What is art?

What is Art?

By: Sarah Ortkiese

On September 25, 2017, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, New York issued a statement on an upcoming art exhibition, “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.”[1] The Guggenheim statement included, “Out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has decided against showing the art works of the Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), Theater of the World (1993), and A Case Study of Transference (1994).”[2]  These three pieces in questions received backlash from the community in a form of an online petition containing about 750,000 signatures citing that the pieces depicted animal cruelty.[3] The pieces all display animals conforming to human desires, no matter the potential harm that may be done to them.

The first piece in question, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), is a seven-minute video showing pit bulls tethered to a non-motorized treadmill, facing each other, in an attempt to get the dogs to engage with one another.[4] The pit bulls will never reach one another as the treadmill and the tethering prevented the dogs from moving forward; instead the pit bulls ended up exhausting themselves due to the strenuous activity of running at something they will never catch.[5]

The second piece removed from the collection was Theater of the World (1993).[6] Theater of the World (1993) consists of a clear dome perched on table.[7] The dome is well lit and contains reptiles and insects, such as snakes, lizards and crickets, to name a few.[8] The insects and reptiles are left to battle each other during the course of the exhibit, and it is acknowledged that not all of those put into the dome at the beginning of the exhibit will survive until the end.[9]

The third and final piece removed from “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” was A Case Study of Transference 1994).[10] This piece depicts two pigs covered in Chinese and Roman characters.[11] This piece is a video, similar to the Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), but instead of showing animals attempting to fight one another, A Case Study of Transference (1994) shows a boar and a sow mating before spectators.[12]

The backlash from the community on these three controversial pieces in the collection extended beyond the online petition, various groups, such as People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the American Kennel Club spoke out in condemnation of these pieces.[13] PETA supported the removal of the three artworks as they are animal cruelty instead of art, but PETA also stressed the fact that removing these pieces might be the awareness Chinese artists need to no longer use animals in such a cruel way.[14] The American Kennel Club outlined that in no such circumstances is Dog fighting art, in reference to Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), and went onto denounce animal cruelty as a form of art.[15] Many citizens took to social media, such as Twitter, to sound off against the Guggenheim Museum for supporting and wanting to display what they believed to be depictions of animal cruelty. Those in support of the Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), took the stance that dogs used in the video are by nature aggressive and the acts that the dogs are performing in the video does not amount to animal abuse.[16]

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” was displayed in Canada in 2007, and it too decided to remove animals from the Theater of the World (1993).[17] The artist of the piece, Huang Yong Ping, expressed disappointment in Canada’s decision to remove the animals stating that, “They completely ignored the concept. . .citing so-called ‘animal rights’ that violently interfere with the rights of an art work to be freely exhibited in a museum.”[18] Another artist expressed in reference to the decision that the Guggenheim made, that it is wrong that a museum cannot use its free speech.[19] But are depictions of animal cruelty protected speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution? According to the Supreme Court Case, United States v. Stevens, depictions of animal cruelty are unprotected speech by the First Amendment.[20] The case analyzed 18 U.S.C. § 48, which banned the creation, sale, possession or depiction of animal cruelty, the statute did not address any underlying acts of animal cruelty that went into the creation of the video.[21] During the course of analyzing the constitutionality of the statue, the Supreme Court held, that depictions of animal cruelty were not one of the areas of speech traditionally protected by the First Amendment, and that there is not historical evidence showing that depictions of animal cruelty should be added to the list of protected speech.[22] Unprotected by the First Amendment means that there can be limitations on the speech as long as those limitations meet certain criteria outlined by the Supreme Court.[23] For example, In United States v. Stevens, the statute 18 U.S.C. § 48 was declared overbroad by the Supreme Court meaning that the law had the effect of reaching beyond its targeted conduct.[24]

Should anything categorized as “art” be protected by the First Amendment as an expression of free speech? Or should the “art” be broken down into what the piece is truly depicting, such as cruelty to animals, and banned? If acts such as mentioned above are included in the definition of “art” do we still want to call it “art” or does it become something more or less because we are allowing in depictions of cruel acts? Do we as a society want the art world to be taken advantage of as a place to create and distribute disturbing pieces on the grounds that is an expression of free speech? It is a situation that came to light this past fall at the Guggenheim Museum, and showed the deep divide amongst artists and patrons alike.

