Guggenheim Missed the Point: Freedom of Expression Shouldn’t Trump Cruelty

Last week the Guggenheim Museum in New York announced it would remove three exhibits from its current show, “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” after the art aroused intense criticism from activists for depicting and displaying animal cruelty. In a statement released by the museum, representatives described their discontent with a decision they felt forced to make, stating, “We are dismayed that we must withhold works of art.” Rather than addressing the cruelty involved in the exhibits that sparked the controversy, the Guggenheim instead misconstrued the issue to be a matter of prohibiting free speech, concluding that “Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.

Of the three exhibits, the most controversial was “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” a video in which four pairs of dogs chained to non-motorized treadmills struggle to fight each other. Critic Meiling Cheng reported that the artists, husband and wife couple Peng Yu and Sun Yuan, got the pit bulls from an institute dedicated to breeding and training fighting dogs. The artists defended their work, which they intended to be a commentary on sporting events, by saying that the fighting dogs were “naturally pugnacious” (further perpetuating the deadly stereotype that pit bulls are inherently dangerous). Initially, the museum defended its decision to include the work in its show by asking the public to consider its artistic and political context. The second exhibit in question consisted of hundreds of reptiles and insects trapped in a tabletop dome under a bright lamp “devouring” each other. The third featured pigs whose bodies had been marked in nonsensical symbols engaging in sex while confined. The pieces were described as “sick and twisted” by critics and an online petition calling to pull them gained more than 750,000 signatures from activists, artists, academics, and museum attendees.

The Guggenheim did pull the pieces, but not because it had a change of heart. In their statement, the museum attributed their decision to “explicit and repeated threats of violence,” not due to the violence and explicit abuse of the nonconsenting parties portrayed in the video. When pressed on the matter by New York Times writer Robin Pogrebin, a museum spokesperson only said, “The tone in both the petition comments and the social media postings, calls, and emails was markedly different from what we’ve seen before and required us to take the threats very seriously.”

While it’s understandable to take specific and calculated threats seriously, and while it disappoints (and alarms) me that any person fighting for the respect of nonhuman animals would violently threaten an establishment, the Guggenheim’s reaction raised numerous concerns. By citing violent threats as the reason to remove the pieces, the museum deterred attention from the true ethical and moral arguments rallied against them. Furthermore, their insistence that the threats forced them to engage in the censorship of free expression, without ever acknowledging the grotesque ethical implications of these exhibits, is missing the point.

Animals have been used by artists to represent power systems, as decorative motif, and symbolically for thousands of years. European cave paintings featured animals that early humans preyed upon and those that preyed upon them. After the agricultural revolution, domesticated animals were featured more prominently than those in the wild. The images of animals were featured in sculptures, jewelry, clothing, and paintings. But today, especially in contemporary art, animals have become a means to shock and extract “untamed” and “uninhabited” emotions from audiences. Damien Hirst’s 1990 installation, “A Thousand Years,” featured a rotting cow’s head inside a glass case and his 1993 work, “Mother and Child Divided,” consisted of a cow and her calf cut in half and pickled. Nathalia Edenmont killed rabbits, chickens, cats, and mice and chopped up their bodies for her photography. In 2006, Banksy confined an elephant to a small room and painted her body in the name of art. While local authorities permitted it, after concerns were raised about the health risks for the elephant, organizers were ordered to scrub the paint off the elephant, but she still remained in the tiny room. In 1976 Kim Jones covered rats with lighter fluid and set them on fire for art. While she was found guilty of violating regulations at the time, she only had to pay a small fine. Regardless of the abuse the actual victims of art suffer, the use of animals in art has never truly been about the animals themselves, but about human identity. Ultimately, animals are tools we use to explore theories of humankind and to express ideas about our own existence.

And this latest controversy with the Guggenheim museum does exactly that. The museum, and those who support its response, will never understand these ethical considerations so long as nonhumans are considered objects and property for humans to use, and our inadequate laws perpetuate this belief. For example, in the United States v. Stevens (2010), an appeals court terminated a law that banned the sale and distribution of depictions of animal abuse. The court argued that the law was too broad and could violate free speech. The Animal Welfare Act (1966), places some welfare protections on certain species of animals, while limiting protections for farmed animals and intentionally disregarding mice and rats as animals in order to bypass welfare regulations in scientific experiments.

Essentially the Guggenheim (as a primarily educational institution) failed in its response. The First Amendment protects rights to freedom of expression so long as it does not harm anyone, but becomes convoluted when an individual is considered less than. We humans have long deemed ourselves to be the apex of life. Because we consider this to be true, we believe that we are superior to other animals and that we have ownership and entitlement to individuals that are not human. As we learn more about the abilities and feelings of nonhuman animals, we are discovering that the border between us isn’t as immovable as we first believed. Our humanity is revealed through our relationships with other animals, and ultimately, our treatment of them informs how we engage one other.