September 22, 2017

The most fatuous art-talk I've ever heard.

There's an artwork called "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other," in which pairs of live dogs are restrained on treadmills facing other dogs on treadmills. The dogs struggle for several minutes to attack each other. The original performance took place in a museum in Beijing in 2003, with the dogs present — struggling on treadmills — in the museum. A video of that event is to be included in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, "Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World." Facing criticism that the video is a recording of the abuse of the dogs, the Guggenheim has issued a statement:
Reflecting the artistic and political context of its time and place, “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” is an intentionally challenging and provocative artwork that seeks to examine and critique systems of power and control.

We recognize that the work may be upsetting. The curators of the exhibition hope that viewers will consider why the artists produced it and what they may be saying about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share.
They're posing as if they are calling us to a higher plane. Think about the symbolism, as the dogs represent people.

Yeah, I am familiar with artwork using dogs to represent people. It's real sophisticated:

But go ahead. Use dogs to represent people. Knock yourself out making paintings of dogs. But if you want to do shows with live dogs, you'd better treat them right, and we, the audience, need to stay firmly grounded in reality and refuse to participate if you're tormenting the animals. That's the highest plane: Stark awareness that the video "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other" was made by tormenting dogs.

To slap abstraction on it — "examine and critique systems of power and control" — is ludicrous and disgusting. Power and control were used against the dogs. If we are to care about "systems of power and control," we must object to the treatment of the dogs, not drift off into musings about how somewhere else human beings are subjected to power and control.

"We recognize that the work may be upsetting" is an outrageous putdown, essentially accusing those who object to animal abuse of being snowflakes, too sensitive to confront challenging art. We are invited to consider the internal lives of "the artists": why they "produced it and what they may be saying." But if any internal life deserves consideration, it's the experience of the dogs, whose lives were appropriated for the purpose of expressing a message "the artists" chose to reduce to a form that used the suffering of other sentient beings.

What do frustrated, aggravated dogs have to say about "the complex nature of the world we share"? Human beings have entertained themselves with dog fighting since Roman times. Putting the dogs on treadmills saves them from getting bitten and makes big clowns out of them. It's funny and it works because — unlike human beings on treadmills — they don't understand what's happening and why they cannot progress to the violence they crave. So, yeah, that's like some real-world situations in which belligerent humans can't progress. We can easily figure out why "the artists" used dogs and what they are saying, but that isn't a terribly rewarding intellectual journey, and even if it were, it wouldn't justify the cruelty to the dogs.

I do get something out of hearing that such a performance took place in a museum in China in 2003. I understand something about debasement and numbness within that culture. But the Guggenheim is in my culture now, and it should not be showing a video of the animal cruelty and palming off fatuous rhetoric calling us into debasement and numbness as if it were an elevated accomplishment.

ADDED: Here's the NYT article, "Guggenheim Exhibit With Video of Dogs Trying to Fight Stirs Criticism." There's a photograph of the poor dogs, with Beijing museum-goers looking on.
But so far the backlash has centered on the video by the artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, the husband-and-wife creators of often stirring and unsettling work. (In 2000, their transfused blood was injected into the corpse of conjoined babies in the performance piece “Body Link.”)...

In an interview last year, Mr. Sun and Ms. Peng defended “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” and dismissed claims of animal cruelty.

“Where is the soft spot in all of this?” Ms. Peng said. “Were the dogs being abused? The answer should be no. These dogs are naturally pugnacious... In fact, human nature and animal nature are the same. China hosted the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. What is the goal of this type of sporting event? Actually, it is the conversion of actual fighting into regulated competition.”
If "These dogs are naturally pugnacious," it is because human beings have bred them and trained them to serve human needs. 


Michael K said...

And, after the show, they eat the dogs.

LordSomber said...

You can best bet
We’ll all get wet
When the young dog
Learns a trick

Bone sweet bone

rhhardin said...

Dogs are into fighting, those that are. Thurber celebrates his dog Rex ("Snapshot of a Dog") who never started fights but knew how to finish them.

"He never went for another dogg's throat but for one of its ears (that teaches a dog a lesson), and he would get his grip, close his eyes, and hold on. He could hold on for hours...Rex's joy of battle when battle wa joined, was almost tranquil. He had a kind of pleasant expression during fights, not a viscious one, his eyes closed in what would have seemed to be sleep had it not been for the turmoil of the struggle..."

People are upset by dog fights, not dogs.

richlb said...

Just make sure none of the dogs are dressed like Muhammad.

Anonymous said...

Ann, it has to go some to be the "most fatuous". Most comments on current art are fatuous: The Kramer was so funny because it was so true!

sparrow said...

LOL loved the sarcasm

Bay Area Guy said...

Need a "Leftwing Lunacy" tag, Althouse.

David said...

We have a lot of power over our dogs. Life and death at the extreme. How we use that power is a pretty good measure of who we are.

Gahrie said...

Abusing dogs? Tormenting dogs?

HoodlumDoodlum said...

To slap abstraction on it — "examine and critique systems of power and control" — is ludicrous and disgusting.

Now now Professor A; aren't they just insisting that you think deeply about the situation before concluding the exhibit is morally wrong?

Anyway we all know great art makes you feel and the combination of the current exhibit and the exhibitor's comments certainly seem to have made many people experience strong feelings so by our measure this must indeed be great art.

Gahrie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
traditionalguy said...

