Sunday, April 15, 2007

Controversial Art: When Controversy becomes Cruelty- Artistic Expression is Chained


At what point does a work of art become more of an issue of cruelty than controversy? Installations that involve living beings are often created with the intention of causing a stir with observers. The artist desires to send a clear social message by exhibiting their work in an extreme manner. The question is- at what point do these works go from being examples of controversial art that 'opens our eyes' to works that are down-right cruel? And why is it that normally the artist is the only one pursued when such works have legal action taken against them? Should the freedom of artistic expression be upheld no matter how cruel a piece seems to be?

I bring these issues up because a controversial sculpture that pitted live caged animals against each other was closed today at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada. The artist, Huang Yong Ping, was accused of cruelty and may have charges brought against him. Huang Yong Ping is an internationally-known Chinese artist who now lives in Paris (He is no stranger to controversy- I've mentioned him in a past entry).

Huang stated that the animals will be removed in order to "maintain the integrity of the artwork". Do you think that this artist went too far with his creative exploration and dissection of social struggle? Does there come a point when art is no longer art and is instead a vehicle for cruel intentions? Or is this artist simply misunderstood? Does the intention of the artist out-weigh the manner in which he conveys his message? Should this artist be charged for the direction he has taken in the name of artistic expression?

In order to understand this case we must understand the intention of Huang Yong Ping. Kathleen Bartels, director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, stated that the installation "encouraged people to think seriously about the dynamics of power in today's society." Thus, the piece was intended to convey the struggle of everyday life in our complex society.

In a sense, it reflected on the dog-eat-dog mentality of corporations and the modern worker- of the lawful citizen and gangs- every social situation involving struggle was reflected in the piece. So do you consider this installation a masterful work of artistic expression? Or do you see it as exploitation with the intent of spurring exposure for the artist by crossing the line of morality and social restraint?

The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) pressed for the exhibition to be closed. By provincial law, the artist can be investigated and may have charges of animal cruelty brought against him. However, isn't the gallery equally responsible for the work that was displayed? Since opening a week ago, the "Theatre of the World" sculpture housed scorpions, lizards, tarantulas and other animals together in a single cage. Should Kathleen Bartels, director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, be equally charged for allowing the exhibition to occur in the first place?

I ask these questions because it often seems that the creators of highly controversial work are targeted instead of the sponsors of the work that is exhibited. Is this fair? Should gallery directors follow a stricter criteria for the work that they exhibit? Or is this case an attack on artistic freedom? Perhaps both the artist and the gallery director are victims? What do you think?

Huang has stated that critics "completely ignored the concept and ideology behind this particular art work". He also stated that people against the work are only focusing on animals rights while completely denying the right of an artist to create work that is freely exhibited in an art museum.

Huang and his supporters strongly feel that the closing of the exhibition is an attack on free-thinkers and artistic expression. Their viewpoint is that the creatures involved in the piece have been freed from their cage- yet artistic expression is once again left in chains.

What do you think about this scenario? Is it acceptable that one form of virtue is upheld over another that is equally important in our society? Should lines be drawn in order to prevent future works that involve living beings? Does this mean that works that may depict cruelty against living beings (paintings, digital art, ...etc.) should also be kept out of exhibitions- even though they do not directly involve living beings?

I've given you the information- now you give me your insight.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

7 comments:

Benjamin Meiklejohn said...

Good questions... I guess what fares in my mind as important is whether the animals that were confined in close quarters together find themselves naturally violent and/or agressive against each other, and whether such a setting promotes aggression. In fact, it may even be a form of speciesism (thinking humans are better than other species) to put animals together in a way that puts their life at risk. Clearly, it is not morally right to put two humans together in a cage to "battle it out" simply for the entertainment of others. I don't know if it's really fair to argue that doing the same with animals is any less atrocious. If anything, the artist proves that his right to "express" is more important than the livelihood of these animals, a self-centered and perhaps pretentious outlook on humanity and the world. At best, it's just poor art altogether.

Again, if the animals together live peacefully together, then my points are moot.

Benjamin Meiklejohn said...

