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April 25, 2008

Art, Examined

During the last month, I've received a torrent of email about Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas featuring a starving street dog as “art” in a Nicaraguan gallery. According to accounts we've received, Vargas picked up the poor creature and displayed him in the gallery—attempting to make the point that such an animal on the street would go unnoticed, but in a gallery setting would be a spectacle. A local animal welfare group says the dog escaped after a day in the gallery.

Street dog used in art exhibit
This and other widely circulated photos show the dog
purportedly used in the exhibit.

Vargas's supposition about the shock value of his exhibit was prophetic. But even more so than he could have imagined, or bargained for. The image of the plaintive dog, presumably left to languish and suffer in the presence of gallery visitors and Vargas himself, was too much to fathom for many people who learned about it on the Internet. There was a spontaneous outburst of online petitions and condemnations of the supposed artist—a not uncommon phenomenon in the Internet age when shocking information goes viral.

Two observations. First, this circumstance underscores that there must be some limits in artistic expression, even if they are self-imposed by the artists themselves. Free expression is itself a moral imperative, but it is not absolute. It's one thing to document cruelty, but another matter to play a part in it, to exploit the suffering of other creatures, and to fail to provide any social context for it. Art and other cultural forms can be powerful media for promoting awareness of animal suffering and abuse, and for celebrating animals as creatures who deserve our admiration and respect, but this was not one of those cases. Obviously, if Vargas had taken photographs of starving street animals and called attention to the problem, then his art or documentary would not have provoked any calumny.

This controversy comes on the heels of a similar debate that erupted last month over an exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute by the Paris artist Adel Abdessemed titled "Don't Trust Me." According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "the show included a series of video loops of animals being bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer in front of a brick wall. The animals killed included a pig, goat, deer, ox, horse and sheep." An outcry ensued, and the Art Institute pulled the exhibit, and rightly so.

My other reaction is that we should rechannel our anguish and anger about Vargas and direct our energy to combat street dog problems in the developing world. Vargas is probably no more than a struggling artist, and we need not waste our time with further denunciations. But let's focus our energy on fighting the street dog problem and working to develop programs and infrastructure that can bring some relief to these creatures. This is a massive problem in the developing world, affecting hundreds of millions of animals, and our global affiliate Humane Society International has a Street Animal Welfare program to develop humane care, spay and neuter, and vaccination programs. Please do get involved with HSI. Get on our email list and get plugged in to our many international activities to help street dogs, to fight factory farming, and to stem the wildlife trade.

We cannot turn our gaze from this terrible problem throughout the world. And when we do focus on the problem, we must turn our anger into action, and select the right targets. Let's pivot from Vargas and focus on the ongoing cruelty, rather than seek retribution.

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