Hurray, for our Professor. Dogs stay grounded in reality, and art that claims to express the dreams of mentally ill idiots had better keep their hands off dogs used for the for entertainment of people like themselves. Ask Michael Vick about how that works.

Gahrie said...

If "These dogs are naturally pugnacious," it is because human beings have bred them and trained them to serve human needs.

Yeah because wild dogs never fought each other before humans taught them to. There are no dominance fights in wild wolf packs. Wild animals don't kill and consume each other, never fight, and live in peace and harmony as vegans unless humans teach them otherwise.

Fucking evil humans.

Owen said...

Brutal! Loving it.

What we need is YouTube of dogs latching into the ankles of post-modern artists and art critics. For that, I would pay big money.

John Nowak said...

I'm not sure if putting a dog on a treadmill counts as animal abuse, although it's certainly possible.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Ann Althouse said...I understand something about debasement and numbness within that culture

"Within that culture?!" Oh my, oh geez, oh dear. Soooo problematic!
What about X?
What about Y?
Isn't YOUR culture ever so much worse!?
How can you, a person of privilege, even hint that some cultures might be different, much less WORSE in some way that other cultures?
Someone's got a lot of woke-ening to do.

tcrosse said...

Reflecting the artistic and political context of its time and place, “Two Strippers Mud-Wrestling” is an intentionally challenging and provocative artwork that seeks to examine and critique systems of power and control.

Roger Sweeny said...

In art, all is permitted. Otherwise, you're a philistine.

How many times have I read, "Sure he was a terrible person, but he left us great art, so we shouldn't judge him harshly."

Big Mike said...

@Roger, so I'm a philistine. Meh. The "Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other" is animal abuse. If you cannot see that from looking at the eyes of the poor animals on their treadmills, that what can you see?

IMAO when it comes to art, "Dogs Playing Poker" is the more artistic. Which is not saying much.

Saint Croix said...

I am glad we are over that cat thing. That was a scary couple of days.

Gahrie said...

Harnessing an animal to a plow and forcing them to pull it is abuse.

Forcing an animal to carry you on its back is cruel.

Stealing milk from animals for human consumption is evil.

Killing animals to consume them is murder!

Matt DuPree said...

Earlier contemporary work in China has included work where a live goose was nailed to the wood floor through its webbed feet, its suffering the subject of the work. Would the Guggenheim similarly apologize for or validate the metaphor in that case also? If live dogs or geese were to be installed at the Guggenheim, would they have been as accepting?

These are, of course, ridiculous works completely lacking in artistic merit and devoid of ethics. They obviously should not be exhibited in a institution of any standards..

Char Char Binks said...

I'm gonna burn a puppy in front of the Chazen Museum of Art tomorrow at noon. For art's sake.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

I don't need to see the video but the description is thought-provoking and the theme is highly relevant to today's times. Let's just hope Trump and Kim stay on the treadmill and don't slip their leashes. Don't unleash the hounds of war!

Richard Dolan said...

This post harkens back to several earlier ones on this blog, going back to its earlier days.

For those who were here in 2005, AA did a post about a sculpture called 'fetusbird' by a Chinese artist, Xiao Yu (Aug 10, 2005, to be precise). That one has always stuck with me. As the name implies, it was a work that used an aborted human fetus and attached it to a dead bird to create the 'sculpture' (if I remember correctly, the work was being exhibited in a gallery in Switzerland, and got a lot of press). She also did a post about "Bodies', a travelling exhibit of skinned (Chinese) bodies that, in its weird way, was a riff on a Gerard David painting of a fellow being skinned alive as punishment (late 15th century; it's in Bruges) that got some play here back in the day. Then there was a post (2007) about an exhibit consisting of a terrarium full of bugs attacking each other -- evidently intended to put the spectator in the position of someone attending a gladiatorial combat-to-the-death writ small.

This one about the dogs is the least gross of the bunch. But they are all a tribute to the power of sensationalism to build attendance. The aesthetic of these pieces is so gross, and the point both so unsubtle and (frankly) uninteresting, that it's hard to see any other curatorial value in mounting the exhibition.

Earnest Prole said...

Meh. As anyone who spends time around actual dogs will know, when restrained they love to fake like they will kill each other, but the moment they are released they come to a peaceful understanding based on pack dominance and submission behavior. The exception is dogs that have been trained to kill by humans. If this art is "abusive" then so is any dog on a leash.

Roughcoat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roughcoat said...

Why use dogs as a metaphor? Strap a couple of Chinamen on treadmills and see how they like it.

EDH said...

"Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other"

But at least they can lick their own balls.

So they've got that going for them, which is nice.

tcrosse said...

But at least they can lick their own balls.

Lick 'em if you got 'em.

Big Mike said...

@Left Bank, can I volunteer my neighbor's little, fluffy, yap-yap dog? Barks at anything and everything, annoying the Hell out of his neighbors.

Anonymous said...

Hard to form an opinion when no one will link to the video. I guess I'm just supposed to accept the characterization that the dogs are "struggl[ing]."

From the still photo, it looks like the dogs get angry and work up a sweat.
At the risk of being anthropomorphic, I bet they feel frustrated. However, it's one way to give them exercise indoors and in a limited space.

Would it be worse if the unreachable goal just beyond the end of the treadmill was food? Or if they were trained to run on a treadmill for 20 minutes, just to gain the trainer's love and approval?

Anyway, I'm trying, but I haven't managed to work up any outrage yet. Except maybe at what passes for art these days.