The Guggenheim Museum in New York City opened an exhibition in October titled, “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” which displayed, in their definition, “contemporary art,” from China between 1989 and 2008.
This exhibition included three pieces that have all been pulled because they featured animal cruelty and had garnered negative response over social media and from major organizations.
One exhibit included a seven-minute video called “Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other,” which shows four pairs of pit bulls facing each other while they are tied to non-motorized treadmills. The dogs run toward each other, but never actually touch. The original video was taken at a museum in Beijing where people walked around and took pictures of the running dogs.
The second exhibit titled “A Case Study of Transference” included a video of two pigs with stamps of Roman and Catholic words around their body, fornicating before a live audience.
The last controversial piece was called “Theater of the World,” which was possibly the most disturbing exhibit out of the three. It featured a live display of insects and reptiles kept together in a contained wood and steel structure covered by a metal mesh under an overhead lamp. As the visitors watched, the animals would often eat each other alive. A local pet store even provided more of these animals as bait to the museum.
It’s no surprise that these exhibits received feedback for presenting such an appalling treatment of animals. The president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said that only “sick individuals” could enjoy watching “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other.”
PETA also issued a statement in reaction to this exhibit, “[urging] the museum to adopt guidelines like the College Art Association’s which state that no work of art should cause ‘physical or psychological pain, suffering, or distress to an animal.’”
Although the museum’s staff were not the ones performing these acts, the exhibit promoted the cruel acts by displaying the videos as a form of “art.” It is unethical to portray animals being tortured as a form of art. If humans were displayed in this form and someone called it “art,” it would be a clear crime and cause outrage.
In defense of the video, Peng Yu, one of the creators of “Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other,” said that “these dogs are naturally pugnacious.” Going out of one’s way, however, to instigate a dog fight is unethical.
It is also malevolent to take pictures of the cruelty and call it art. It’s not fair to do this to animals because they do not have a voice and cannot consent or object to their treatment. There’s plenty of art that can be made in this world, and more importantly, can be made without hurting animals.
The Guggenheim dispassionately removed the three pieces, saying in a statement, “we are dismayed that we must withhold works of art. Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.”
Freedom of expression is significant when creating art, but it does not make it acceptable for us to hurt animals just for the sake of art. Hopefully, the Guggenheim Museum and other institutions will learn from this and avoid such practices in the future.u