Museum pulls artworks after animal rights uproar

Theatre of Cruelty: Peng Yu and Sun Yuan’s artwork featured eight pit bulls. © Peng Yu and Sun Yuan

Was the Guggenheim Museum right to withdraw artworks featuring live animals? The pieces will not be displayed after criticism by animal rights groups and a petition signed by 600,000 people.

A video of dogs strapped to moving treadmills. An image of mating pigs, covered in a nonsense of Chinese characters and Roman letters. A large dome, filled with live insects, lizards and snakes, expected to devour each other.

What do these three oddities have in common? This week, it was decided that they will no longer appear in the upcoming exhibition in the Guggenheim, New York, Art and China After 1989: Theatre of the World. The decision follows fierce criticism and threats of violence from activist groups.

Huang Yong Ping created the exhibition’s signature piece, the insect and reptile-filled Theatre of the World. Writing for The New York Times last week, Jane Perlez said the work “perfectly captures the theme of the exhibition: China as a universe unto itself, forever evolving and changing into a new order”.

A different interpretation is that the piece represents the oppression faced by artists in China in the early 1990s. Installation art was illegal, meaning that conceptual artists had to work in secret. The animals eat each other in the same way that artists’ freedoms were eaten up by the state.

In a statement about the piece Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (shown above), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) expressed its objection to the “cruel manipulation of animals”. Artist Peng Yu defended the work, saying that it represented “combative natural instincts” — something common to humans and animals.

Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference also faced criticism. Animal rights groups objected to the way that the artist had written on the pigs and then invited audiences to watch them having sex, as part of the original performance in Beijing in 1994. A photo of this was scheduled to appear in the Guggenheim's exhibition.

Over 600,000 people signed a petition calling for the removal of all three exhibits; it said: “Animal cruelty holds no place in art.”

Under intense pressure, the Guggenheim decided against showing the pieces. Was it right to give in?

The art of compromise

“Absolutely,” say some. The use of animals in art is an abhorrent abuse of their rights and is unacceptable in 21st century Western society. It is also totally unnecessary. Just think how many masterpieces have been created without exploiting animals. Exhibitions like this are harmful to art.

“Definitely not,” reply others. Artists’ freedom of expression should not be subservient to the whims of the public. A lot of famous artworks were disliked in their own time — Impressionist paintings were seen as vulgar when they first appeared, yet look how acclaimed they are now. Art should exist for its own sake, even if it upsets people.

You Decide

  1. Is it ever acceptable to use living creatures (humans or animals) in art?
  2. What is the point of art?

Activities

  1. Write a short persuasive speech that either supports or condemns the decision not to show the three exhibits. Your speech should be no longer than 100 words. Make your language as interesting and vivid as possible.
  2. Research one famous artist who was unpopular in their own time. Why were they unpopular? How does their situation compare to the Guggenheim’s controversy?

Some People Say...

“Homo sapiens has perfected the art of causing suffering.”

— Henry Rollins, American singer, actor and writer.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
All three of the removed pieces have already been shown in other countries. Canadian audiences were horrified by the Theatre of the World in 2007, after Huang Yong Ping decided to include scorpions and tarantulas. Rather than comply with requests to remove those particular animals, he withdrew the piece from the show.
What do we not know?
We do not yet know whether this will have any impact on the popularity of the Guggenheim Museum, which currently receives over a million visitors each year. Social media users were swift to denounce the museum’s initial decision to display the controversial works, with some calling it “appalling”. What’s more, celebrities including comedian Ricky Gervais and singer Richard Marx have accused the museum of animal cruelty.

Word Watch

Oppression
The Chinese government in the 1990s limited artistic freedoms. There was practically no work for artists in China, meaning that many went abroad.
Early 1990s
The period from the late 1980s to the 1990s was one of repression in China. Protesters were campaigning for democracy against powerful rulers. The government clamped down on protesters, shown most famously by the murder of thousands of people at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Installation art
This is a type of art that is three-dimensional and often made for a specific venue, for a set period of time.
Conceptual artists
These artists believe that the finished product is less important than the ideas behind the piece. This means that many conceptual artworks are very abstract.
Impressionist
The Impressionists were a group of artists including Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir. They moved away from posed, formal scenes and instead painted everyday life. They used dabbed brushstrokes to represent changing natural light, leaving the viewer with an “impression” of the subject, rather than a precise study.