Art & Atrocity

You’ve probably heard of this: an as-yet-unnamed student at the Alberta College of Art & Design brings a live chicken into the cafeteria, slits its throat, plucks it, & sets it in a pot as if he were about to eat it.

One of the things that interests me w/r/t the whole business is: what happened after that? As in, what happened after he put the chicken’s carcass in the pot? Did he take a little bow & exit stage left? Did he just leave the pot there? Whom did he expect to clean the carcass/pot-combo up after he was finished? These are questions that don’t tend to get asked, much less answered by the machines of media, & despite the semi-glib vibe about them I think they are nonetheless important. If, as is said about this kid’s noontime pullocide, this is an act of art, what exactly is the act? Is it just the killing? The plucking? Or indeed is the brisance of the public’s putative outrage part of the act’s scope as well – & if this is the case, does it make a difference in terms of how we view the act’s success or failure as a work of art? Shouldn’t it at least factor in?

Whether you’re a fan of what tends to get called “performance art” or not, if you’ve spent any time at all with the average college undergrad it’s likely that you’ve been exposed to some kind of artsy-fartsy gushing about the woman who paints with her vagina, or more recently the piece last October at the Codice Gallery in Manwhichagua, Nicaragua, in which Costa Rican artist Guillermo “Habucac” Vargas supposedly took a stray dog, tied it up in the gallery, & left it there without food or water to slowly starve under the pitying & indignant watch of art patrons. Generally, reactions to these & other like-unpleasant art-protest-performance-pieces fall under two categories: emphatic disapproval verging on hatred, or a kind of smug satisfaction at the art’s ability to provoke. Where one falls on this continuum likely determines how he/she answers the question that is ultimately asked: Does it cross the line?

But, does it cross the line between what? No attempt is made to resolve this ambiguity. On the CBC website, they have a little opinion poll (news media love opinion polls):

A Calgary art student slaughtered a chicken as part of a performance piece. Do you think the act constitutes art?

  • Yes. Art is what you can get away with, right?
  • No, he should be charged.
  • It doesn’t matter to me.
  • No, it’s grotesque.
  • Sure, it’s a comment on where our food comes from.

This is a perfect little microcosm of the discourse surrounding art & atrocity in modern life. Let’s dissect it piece by piece.

Yes. Art is what you can get away with, right?

Notwithstanding the fact that it’s not at all clear this kid’s “gotten away” with anything (the teacher whose class the piece was for certainly hasn’t, he’s been suspended by the college), we can treat this answer in philosophical terms through the lens of the deconstructionists. I had a history teacher once who referred to these ideas as “picking the wings off the butterfly,” a practice emblemized in the work of Tristan Tzara or Andy Warhol. In Tzara’s play The Gas Heart, he congregates a slew of non-sequiturs into an incoherent mess over which the reader, actors, director, & audience impose a kind of gestalt or meaning – his point being that “art” isn’t the object (or act) but instead the narrative overlay provided by the subject (or viewer).

Warhol’s probably the most popular of the deconstructionists (though it might be a matter of some controversy whether or not he would have accepted this label), likely because his demonstration of the movement’s principles is the most obvious – a soup can sans picture frame is a soup can, but throw a few 2″x4″‘s over it et voila – you’re selling to MOMA at $15 million.

Except then the assertion in the answer given above – “yes” – is disingenuous, because if art is only “what you can get away with” then art really is purely subjective, & therefore the question “Is this art?” is itself incoherent, or at least tautological. If it “is” then it “is art,” almost by definition. I’ve got no personal beef with this myself, capital-T Truthwise, but I can see how it might get depressing.

So where does this leave our ACAD student & his dead chicken? It basically absolves him of having to answer to why his act is “art.” He made it art by making the conversation be about whether or not it’s art. If the chicken’s the soup can, the CBC opinion poll is the picture frame.

No, he should be charged.

The punctuation in this one’s interesting. Is it, “No, and he should be charged,” or “No, therefore he should be charged”? In both cases the implication is that the act itself was worthy of criminal or civil charge.

(Incidentally, I’m not sure this is true – maybe he broke some health & saftey college reg’s, but I’m not sure there’s any question of criminality at play here. I know there’s the animal cruelty thing, but listen – I have eaten, & occasionally still eat, chicken, & I have without question eaten chickens that have died far more excruciating deaths than the decapitated bird in the ACAD Affair. You wanna talk animal cruelty? I guaran-goddamn-tee you the interior of an industrial poultry farm or slaughterhouse makes this kid look like Ingrid Newkirk.)

The second formulation “No, therefore he should be charged” is a lot more interesting. Let’s assume there was a city bylaw prohibiting the slaughter of poultry on school premises. Maybe there is such a thing; I don’t know. What’s odd about the phrasing is that it implies that were the act art, the artist should be absolved of charge. As in, the act’s artfulness overrides the legal transgressions. The implications of such reasoning gets pretty hairy, especially w/r/t things like graffiti, child pornography, &c.

It doesn’t matter to me.

Well, de gustibus non est disputandum. Most people don’t care about art anyway.

No, it’s grotesque.

Again – “No, and it’s grotesque” or “No, because it’s grotesque.” If the first, the answer’s useless because there isn’t a how or why. If the second, I adduce the works of Breugel, Bosch, Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon, Otto Dix, Goya, &c.

Not to mention Edmund Burke; q.v. his essays on the Sublime.

Sure, it’s a comment on where our food comes from.

So: the political or substantive philosophical content of a particular act determines its status as “art”? Why, then, isn’t Das Kapital art, or the pamphlets of William Whatcott? What operational difference is there, if politico-philosophical conundra form your artistic divining rod?

& how do we know that’s what it is? Who says? The kid? I’ve not read any such statements. What if tomorrow he publicly announced that in fact the performance was meant as a comment on his personal adoration for chicken nuggets? Or his loathing for birds in general? Why does he get to decide?

& if he doesn’t get to decide, then who does? & of what significance are their own political & philosophical prejudices?

Once we pursue these kinds of questions, it becomes clear that answering the broader question of “Does this cross the line?” necessarily involves one in the kinds of deep philosophical investigations most of us are just not qualified to undertake. Over simplifying them does two things – it debases our discourse & ability to think about & discuss complicated issues, & also leaves the issues open to the worst knee-jerk impulse reactions from both ends of the continuum I mentioned above. Consider the controversy over the recent bin Laden-death flick Zero Dark Thirty, in which the filmmakers include a torture scene which they portray as being crucial to bin Laden’s discovery. No such torture was necessary in real life, & I can see how, as Chris Moyers put it, such an inclusion can seem “objectively pro-torture” (full disclosure – I myself have not seen the film, so cannot opine one way or the other); does this make it a bad film? Does this disqualify it as art? If so, why? Because it fudges with the truth? There goes most of Shakespeare.

Look, I don’t think the kid should have killed the chicken. I don’t. I don’t think the dog should have been starved. But atrocity & art have a long history together. Once you start disqualifying acts or objects as art because of the atrocities that exist in connection with them, you open yourself up to some pretty uncomfortable retroactive moral/aesthetic judgements.  Most of the great works of architecture in the world were built by slaves. Is the Parthenon thereby no longer “art”?

The good news is, only morons tend to answer CBC opinion polls.