[1] Statement Regarding Works in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, Guggenheim, https://www.guggenheim.org/press-release/works-in-art-and-china-after-1989-theater-of-the-world (last visited Nov.1, 2017)

[2] Statement Regarding Works in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, Guggenheim, https://www.guggenheim.org/press-release/works-in-art-and-china-after-1989-theater-of-the-world (last visited Nov.1, 2017)

[3] Art and China After 1989 at the Guggenheim – disturbing and disorienting, Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/919bbdc6-b02d-11e7-8076-0a4bdda92ca2 (last visited Nov. 1, 2017); Art or animal cruelty? Guggenheim pulls display of live reptiles fighting for survival. Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/27/art-or-animal-cruelty-guggenheim-pulls-display-of-live-reptiles-fighting-for-survival/?utm_term=.e87d350bdea4 (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)   

[4] Guggenheim Museum Is Criticized for Pulling Animal Artworks, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989-animal-welfare.html (last visited Nov. 1, 2017); Art or animal cruelty? Guggenheim pulls display of live reptiles fighting for survival. Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/27/art-or-animal-cruelty-guggenheim-pulls-display-of-live-reptiles-fighting-for-survival/?utm_term=.e87d350bdea4 (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)   

[5] Art or animal cruelty? Guggenheim pulls display of live reptiles fighting for survival. Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/27/art-or-animal-cruelty-guggenheim-pulls-display-of-live-reptiles-fighting-for-survival/?utm_term=.e87d350bdea4 (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)   

[6] Statement Regarding Works in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, Guggenheim, https://www.guggenheim.org/press-release/works-in-art-and-china-after-1989-theater-of-the-world (last visited Nov.1, 2017)

[7] Art or animal cruelty? Guggenheim pulls display of live reptiles fighting for survival. Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/27/art-or-animal-cruelty-guggenheim-pulls-display-of-live-reptiles-fighting-for-survival/?utm_term=.e87d350bdea4 (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)   

[8] Guggenheim Museum Is Criticized for Pulling Animal Artworks, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989-animal-welfare.html (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)  

[9] Art or animal cruelty? Guggenheim pulls display of live reptiles fighting for survival. Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/27/art-or-animal-cruelty-guggenheim-pulls-display-of-live-reptiles-fighting-for-survival/?utm_term=.e87d350bdea4 (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)   

[10] Statement Regarding Works in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, Guggenheim, https://www.guggenheim.org/press-release/works-in-art-and-china-after-1989-theater-of-the-world (last visited Nov.1, 2017)

[11] Art or animal cruelty? Guggenheim pulls display of live reptiles fighting for survival. Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/27/art-or-animal-cruelty-guggenheim-pulls-display-of-live-reptiles-fighting-for-survival/?utm_term=.e87d350bdea4 (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)   

[12] Guggenheim Museum Is Criticized for Pulling Animal Artworks, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989-animal-welfare.html (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)

[13] Guggenheim Museum Is Criticized for Pulling Animal Artworks, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989-animal-welfare.html (last visited Nov. 1, 2017); and

[14] Guggenheim Museum Is Criticized for Pulling Animal Artworks, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989-animal-welfare.html (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)

[15] Why the Guggenheim’s Controversial Dog Video Is Even More Disturbing Thank You Think, ArtNet, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/so-whats-really-going-on-with-that-disturbing-dog-video-at-the-guggenheim-1100417 (last visited Nov. 10, 2017)

[16] Why the Guggenheim’s Controversial Dog Video Is Even More Disturbing Thank You Think, ArtNet, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/so-whats-really-going-on-with-that-disturbing-dog-video-at-the-guggenheim-1100417 (last visited Nov. 10, 2017)

[17] Why the Guggenheim’s Controversial Dog Video Is Even More Disturbing Thank You Think, ArtNet, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/so-whats-really-going-on-with-that-disturbing-dog-video-at-the-guggenheim-1100417 (last visited Nov. 10, 2017)

[18] Why the Guggenheim’s Controversial Dog Video Is Even More Disturbing Thank You Think, ArtNet, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/so-whats-really-going-on-with-that-disturbing-dog-video-at-the-guggenheim-1100417 (last visited Nov. 10, 2017)

[19]  Guggenheim Museum Is Criticized for Pulling Animal Artworks, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989-animal-welfare.html (last visited Nov. 1, 2017)  

[20] United States v. Stevens, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010), 1580

[21] United States v. Stevens, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010), 1579

[22] United States v. Stevens, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010), 1580

[23] Art Law Library: Protected and Unprotected Speech, National Coalition Against Censorship, http://ncac.org/resource/art-law-library-protected-and-unprotected-speech (last visited Nov. 15, 2017)

[24] United States v. Stevens, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010)