Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Let's argue about art! Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas has made himself (in)famous.

You may have already seen this video (or one of the many like it), that encourages the viewer to sign an online petition to stop artist Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas from participating in the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008.

But the particulars of Vargas' controversial exhibition, El Perrito Vive (The Small Dog Lives), which took place at the Códice Gallery in Managua, Nicaragua, are disturbing, though murky.

The artist has been widely criticized for the exhibition, and he's made various contradictory statements about the ultimate fate of the animal. It's rumored that the dog (named Natividad) was only tied up for a few hours, and it's also been rumored that the animal "escaped" after the exhibition. The more widely distributed story, though, is that Natividad died as a result of starvation. But whether Natividad lived or died, Habacuc's installation raises question about the relevance and utility of exploiting suffering in order to create social commentary.

Presumably, Habacuc's installation indicts the viewer by changing the context in which the animal is suffering. Instead of starving on the street, where passersby would presumably overlook the animal entirely, Natividad was starving in a gallery, where viewers were implicitly asked to bear witness to the dog's condition (and were, apparently, discouraged from offering the animal food or water). Habacuc's critique of a broad, societal indifference to suffering is certainly shocking, but is Habacuc actually saying anything new?

Laying the immediate discomfort with the willing neglect of an animal aside for a moment, Habacuc's exhibition seems to fall flat on its face for artistic as well as ethical reasons. And here's why: El Perrito Vive relies almost solely on the shock that seeing a diseased and starving animal in an art gallery will cause.

In other words, Habacuc's message is not nearly as bold or as shocking as his staging. Nor is it particularly new. In fact, when I first heard of El Perrito Vive, I immediately thought of Raphael Montañez Ortiz's Destructivist performances of the late 1960s, in which Ortiz would kill a chicken and use its body to bang on a piano before ultimately destroying the piano in front of an audience. In Ortiz's case, the act of killing a chicken or of axing a piano into bits wasn't, in itself, terrifically disturbing. That he performed the acts in front of an audience—seemingly daring the audience members to react or intervene—was the shocking part. Like Ortiz, Habacuc relies on shock value in order to deliver a message (that human beings are indifferent to suffering; that human beings are uncomfortable with death; that the human capacity for empathy is finite; etc.) that has been delivered time and again, and in many instances in much more effective and interesting ways.

Is Habacuc's observation of societal indifference and passivity necessary? Is it worth killing a dog over? Is it even particularly interesting? I'd argue that it's none of these things. I think I'm in the Nabokov camp; he wrote: "A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual." As such, I tend to find works that aim to make sweeping social commentary hollow somehow, and Habacuc's installation is no exception. Starving an animal is certainly disgusting, but I also think it's artistically boring, relying as it does on spectacle. It's a quick and easy shortcut to meaning, where the big and obvious ugliness of the installation outweighs any kind of complicated or nuanced vision or effort on the part of the artist.

One thing, though, is quite sure: the controversy caused by the exhibition has gained Habacuc international fame (perhaps infamy, but in a world where serial killer art sells for millions, what's the difference?), and I'm cynical enough to believe that this was at least part of the artist's goal. Let's face it, the guy goes by the name of an obscure New Testament prophet. That he probably killed a dog in order to make a name for himself is certainly disturbing, if not surprising.


BJK said...

nice post! tb & her 'rents & i talked about this at dinner the other night. i concur entirely with your take on this. on the same topic: have you read about the yale grad student?


BJK said...

an addendum:

on the basic question of whether this even qualifies as art: of course it does.

but, as you point out, the substance of the piece is insufficient to redeem the art (and its maker) from the inherent cruelty.

so it is art, but it's bad art, and "bad" here seems to transcend subjective criticism. vargas's art is intellectually lazy, relying as you said on easy shock tactics. and it is inherently convoluted in that is commits and facilitates the injustice it is supposedly protesting.

this of course could bring us into a "do the ends justify the means?" argument, if the ultimate effect of the work were to somehow justify the violent expense. the caveat to the nabokov quote is that through influencing and inspiring individuals, art can incrementally and aggregately succeed in changing society. however, the visceral shock of torturing an animal, as you point out, is a tragically flimsy attempt that fails to catalyze either personal or social change.

the end-point, i think, is that to be critical of the work is not to dismiss it, because then it is our failure as much as vargas's. the work is flawed, unethical, inhumane, and ineffective. vargas would likely claim success in sparking debate, but the problem is that the discourse doesn't flow outward from the art toward some enlightenment regarding violence or suffering; the discourse is trapped within the weakness of his art. that is the predominant failure of the piece, i think.

t.a.b. said...

Despite all the right-on points you guys have made here (and, I have to say, I agree wholeheartedly with them all), this conversation makes me wonder if there could ever be an intellectually acceptable excuse/reason for torturing an animal. What I mean to say is that I know I had an immediate negative reaction to hearing about Vargas' spectacle and I came up with my rational reasons for disagreeing with it afterward; for me, the decision to condemn his dog-starving didn't really seem like a decision, but rather a gut reaction that I could then afterward, luckily and happily, justify rationally. Does this have implications, though, for the validity of initial judgement?

Obviously, in this particular case, the torture of an animal seems completely unwarranted. I agree that Vargas is summoning nothing new in the way of insight into human cruelty, and since that seems to be his (stunningly blunt and staid) goal, his art 'fails' in that sense. But by discussing his tactics in this way and coming up with reasons like these for rejecting El Perrito Vive, are we somehow agreeing, implicitly, that if Vargas were making some kind of valid, insightful point by inflicting cruelty on an animal that it would be okay?

