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Controversial Guggenheim exhibit raises questions
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“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” said Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948), leader of the Indian independence movement against Britain. In the U.S., and nations throughout the world, that’s a measure continuously tested.
A high-profile test played out in recent weeks over a Chinese exhibition scheduled to run through early January at the Guggenheim New York. It sparked controversy before its October opening with what was described by The New York Times as three “major works” – none new – exploiting nonhuman creatures.
“Theater of the World,” also the name of the entire exhibit, is a set of photos from a previous “performance” wherein pigs were tattooed and mated in front of an audience of people. A second exhibit has live amphibians, insects and reptiles under a dome – museum goers can watch and may see some of the creatures prey upon others. In the original iteration of “Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other,” pit bulls were put on treadmills facing off for attack, but restrained from tearing each other apart, also as people watched. The Guggenheim intended to show the video of the original staging.
Dogs, known as “Man’s Best Friend” in the Western World, are routinely packed “like sardines” and crated for their slaughter throughout Southeast Asia and China to be served as meals for human beings. The notorious China Yulin Dog Festival has been widely condemned worldwide for several years, but the city and its obstinate denizens continue the event in which an estimated 10,000 dogs are killed to eat.
Worldwide, the Humane Society International estimates 30 million dogs are eaten every year by people. Given an insufficient number of people in the world have seen the memo that dogs are companions, not dinner, maybe it’s no surprise that Chinese artists fail to see a problem with using sentient beings as tools. While that’s no excuse for ignorance of the plight of fellow creatures, it’s some context.
There is no excuse though for an elite American institution to support animal maltreatment under the guise of art. It’s beyond baffling that a prestigious arts institution would have been so off the mark in its dogged commitment to this Chinese exhibition. In response to “Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other” (awkward in its name alone), The American Kennel Club wrote, “Dog fighting is unacceptable and should not be displayed in any manner and certainly not as art. Depictions of animal cruelty are not art. Using live dogs in depictions of animal cruelty is not art, nor is it healthy for the dogs involved. It creates a perilous, damaging and stressful environment.”
Even after this and other intense criticism, including a petition signed by 720,000 people that called out “several distinct instances of unmistakable cruelty against animals in the name of art” and asked that the museum “pull the pieces employing these cruel methods,” the Guggenheim remained committed to the so-called art in a September 21 statement.
After that response, activists protested outside the museum, and the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals continued the call to pull the offending pieces. In an open letter, she wrote, “These animals ... are emotionally complex and highly intelligent living beings, not props. The animals in these exhibits are not willing participants ...”
The Guggenheim relented four days later, but in reversing its decision failed to grasp the real issue of animal rights, instead stating the decision was based on “concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists.” Perhaps Guggenheim Museum and Foundation Director Richard Armstrong is just so far removed from reality operating in the rarefied art world ... courting high net worth art donors, living well among objets d’art. As a thought experiment, Armstrong should imagine the creatures used in the exhibit replaced with human beings and consider if that would still be “art.” Increasing numbers of people don’t see a difference.

A Senior Fellow with CAPS, Maria Fotopoulos writes from Los Angeles about the connection between human overpopulation, wildlife loss and the environment. Contact her @TurboDog50.