We kill them, hunt them, destroy their habitats and communities, display them, wear, buy, use, and discard them. Occasionally we attempt to save them from what we’ve done. Animals are the original victims of helotry, oppressed and wherever possible forced into servitude in pursuit of humankind’s betterment. Our presumption of ownership, and mistreatment in the name of religious rituals, clothing, entertainment, or work is the eternal hallmark of our depravity. In the art world, animals, dead and alive, are too often procured as raw material, justified by inauthentic claims of raising issues regarding their plight, or as metaphors for our own appetites. In the most egregious cases, they are not more than tortured vehicles, driven hard in pursuit of undeserved attention.

Art is supposed to be out in front of its society, a clarion vision of what is coming. Or, it responds to what is, or has recently happened, elucidating problems that might otherwise slip beneath the streaming, digital sludge that is visual life today. Animal abuse is never out of the news, and nobody can assert ignorance of it unless willfully. So what points are artists who inflict it, flirt with it, or denigrate an animal’s dignity, adding to our collective consciousness? Most often they expose only their own limitations by placing art behind the curve, at the back of the conversation, chasing, rather than alerting.


Art is supposed to be out in front of its society… artists who abuse animals place art behind the curve, at the back of the conversation.


Physical Harm


Marco Evaristti, Helena. Courtesy of the artist


Rightfully, there is little tolerance for artists who have most shockingly pained or executed animals. Among them is Tom Otterness, who once shot and killed a dog and is now reduced to littering subway stations with his asinine, gnomish globules straight from the clearance shelves of a Christmas store in January. So lurid is the shadow of his action that even creative responses to his shame seem smug and predictable; Jesse Power, and his cohorts hanged, slit the throat of, and disemboweled a cat, apparently as some form of artistic investigation; the infantile antics of Marco Evaristti include inviting his audience to liquefy goldfish (two were killed); while Katinka Simonse (Tinkebell), Guillermo Vargas, Nathalia Edenmont, and many others are gratingly coy in acknowledging the veracity of their processes or one-liner art, garnering them notoriety, without quite proving the amorality or illegality of their actions.

As was widely reported over the last few months, several works in the Guggenheim’s recent exhibition Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World stirred public consternation, causing several pieces to be withdrawn. Huang Yong Ping’s titular piece consists of a domed, gladiatorial arena containing insects, arachnids, and reptiles, imprisoned in unnatural proximity, and left to consume each other in bloody combat. The piece has faced controversy before. Coming into the Guggenheim, artist and museum both knew the reactions they would receive, but crept ahead anyway behind that insufferable shield of artistic license.


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Other banished works include a video of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s 2003 work Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other featuring pairs of pit bulls leashed to treadmills, facing each other, snarling and agitated just beyond each other’s reach, and Xu Bing’s 1994 film A Case Study of Transference depicting two swine having sex, stamped with English and Chinese textual motifs.

This is not to infer that artists best avoid utilizing animals within, or as, art at all. Whether an artist ought to make an artwork is a quite different conversation from demanding that they mustn’t. But if we do not expect artists to move past our basest urges, if we cannot require them to be clever enough to surpass sophomorism and exalt discourse, then the societal potential of art is surrendered to self-indulgence and grotesque snuff tactics.

Perhaps no occasion illuminates the point more vividly than deranged animal abuser and all-star sociopath Kim Jones’ repellent 1976 crime Rat Piece, which comprised the burning alive of three male rats. Set to their agonized, screaming deaths, the artist romped about covered in mud as a toddler might. While it doesn’t merit critical attention as art, it reverberates as much for the selfishness of his response, as his unhinged cruelty.

“People still get upset about it,” Jones has said. “I can understand that because I tortured the animals to death, but it was important for me to have that experience as an art piece.”


Less Extreme Use of Animals and Dignity Infringement


Darren Bader installation at MoMA PS1, 2012. Photo: Garrett Ziegler


In relatively benign cases such as Naveen Thomas’s pigeon and copper wire installation, or Miru Kim’s laughable Beuys homage, I Like Pigs and Pigs Like Me, welfare remains of concern, if not perhaps, outright alarm. There is another concern though: the abuse of art itself through the meritless futility of such pathetically superficial artworks.

The vapidness of many animals-as-artworks further erodes the public’s already tenuous relationship with contemporary art as anything relatable or substantive, because while it is relatively easy to make work with animals, it is exceedingly difficult to make successful work with animals. It requires a balancing of the affection in which animals are held generally, a note of humility and extreme care, with simply stated commentary on universally accessible experiences that may be highlighted by the animals’ presence.


Just because a gallery gives you enough room to swing a cat doesn’t mean it’s advisable.


Darren Bader displayed cats in a gallery, and referred to them as artworks. They were not artworks; they were cats. Bader’s sanctimonious, semantic aggrandizing is the kind of hollow gesture that critics behold with glee for its attempted subversion of staple terms. But just because a gallery gives you enough room to swing a cat doesn’t mean it’s advisable. It was a clumsy lurch at the boundaries of material definition, but at least the cats were presumably well cared for—if not entirely comfortable—and available for adoption. The employment of art world terms to describe matter that is jarringly incongruous to that assertion can be a sign of a marketing-savvy artist, but one in creative disarray. Wim Delvoye submitted to the same tactic, when he referred to his tattooed pigs, as “canvasses.”

Additionally, a great handicap of using live creatures is that animals are more intriguing and captivating in and of themselves, than anything an artist might try to say through them. The audience then is engaged by the natural wonder of proximity to even a relatively common animal. At that juncture art’s feebleness in surmounting such fascination is exposed, and its messaging is lost. Here, the zookeeper is of greater value than the artist.

Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled (12 Horses) might have set up a lovely experience, but that is because horses are marvelous, not because Gavin Brown says they are art. Artists then must be aware of these challenges and be capable of managing them; most aren’t. Instead they succumb to the lure of the quick buck of notice that animals can bring. Perhaps museums and galleries don’t care about the wider consequences of inauthenticity or degenerating art’s reputation, but they might, for otherwise they are steering their very own Titanic.


Human, the dog, in artwork by Pierre Huyghe. Photo: Mischahr


An approximate guide to animal treatment—and how to utilize them smartly—could be whether we might like to be displayed in a museum without consultation as to the circumstances: to have our legs painted pink; to be locked in a room with a coyote (as Beuys notoriously subjected a coyote to involuntary containment with a human); or to be rehoused in a contrived environment pumped full of “hybrid scent” to engineer the nonsense notion of “psychic exchange” with a colony of ants. As we know primevally when we have been violated, so we know when we have violated, even notionally. Denial is a choice. Using any animal expressly killed as material—or one million animals, as in Damien Hirst’s case—or merely a living and seemingly unharmed animal, is always going to be fraught, if by a matter of degrees. But if art has any interest in hoisting the aspirations and vision of humanity, leaving living animals alone is a prudent choice. There is just no need.


The Sliding Scale of Acceptabilities


Cai Guo Qiang, Head On, Installation view from Falling Back to Earth, GOMA. Photo: seejayarr


And yet, animals are a part of our lives, our families. We are going to make work about them, as civilizations always have—our Paleolithic ancestors carved into rocks and sketched onto cave walls far more animals than humans.

Taxidermy, roadkill, or otherwise deceased creatures or their remains are a different matter. If an animal’s demise was not met directly to become art, then where are the lines of what is and isn’t acceptable for artists availing themselves of the carcass or remnants?

Chinese artist, Cai Guo Qiang’s Head On is not only visually spectacular, but its execution, combined with the artist’s conceptual intelligence makes his work far more effective as “metaphors for humans” than the dubious endeavors of his Guggenheim compatriots. The wolves are fashioned from sheepskin, painted and modeled. By tapping the grandeur and mythological resonance of lupine grace, he acknowledges their majesty, while their likenesses speak simply, and sensitively of our experiences. Similarly, Heritage comprises various animals hewn from goat hide.

But what about the sheep and goats? Had they been slaughtered for the piece, there would also have been a negative response, but if they were lifted from another industry—food?—where death was inevitable, tensions are reduced and art can slip in the back door. Perhaps our responses are based not only on hierarchies of animals’ values and our culturally engineered sensibilities that farm animals are fair game for mass consumption while elephants and giraffes are sacrosanct. It’s complicated. If it were only about the status we have conferred onto certain animals in the West, nobody would have cared about three rats. Reactions surely include the majority’s innate sense of right and wrong, something that becomes increasingly subjective and personal, though nevertheless influenced by the dominant ideology of carnism, as we move away from the extremes of dog-shooting and cat-disemboweling.


Our innate sense of right and wrong becomes increasingly subjective as we move away from the extremes of dog-shooting and cat-disemboweling.

Jordan Eagles works with animal blood from an abattoir—the byproduct of deaths he has no hand in—to create sculptural objects of incandescent beauty, thrumming with the cycle of life, spiritual contemplation, and cosmological wonder. He in fact has gone a step further, in his Blood Mirror project, which consists of donated human blood, a remonstrance against prejudice and scientific omission regarding governmental blood donation policy pertaining to gay and bisexual men. He is aware of the violence inherent in the animal-blood’s origin, but its reconstitution is handled with nobility and respect.

Kimberly Withal fashions roadkill she finds in her home state of New Jersey into still life vignettes and photographs them. They are exquisite images, that highlight the brevity of life and the melancholy of its passing. After the artwork is completed, she buries the remains as a reverential conclusion to physical presence.

Perhaps, as it is for many regarding the ethics of food production and consumption, it is less that we eat animals, but how we treat them on their way to our plates that is of concern. Including the hide of a plentiful animal that most accept as edible—and hopes [peeking through fingers] has been well raised and well killed—permits the artwork to stand higher than its parts. Or maybe history will not look kindly upon any artwork employing the bodies or residue of animals. Today at least, for the science and food industries, animals are routinely experimented upon or slaughtered en masse, and the matter is controversial, but the greater good of medical advancement or a population’s sustenance mutes much opposition; grumbling tolerance is reached for these inconvenient truths. But times, appetites, and awareness are changing. Like entertainment (Ringling Bros. pitched its final tent in 2017, in part because of animal rights activism and societal pressure), art just isn’t as vital to our survival, and so lacks any such moral defense.

Of his A Case Study of Transference, involving the stamped pigs having sex, Xu Bing, has stated that, “Animals are completely uncivilized and Chinese characters are the expression of supreme civilization.”

It’s a statement counter to our anthropomorphization of  “terms of venery” wherein we have bestowed upon groups of animals a sense of our most dignified and aspirational institutions—a congress of baboons, a parliament of owls, a committee of vultures—while we fail in such aspirations ourselves. If genuine, not only does this moronic comment expose the man’s imperialistic haughtiness, but it throws into contrast an ironic point, quite missed in this debate. Animals tend not to mutilate or kill each other for fun, sport, or false religious superstition, permit their prejudices to disenfranchise their own kind, or bankrupt their own social structures. When considering art that involves the degradation of our fellow creatures, or society’s pillage of them generally, it isn’t animals that lack civility. It is us. 


Darren Jones 

Darren Jones is a Scottish, US-based critic and artist. His new book, with David Carrier, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege, is available now.

(Image at top: Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974, Performance. Photo: via WikiArt)

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