by Stella Botes
‘No animals have been harmed in the making of this…’ sounds familiar, yet underwrites many assumptions about our employment of animals in artistic projects. Is a disclaimer of harm sufficient? Should it be replaced with requirement for respect and dignity? Can harm justify artistic profundity?Certainly, animal lives are valuable and deserve respect, and we can be much too trusting of artistic institutions for proper animal care simply because of their left-wing reputation.
However, a complete prohibition on animals in art denies their capacity to engage with the human world on questions of meaning and artistic exploration, as well as denying heritages of artistic collaboration
with the natural world which goes back to pre-history. When we elevate animals to untouchable objects of our moral reverence, we forget their mortality and fallibility, and run the risk of forgetting our own frailty also.
It is my view that what we should be protesting is not the use of live animals in art per se, but the ends to which they are employed. Art which uses live animals without respect to their inherent value a living beings has no right to use these creatures in their projects. I speak here of weak and simplistic metaphor, cruel accessorisation of animal bodies, and gratuitous use of animals for shock-value or aesthetics.
The requirements which artists should meet if they are to use animals must be more holistically articulated; sufficient (if not maximal) and humane care of the animal takes precedence – animal abuse is not profound and cannot be labelled art. Secondarily, the use of animals should not be a substitute for artistic imagination, and any work with animals should be collaborative rather than objectifying.
Artworks involving animals, executed carefully and considerately, can provoke profound questions on our relationship with the non-human world and our capacity for cruelty. The living, breathing intensity of animals gives these works a potency which would otherwise make their meanings somewhat impersonal and two-dimensional.
I strongly believe that the use of live animals in art is unethical as it supports the socially accepted perception of other species as less than humans. To propose that the historical use of animals in ritualistic art forms justifies current practices undermines the western conception of our world as increasingly enlightened. This view assumes that other species hold intrinsically less value just because they experience emotion, physical sensation and social attachment in a way we do not yet fully understand.
One of the most disturbing cruelties in modern society is the open practice of inhumane methods in the farming and fashion industries, to name two glaring examples. However, we are conditioned to turn a blind eye to animal abuse through unregulated claims of ethical practices (don’t even get me started
on the term ‘free range’). To use animals in the art industry is simply to reproduce an existing disregard for their lives.
A frequent response to this follows the lines of ‘surely if we make sure the animal is treated well, it’s
fine?’ But even if fed, watered and otherwise physically cared for, the animal in question may be psychologically damaged by transportation processes, removal from social groupings, and displacement from their natural, or at least accustomed, surroundings. Some artists don’t even go so far as to attempt ethical practice. In 2000, Marco Evarissti exhibited ‘Helena’, an installation which featured several functioning blenders, each containing a live goldfish. During the run, two goldfish were killed by participants who chose to activate the blenders. Evarissti avoided legal penalty by arguing that the deaths were ‘instant’ and therefore humane. However, this begs the question of whether the artist or the participants should have felt entitled to kill the animals just for transitory human entertainment.
Ultimately, the use of live animals in art is unethical as it not only puts individual animals at risk of physical and psychological trauma, but also reproduces the structural assumption that non-human species hold intrinsically less value than us. Rather than lazily accepting speciesism, art should challenge our treatment of living beings and stimulate the progress of a compassionate and thoughtful worldview.
Image by animacat.nata via Flickr Creative Commons