I certainly am not one to take a black-and-white view on the boundaries of validity for art, but why do I feel more drawn to take such a view about animal cruelty? At a gut level, I feel that there can't possibly be a good enough reason to torture an animal (and this, to be honest, rubs my rational side the wrong way a bit) for art's sake. But, then again, that gets wrapped up in terminology. After all, it's always going to be harder to justify 'murder' than to justify 'killing' - it's just built into the words. There are plenty of things that we humans subject animals to that many of us would term 'torture.'

Getting back to the specific realm of art, though, and to boil all this rambling down to one question:
Do you think that it could ever be appropriate/acceptable to kill an animal in a slow and/or painful way for the sake of making an artistic point? Is hurting other living things for art bad across the board, or is it only bad in this instance because Vargas' art itself is 'bad'?

BJK said...

[i just re-read this and boy is it rambling and redundant! but that's how blog comments are supposed to be, right?!]

hmmm... that's a really good point, and i'm not even sure how to begin trying to answer it. my initial reaction was the same as yours, but like you point out, it's convenient to be able to supply an ad hoc rationale that bolsters that gut reaction.

i do believe that it's worth dissecting and disentangling the rational from the more immediate and visceral responses, and in this case i think logic and emotion overlap quite a bit.

in response to your question of whether one could even envision a case for which torture is justified for serving a "grander" purpose, i think the answer is no. if we begin with any sort of ethical framework (and this is your domain more than mine, tab!), then i can't imagine a situation that could possibly warrant torture. art created within any ethical boundaries (especially that which attempts to make some sort of positive socio-political impact) cannot commit the same atrocity it is simultaneously criticizing.

the failure is maybe the conflation of representation with scale. does that make sense? it seems to me that vargas must be making a value calculation; i.e. the microcosmic torture of the dog (which he mistakes as purely representational, maybe) is justified by the macrocosmic commentary. but i think this is convoluted, and i cannot imagine a case where that argument could actually allow for non-condemnable cruelty.

i think it may very well be impossible to successfully create suffering within artistic expression in any literal sense and manage to redeem or justify that cruelty through some representational (il)logic.

i'm overly caffeinated right now, so i know this isn't all that eloquent...

i guess what i'm saying is that i do not think it could ever be appropriate/acceptable to cause suffering—to an non-consenting subject—through art. i think the moral judgment doesn't emerge simply from the aesthetic quality critique of the art. i think the art is 'bad' because it is impossible to justify torture (oh no! a whole other debate!); not the other way around.

but that caveat about consent is important, i think.

stefan sagmeister, the famed graphic designer, has carved his own flesh for several projects, and while the pieces are sometimes shocking, they rarely illicit a debate about the acceptability of his arguably masochistic technique.

this shoves us into the other recent controversy, with the yale grad student who claims to have inseminated herself and them aborted several times. even avoiding any "right-to-life" arguments, if you consider her actions to be self-abuse, then does the same logic apply. is self-abuse ever appropriate/acceptable within artistic expression?

t.a.b. said...

I think you're right, bjk. And while it's a little (probably more than a little) tricky to discuss a topic like "the validity of torture" without getting inadvertently tied up in a language argument stemming from the word "torture," I think, ultimately, that cases where inflicting pain on a non-consenting subject (human or animal) isn't torture are few and far between. Obviously, we'll have to save the discussion of, say, medical testing on animals for another time since (it seems to me, anyway) it involves an extra level of utilitarian ethical concerns.

As far as the infliction of pain on oneself for the sake of an artistic point, though, I can't find any reason whatsoever to condemn it. As you said, the main problem with something like the Vargas installation is that it's inflicting pain on a non-consenting subject. In the case of the Yale student, I'd venture to say that anyone who would really have a problem with it, has that problem on behalf of the aborted fetuses rather than on behalf of the student. While I, personally, absolutely do not have an ethical or moral problem with abortion (again, a whole other can of worms), those who do, at least as far as I can tell, don't get on their high horses about the fact that the women getting abortions are hurting themselves, but rather that they're hurting their "unborn children" (or some such iteration of terms) which the right-to-lifers view as non-consenting subjects.

Setting that aside, I say if you want to cut yourself up for your art, you are not breaching any ethical boundaries, specifically because you, as the subject of the inflicted pain, are a consenting subject.

It's not entirely crazy, though, to bring up concerns like, say, the emotional pain caused to family/friends of artist by the artist's self-abuse. But while that's something to consider, I think that ultimately those concerns don't outweigh the artist's, or most any individual's, right to determine what's acceptable for her own body.

So, this, of course, raises questions about what, exactly, qualifies one as a consenting subject. After all, inflicting pain on, say, a seriously mentally ill person, even if that person is all for it, is a much more difficult situation. As is the case of a subject who has, for example, been coerced into her consent (e.g. a subject who allows herself to be punched in the face because if she doesn't, the person doing the punching will kill the subject's beloved pooch, Cuddles). If the person who's inflicting the pain is the same person who's somehow coerced the subject into consent, then I'd say that even though the subject has consented, the infliction of pain is still wrong in some sense.

The question, maybe, that this could raise for self-abuse is: what if the person who's inflicting pain on himself for his art is, say, severely mentally ill (or has somehow otherwise not consented in what we might view as a fully rational or non-coerced way)? Is it right to stand by and watch, using as one's ethical shield the fact that the artist consents to the pain? Of course there's got to be a consideration of scope here, but do you think there are boundaries in cases like this? I'm not sure what I think just yet - I'd have to think about it. Plus, I'm inclined to say, off the bat, that these decisions would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

There are people who would say that anyone who inflicts pain on herself must be mentally ill, but I think that's totally bogus, especially in the realm of art...