Artists all across the spectrum have long pushed the envelope on what’s “acceptable,” what’s in good taste and how far they get to go in “causing people to think” about whatever issues they portray in their works.
Many times, artists and the galleries and museums that display the art are embroiled in a free speech battle — at least that’s how the controversies are positioned.
But at the core of disputes over whether certain pieces of art are communicating valuable ideas, or merely pandering to people’s bad taste and, as the Supreme Court once famously phrased it, “their “prurient interests” are religious and cultural issues.
One person’s masterpiece is another’s affront to decency.
Perhaps you remember former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s battle with the Brooklyn Museum over a Virgin Mary art piece with elephant dung, or the earlier and more infamous piece of art, a plastic crucifix submerged in urine that was created by the controversial artist Andres Serrano back in the 1980s.
Both religious authorities and secular officials had a field day condemning Serrano’s provocative tableau. Ironically, Serrano, who considers himself a religious man, argued that the point of the piece was designed to spur Christians to imagine what Christ endured on the cross.
Serrano also had the last laugh, as the artwork was sold for $277,000 by the upscale auction house Christie’s in 1997.
Hiding Behind the PR-ese
Now, yet another in the ongoing attempts at censorship based on politics is developing at the famed Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and since it involves animals, you’ll never guess who jumped right into the middle of the media scrum.
Yes, our pals at PETA.
The specific artworks under fire at the Guggenheim show “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” which is set to open this week, were intended to depict oppression in that Asian nation and included the following exhibits:
- “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” a video that shows four pairs of pit bulls on (non-motorized) treadmills, trying to fight, even though they’re struggling just to reach each other.
- “A Case Study of Transference,” a video that shows two pigs mating in front of an audience.
- “Theater of the World,” which featured hundreds of live crickets, lizards, beetles, snakes and other insects and reptiles crawling around under an overhead lamp.
Protesters marched outside the museum last weekend and circulated an online petition demanding that the Guggenheim sponsor only “cruelty-free exhibits.” In a statement, the museum explained that the specific art pieces were, in fact, being removed, but “out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists,” adding that, “Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.”
Unless it threatens the sensibilities of any prominent donors, that is.
Displaying, or discussing, anything related to animals within earshot of PETA is like waving the proverbial red flag in front of an angry bull.
Which, of course, would in and of itself be cause for angry protests over the exploitation of red flags and angry bulls.
Right on cue, Ingrid Newkirk, PETA president and self-anointed spokesperson for the entire animal kingdom, demanded that Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong remove the artwork permanently, while at the same time congratulating the museum “for withdrawing these vile acts of cruelty masked as creativity.
“China has no laws protecting animals,” Newkirk said, “so withdrawing these pieces may help the country and its artists recognize that animals are not props and that they deserve respect.”
A museum spokeswoman was asked by The New York Times to describe any threats or security issues, including whether museum staff had contacted police. The spokeswoman, Sarah Eaton, declined to discuss any specifics, but added that, “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.”
Of course, those threats couldn’t have anything to do with the animal-loving vegan activists who comprise PETA’s base, because everyone knows they’re universally peaceful, non-violent advocates who use nothing but diplomacy and compassion to soft-sell those they wish to persuade to accept their righteous demands.
In the end, Guggenheim will cave, PETA will proclaim victory and the public will be denied (or spared, depending on your perspective) the option of discussing the issue at hand, which is the oppression of people in China.
Then again, the protection of people always comes in a distant second with those who obsess over animal rights.
You don’t need to spend an evening at a museum to confirm that reality.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.