these stories. The "fetusbird" exhibit was all about the transgressive, attention-getting, tasteless, degrading, and disgusting qualities that seem to be the aesthetic order of the day. This terrarium exhibit is a weird cross between a nature show on the Discovery channel (where animals are often filmed attacking or devouring each other, whether in the wild or a more staged environment I'm never quite sure), and a gladiatorial combat where being a spectator at a killing is the object in itself. The terrarium strikes me as less objectionable than the "fetusbird" kind of thing, and I think Ann is right about the reason: most people don't identify with bugs (we often go to great lengths to try to extirminate them), but frogs, lizards and larger animals evoke a different response.

The really strange thing here is that the modern-day museum curator thinks that this is the kind of exhibit that needs to be presented. That's only partly explained by the ability of sensationalism to build attendance. The aesthetic of these pieces is so gross, the point both so unsubtle and (frankly) uninteresting, that it's hard to see the curatorial value in mounting the exhibition. But, in the end, I suppose, that's all "eye of the beholder" stuff. I wouldn't go out of my way to see something like this.

Dr. NeoCon said...

Ignorance is Bliss,

To whom do the "rights of art work" accrue? Artists may posses rights, but their products do not.

It also seems that there is no "right to exhibit". In most cases (i.e., excepting public protest), it is a commercial arrangement subject to contractual standards.

Revenant said...

I guess it depends upon what your definition of "insignificant creatures" is. In my book, the "artist" would be the insignificant creature. For him, as for all narcissistic sociopaths, the other -- whether human or not -- is merely a prop in his fantasy.

I would suggest that a person who speaks in defense of scorpions and spiders while labeling other *humans* as "insignificant creatures" has no business calling anyone else a sociopath.

Personally, I pay people to poison all the creepy-crawlies in and immediately surrounding my house. Frogs and lizards I've got no problem with, although my lawnmower has certainly sent plenty of them to the afterlife. But in any case I fail to see what's so "cruel" about letting predator animals feed on each other. What did you think they ate -- tofu?

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: Thanks for remembering those old posts. Here's the one about the fetus bird. And here's the Body Worlds one.

Kirby Olson said...

I read a profiling book by an FBI agent once. He said that all serial killers had these three characteristics:

1. They tortured small animals when they were children.

2. They liked to light fires and play with matches.

3. They wet their beds until quite late (often into early adolescence).

A more thorough background check is needed before we can decide that this artist is a sociopath, but it seems that the art here could simply be an attempt to torture animals while using the cover story that it is a complaint about the abuse of animals.

How does he feel about matches? Does he wet his bed? If we could ascertain these follow-ups, we could attempt a temporary classification. But there isn't enough information here to be certain.

Dr. NeoCon said...

Kirby,

The first two points are correct about sociopaths. However, medical evidence seems to indicate that bed wetting, which is most common among boys, has to do primarily with physiology (i.e., an undeveloped bladder). Psychological isues may be engendered in how some bed wetters are treated by their parents, but psychological problems are typically not the cause of bed wetting.

MadisonMan said...

I wonder if the shooter at VT today that I've read about with horror matched the three criteria.

Pete the Streak said...

The VT killer would appear to me to be more a mass/group murderer, and not a 'traditional' serial killer (based on this incident alone).

Of course, the available info on this psycho is almost nonexistant at this point.

Craig said...

Ignorance is Bliss wrote:
The artist is not claiming that his rights were violated. What was violated was the "rights of the art work to be freely exibited in an art museum"

I think you are reading an odd claim about rights where what is happening is a Chinese artist (or his translator) not having a perfect grasp of English.

Kind of too bad, because talking about the rights of inanimate objects would shine a light on the PETA-like talk about the rights of toads, tarantulas, et al.

Revenant said...

How does he feel about matches? Does he wet his bed? If we could ascertain these follow-ups, we could attempt a temporary classification.

First of all, you could only "attempt a temporary classification" if you failed basic logic. "All X are Y" does not mean that any given Y is an X. It doesn't even tell us if any given Y is *likely* to be an X.

Secondly, the "Macdonald triad" of alleged serial-killer traits is pseudoscientific crap. Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, for example, fail to meet the three conditions. All you can accurately say (and indeed all that real psychiatrists DO say) is that children exhibiting all three conditions need therapy.

Thirdly, torturing and killing small animals -- i.e., animals like the ones in this experiment -- is normal behavior for children. The trait associated with serial killers is the torture or killing of *large* animals such as dogs or other pets.

cs said...

"Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don't; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us. Animals are so easily overlooked, their interests so easily brushed aside. Whenever we humans enter their world, from our farms to the local animal shelter to the African savanna, we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike. [A]nimal welfare is not just a moral problem to be solved in statutes, but a moral opportunity to fill our own lives with acts of compassion. How we treat our fellow creatures is only one more way in which each one of us, every day, writes our own epitaph- bearing into the world a message of light and life or just more darkness and death, adding to the world's joy or to its despair." --Matthew Scully, Dominion.

Jennifer said...

If his art consisted of dead scorpions that he himself killed in a reasonably decent way, that wouldn't bother me. The idea of caging them and making them fight bothers me very much. I can't articulate why that is. And I hate scorpions with a passion. Ugh, now I'm thinking about them. And shuddering.

Why do most boys go through that killing little things stage!? I remember a bunch of (guy) friends discovering that salamanders would grab onto a lit M80 and hold it right up until it blasted them to bits. They thought it was hysterical. I actually cried. And promptly grabbed their bucket of salamanders and tossed it back into the reservoir. This was in high school, though. I wonder if that's still considered normal behavior.

Chip Ahoy said...

I stocked my aquarium with species of fish that wouldn't fight amongst or between themselves. Noticed their behavior varies throughout the day. Did you know those darling little neon tetras that normally pace in schools at times break apart, and for awhile become supremely territorial? They're ridiculous. The Takashi Amano style tank is pure art and so are the little dramas. Now, this is important! The tank is a microcosm of the interplay between myself and the fish that serves as a metaphor for my vision of the global relationship between humans and the environment. I add CO2 and increase light in order to allow for intensive plant growth. I watch them fuss over areas of about 6 inches of dense foliage and invite my friends to watch too, for art appreciation. Am I bad?

Favorite pet store sells crickets by the hundreds to feed ... something. And little fish for pyranha and mice for snakes. Every time I'm in there, people are buying live food -- usually a boy. All those terrariums. Artists. Think, Tom Green in Road Trip teasing the snake with the mouse, enticing it to bust a move. Pure art.

Revenant said...

Why do most boys go through that killing little things stage!?

The amateur evolutionary psychologist in me would suggest that it probably has something to do with the fact that virtually every man who ever lived, prior to the 20th century, needed to kill BIG things when he grew up. Livestock, predators, game animals, other humans, etc.

Take the earlier example of throwing frogs into the air and trying to hit them with a weapon. For approximately 499,900 of the last 500,000 years of human evolution that sort of activity would have fallen under "good practice for later in life".

Women, historically, don't do much hunting or fighting compared to men, so there's less of an incentive to engage in violent "hunting" play.

Jennifer said...

Makes sense, Revenant.

TMink said...

loafing Oaf wrote: "In my observation, most people don't like cruelty to animals at all."

Agreed. But there are widely divergent opinions as to what constitutes cruelty. That is the crux of the biscuit. Some people are appalled that I use crickets to fish for bream that I then cook and eat. Most of us are not insulted, but some are. It is in the diversity of what constitutes cruelty that the interesting discusssion lies.

Trey