Friday, April 11, 2008

Art and Cruelty

I bumped into some commentary recently concerning the work of an artist named Guillermo Vargas Habacuc. The installation in question was a dog that was tied to a wall in an art gallery and allowed to starve to death. Unsurprisingly, this has created a ton of polemic on the 'net, especially since he's been selected to represent Costa Rica in the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008. This is especially interesting to me because of a show I saw about a month ago at El Museo del Barrio. The show, "Art ≠ Vida" was of recordings of performance art done in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking America. Much of the art required the destruction of found objects and even the lives of animals - one piece involved burning dozens of chickens to death.

With the exception of a film of a piano being destroyed, the more extreme pieces were just recorded in photographs. I found that I was not at all bothered by the destruction of found mattresses, chairs, etc. - these were all mass-produced things that I would throw out without a second thought if they'd worn out beyond being useful to me or salable to someone else. The destruction of the piano bothered me. Even a piano that's cheap as pianos go requires many hours of labor by a skilled person to create, and I guess I believe that when something is built by a person who puts care into their work, it's imbued with a soul. That gives it a little extra value, and means that it deserves respect beyond its monetary value.

While for me the destruction of the piano and especially the slaughter of the chickens moved the art beyond some sort of line, that didn't make the pieces cease to be art. In judging them, the question of whether or not that destruction and murder is justified becomes a part of understanding the piece as a work of art. It also raises the question of whether it's ever justified to commit such acts in the furtherance of art. Certainly the nature of what was destroyed made the art a much stronger expression of the anguish I believe the pieces were meant to show. Most of the art from the show, while it was meant to cover the period from 1960-2000, seemed to be from the '70s, a period during which a lot of the countries represented were becoming military dictatorships with oppressive and frequently murderous policies toward citizens seen as dissenters. One of the questions I had to ask myself was how an artist could possibly express what was happening around him in such an environment. If human lives are being destroyed around me, could I possibly express something meaningful with standard artistic media? If I don't believe that I could, I don't believe I can hold another artist to that standard. At the same time, destroying something with a greater value, such as a piano or a living creature, is immoral in itself. At the same time, by living in an oppressive regime and not overthrowing it, all citizens become complicit in their policies - can the artist express this without being a sinner?

All these questions, though, are somewhat beside the point. While I haven't been able to find any good information on the installation with the dog, what I have been able to find suggests that it's about the large population of stray dogs in San Jose, the artist's home town. I've also bumped into records different places suggesting at least three different things the artist has said to justify the death of the dog. In all his statements, he says he's trying to draw attention the tens of thousands of dogs wandering the streets, but he begins by saying that the dog was so sick it was refusing food, and dying anyway, and eventually says that yes, he killed the dog. Regardless, the dog was being denied food while it was in the gallery, so if it was healthy enough to eat it no longer had the option. Most of the web pages I have seen condemn the work and say that it isn't art. While I certainly question whether or not the creation of the piece justifies the killing of the dog, I think that the post-modern movement has ended any way of separating things that are art from things that aren't. Ultimately, I don't think that this piece of art is justified. While it creates notoriety for the artist, I don't think it supports the point he claims to be making, and I don't think it really does anything that a series of photographs doesn't. Part of why I believe this is that I don't think that the death of a dog has the magnitude that the death of a person does, so I'm not nearly as bothered by dogs starving to death in San Jose as I am by people being imprisoned, tortured and killed for suspicion of harboring the wrong political views. While, to me, the situation of people being murdered by their government is one of indescribable evil, requiring the artist to commit an indescribable act, if Habacuc is to be believed, he's just trying to raise awareness concerning a public health problem.

Is it art? Yeah. Is it justified or effective? I'm disinclined to think so.

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