Should animals be used in art?
Stemming from Antonius’s email to the Animals/People list about a conversation between Morrisey and Linder:
Two of my fave punk stars bitch about Damien Hirst in this month’s Interview mag…
MORRISSEY: I dislike the “use” of animals in art, such as in the work of Damien Hirst. But in your latest performance piece, “Your Actions Are My Dreams,” you have a woman serenely sitting atop a calmly satisfied horse, which is, of course, alive and healthy. Do you agree that Hirst’s head should be kept in a bag for the way he’s utilized—and sold—dead animals?
LINDER: Dead butterflies, cows, horses, humans, sheep, and sharks—it reads like the inventory of a funerary Noah. How many halved calves suspended in formaldehyde does the world need? To my way of thinking, none.
I like their quip on Hirst’s work, though I disagree. Is it really any better to use live “calmly satisfied” animals rather than taxidermy? I kind of think it’s worse.
There’s a great debate in my head about this very issue. And not just about whether or not taxidermy and real animal parts are warranted in this age of synthetics, but also how the animal is procured for a work, how it lived before, etc. There is a relationship that occurs between an artist and the material (alive, dead, whatever) that is undeniable, and can change the meaning of a work. It would be very different if Hirst went out and caught that shark himself, or if he raised those calves from birth. That would add a layer of meaning that might be extraneous to Hirst’s intentions. There’s the work, and there’s the back-story. Sometimes I think it makes a work richer to know the narrative history of specific elements that have been transformed or repurposed– the meta-narrative of the work– and sometimes it dilutes the meaning or gives answers where questions would better serve the work. While I wish I could focus only on my impression of a given work, I’m always curious for the back-story, especially when there are living or dead creatures, people…
I haven’t really done the research, but my impression of so-called Relational Aesthetics (or Misery Porn, as my Colombian friend calls it) is that it’s a Humans Only discrimination. Living animals in work are treated differently than humans. Is this because they can’t speak for themselves, like a human baby, and are somehow off-limits due to that? Does it tread too closely to the edge of forced labor politics or slavery or concentration camps a la E. Costello? As students (and prof!) who relate to animals on a deep, carnal, existential layer, I would like to know what you all think about an artist “using,” though I prefer the term incorporating or integrating, the being/remains of an animal into a given piece (sculpture, performance, video, etc). Does the medium or media or genre make a difference in how this display of life/death/decay can be distanced from the art viewer, or can we say that the artistic use of a old giraffe snuff video has the same impact as an artfully framed live webstream of a giraffe hunt, or a giraffe being shot onstage in an symbolic gesture? Degrees of framing, sensationalizing, rawness. All use pre-existing materials and shape them in a meaningful way. I would say in the case of performed vs documented harm, yes, there is a big difference in degrees of challenging the viewer’s complacence, not interfering. And there’s a huge difference in the artist being complicit.
I’m questioning the difference between a “found” carcass being used in a work and killing the animal yourself. Emily Mayer says she’d never do it, which I understand. That, and a long conversation with my parents, led me to this weird renaissance trend of urban dwellers wanting to participate in the raising, slaughter and dressing of their meat. I can’t tell if this is “worse” than conscientiously raised anonymous meat, or better. It’s certainly more responsibility, psychologically and ecologically, etc. It’s also a way to come to terms with eating meat, but it’s also a way of excusing yourself from the animals-as-industry-product argument. So, how is that different than raising your own rabbit to kill and use in a work of art? Why should art, rather than economy or farming, require ethical treatment when it comes to sentient beings?
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These are questions I’m asking myself because I’m considering embodying one of these rat pieces from the perspective of the pest control professional. That could entail being complicit in the death of a rat, or killing one myself. I had a really long talk with my parents last weekend about this idea. They questioned the role of animal in art. My mom called me a Nazi. She said, “anything you do to a rat think about doing to me.” My father said that the rat has no agency in the creation of said work. I brought up that animals that we eat and that they eat have no agency in the food industry. Animals in the pet industry have no agency either. My dad said that the taking on of a character is basically too thin of a reason. My mom said, why can’t you just follow an exterminator and watch. I’d be complicit without getting my hands dirty, I said. My father said the debate is interesting. I said, our distance from everyday death is what I want to question. He said, if you get to that moment where you’re going to kill the rat you can make the choice to do it, or let it go. “Like the lizard and the crickets,” said my mom.
I said, the point is to not ignore Death because it’s all around us and there’s nothing we can do about it. We are responsible in our actions or lack of action. I have strong principles like many people, and they’re pretty ethical for the most part. But I thought what would happen if I went against those principles? What is the difference between killing “vermin” hordes that populate parks and streets for population control and killing an individual rat as a performed persona within the context of a documentary? Certainly no creature need die for art, but need a creature die for human encroachment or sanitation? How do we draw those distinctions? Certainly the rat, who rivals us in ingenuity and survival skills is killed to conserve our way of life. The rat is a destructive force, a non-person, a non-pet animal that interferes. Is there a way to coexist, or must we attempt to control them, i.e. kill them?
Partly it’s curiosity. I have never killed an animal but have assisted in more than enough euthanasias. I know what they look like when they die. It no longer induces that familiar catch in my throat, the melting sensation under my skin. Maybe because I don’t know them, I didn’t grow up with them. Thicker skin or reduced compassion? Movies make me sadder.
Factory farms. Horrible lives. My mom said sometimes she wants to, “rescue lambs and spend money on intensive care. Meanwhile people are killing them and eating them. People who go out to kill the deer hunting– but remember when we went to Africa? I got the clearest picture of stark wild. Kill your own food. I don’t want to be a predator. But what about prey animals? Well, herd animals. Lions have to kill every day.” She doesn’t want that.
What if I ate the rat?
“That would be better,” said my mom, “I don’t give a fat shit about a lot of things but when it comes to animals and children I’ll defend them to the death.” I said, “you know I’m quoting you on my blog, right?” My mom said, “I don’t know about blogs.”