The decision yesterday by the Guggenheim Museum to pull from a forthcoming exhibition of recent Chinese art three works deploying animals was the correct one. But it was made for the wrong reason.
In stating that it was withdrawing the works by Huang Yong Ping, Xu Bing, and the team Sun Yuan and Peng Yu “out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists,” the museum blundered in two ways:
First, it appears to have prevaricated. When pressed by a New York Times reporter about whether police were called in response to a threat, a museum spokesman demurred, saying only: “The tone in both the petition comments and the social media postings, calls and emails was markedly different from what we’ve seen before and required us to take the threats very seriously.” That comment makes one wonder if any specific threat was actually made and if staff and visitors were in any actual danger. Indeed, the Guggenheim—like most schools, synagogues, mosques, courthouses, and other public institutions—has protocols for dealing with threats. In asserting that it was withdrawing the three artworks because of the “tone” of complaints, the museum was in effect saying that it was willing to pull any work on exhibition if sufficiently pressed to do so. Rather than admit error, the Guggenheim articulated a new exhibition policy that is both untenable and timorous.
Second, it insulted more than 600,000 petitioners by framing the matter as one of free expression instead of ethics and aesthetics. The museum posted on its website the following statement of discomposure: “As an arts institution committed to presenting a multiplicity of voices, 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 has nothing to do with it. The online petitions included hundreds (if not thousands) of professional artists, critics, and art historians, as well as tens of thousands of sophisticated museum-goers. These are not folks prone to taking offense at edgy works of art. What they have found disturbing is a highly-respected institution showing an artwork that includes animals expected to die or be killed in the course of exhibition (Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World, 1993), and videotapes of artworks that feature animal use, abuse, and torture. No other word than torture can describe Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003). Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994), consisting of a pair of confined, copulating pigs, their bodies painted with jumbled marks and letters, is only slightly more benign; the manhandling of the animals must have been terrifying for them. This treatment of animals clearly violates guidelines established by the College Art Association, the largest organization of art professionals in the world. It is also trite in the extreme. For what is more shopworn than human domination or killing of non-human animals?
This is not the first time that artworks have been withdrawn from an exhibition because of an outcry over animal cruelty. In March 2008, the San Francisco Art Institute shuttered a show of videos and other works by Adel Abdessemed’s called “Don’t Trust Me.” The most objectionable work was a video loop of animals being bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer while tied to a brick wall. (The circumstances of the slaughter remain murky, but by the artists own account he appears to have bought the animals in order to have them killed.) That exhibition, curated by Hou Hanru was similarly closed after a huge public outcry. (He is currently the consulting curator for the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative at the Guggenheim.) In the SFAI case, too, museum officials claimed “dozens of threatening phone calls” as the reason for closure. The Art Institute’s president, Chris Bratton, issued an additional statement that said, “We remain committed to freedom of speech as fundamental to this institution, but we have to take people’s safety very seriously.” The Guggenheim apparently read from the same public-relations script.
The Guggenheim’s withdrawal of the three works is the right decision. But shouldn’t museum members, visitors, and observers be given a more complete explanation for the initial inclusion and eventual withdrawal of these three dubious artworks? Isn’t the initiation of such a dialogue with its public an essential part of the Guggenheim’s educational function?
The foregoing is an op-ed piece and, as such, represents the views of its writer rather than the institutional views of ARTnews.
Stephen F. Eisenman is a professor of art history at the Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and cofounder of the Anthropocene Alliance, a nonprofit that educates and organizes individuals and communities harmed by environmental abuse and climate change. He is the author of The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2014), The Ghosts of Our Meat (DAP, 2015), and William Blake and the Age of Aquarius (Princeton, 2017).