Good questions... I guess what fares in my mind as important is whether the animals that were confined in close quarters together find themselves naturally violent and/or agressive against each other, and whether such a setting promotes aggression. In fact, it may even be a form of speciesism (thinking humans are better than other species) to put animals together in a way that puts their life at risk. Clearly, it is not morally right to put two humans together in a cage to "battle it out" simply for the entertainment of others. I don't know if it's really fair to argue that doing the same with animals is any less atrocious. If anything, the artist proves that his right to "express" is more important than the livelihood of these animals, a self-centered and perhaps pretentious outlook on humanity and the world. At best, it's just poor art altogether.

Again, if the animals together live peacefully together, then my points are moot.

Anonymous said...

"Clearly, it is not morally right to put two humans together in a cage to "battle it out" simply for the entertainment of others. I don't know if it's really fair to argue that doing the same with animals is any less atrocious."

I understand what your saying. However, if this is a question of morality does that not make works that depict such actions just as wrong?

For example, should a painting depicting two humans fighting also be kept out of exhibitions? Since it displays the same actions as this offensive work?

Let us think outside of art as well. What about boxing? Two humans fighting within a 'cage', so to speak. Should boxing be banned since it goes against basic terms of morality? What about movies? Music? Do they not capture the same form of social error?

Basically this artist and the controversy around his work has opened a Pandora's Box. How can we deem one form of expression wrong while accepting others that are just as offensive, portraying worse scenarios of death and violence, as being OK? Is this piece wrong just because it involves living beings?

Animals fighting in a cage has probably never caused that many humans to end up fighting. Yet music, visual images, and movies with the thoughts that they convey have directly influenced humans to take the lives of other living beings. Should they all be censored as well?

I'm not saying that I agree with the artist, but I do see that there is a bigger picture to look at before writing him off as a villain.

Anonymous said...

It is not art, it is hype.
Art is to create something.
Putting different species in confrontational situations, risking the life/health/welfare of ANOTHER living creature to make any sort of "expression," is NOT art.

If he's so concerned about showing conflict, and getting people to think, then he should put HIMSELF into the situations, with dangerous animals or machinery or whatever threating HIS health/life/wellbeing. THEN let the viewer think and be concerned, or not...

Just like the fish in a blender piece of crap, such mental masturbations are NOT art, they are merely self-indulgent "Look at ME" acting-out behaviors.

Anonymous said...

"It is not art, it is hype.
Art is to create something.
Putting different species in confrontational situations, risking the life/health/welfare of ANOTHER living creature to make any sort of "expression," is NOT art."

Yet it was exhibited in a respected gallery that is known for displaying great works of art. That is what is confusing about this. Who decides what is and what is not art?

The comment about the gallery director being just as much blame as the artist is an interesting concept since normally it does seem that the artist takes the heat. He only exhibited what he was allowed to exhibit.

Should galleries and museums be policed in some manner to make sure that works like this never have the chance to be displayed? That is a hard line to draw since it could lead to less offensive works being banned from public view.

The work is offensive, but it is no more offensive than the condition of 'pets' contained at your local pet shop or Walmart. I guess I'm split down the middle with this one.

Noel said...

Having just seen the show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I can say with absolute certainty that any "integrity" the particular artwork in question may, or may not have had, has obviously been effected. It has very little, if anything, to say in it's present form.

I think the question that should perhaps be asked is whether the artist, or the VAG for that matter, didn't use this age-old ploy to get feet on the hallowed ground. Nothing like a little controversy to up the ante...right?

Although there are, in my opinion, some "interesting" (and I use the word advisedly) pieces, I found the exhibition as a whole rather lacklustre and relying too much on just the kind of tired "sensational" cliches embodied in the work in question.

Much ado about...well, not much.

Anonymous said...

As much as I dislike this video I question what percentage of the people outraged with the video are actually meat eaters? Most meat comes from factory farms where animals are kept in extremely close quarters which induces erratic behaviour such as extreme aggression and cannabalisiation. These "100 percent cruel" practices take place behind the closed doors of windowless multinational factory farms - if you eat meat that's not from free range animals you are ultimately part of this global system of cruelty.