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How Might the Guggenheim Museum Have Dodged the Pit-Bull Onslaught?

The short answer to my headline is: by realizing in advance that works predicated upon artist-inflicted cruelty to animals are morally repugnant and have no place in a museum display. Such was the case with the three pieces withdrawn from the Guggenheim’s upcoming Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World (Oct. 6-Jan. 7), organized by senior curator Alexandra Munroe.

Here’s the show’s title work, now withdrawn in response to animal-rights advocates who, according to the Guggenheim, had threatened violence:

Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World,” 1993, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
© Huang Yong Ping

A longer, more nuanced answer to the question in my headline came from several speakers (including Daniel Weiss, the Metropolitan Museum’s president) on the American Federation of Arts’ Museums Now panel at Sotheby’s last Tuesday, which I attended. The Guggenheim flap was one of two high-profile news developments (the other being the Berkshire Museum’s planned deaccessions) with which the panel grappled.

AFA’s “Museums Now” panel, L to R: Tom Finkelpearl, NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs; Belinda Tate, executive director, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts; Daniel Weiss, president, Metropolitan Museum; Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief, Hyperallergic
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The panel’s moderator was Arnold Lehman, senior advisor, Phillips auction house and former director, Brooklyn Museum. Missing from the above photo (stuck in traffic and arriving shortly after the program began): Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator, Whitney Museum:

Arnold Lehman
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Rujeko Hockley
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum













Here’s an edited transcript of the panel’s comments regarding protests that target museums. They highlighted the role of social media in fanning the flames of firestorms like the Guggenheim’s:

Hrag Vartanian: The first step should be understanding who the protesters are and what they’re interested in….They tend to be pretty sophisticated in their thinking, or at least they have a real legitimate reason and there’s a lot of listening that has to go on. I think that’s really an important first step. I’ve never been in a protest where it’s: “This is a really scary and dangerous,” at least not in an art museum [an allusion to the Guggenheim’s comment about threatened violence]….In reality, sometimes the issues can be dealt with.

Rujeko Hockley: Sometimes that doesn’t really happen because the other side of social media and technology is that so often these things spread so quickly and gain so much of their own momentum. The speed of humans who get in a room and talk to each other and understand each other is much, much slower than the metabolism and speed of the internet, in which a picture and a statement and grievances can circulate. I think those two different time scales are inherently in conflict, in a way that museums were not able to deal with protests.

In the show that’s up at the Whitney right now [An Incomplete History of Protest, for which Hockley was a co-curator], we looked at archival material of different episodes in which the Whitney has been the site of protest between the years of 1960 and 1971, and it’s all paper. It’s all signatures on petitions and negotiations.

Letter to Whitney Museum from Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, signed by co-chairmen Cliff Joseph & Benny Andrews
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

….I think the question now is difficult, because even with the best intentions and most open, transparent approach, it’s spiraling over there on the internet while the museum is trying to get a handle on it and maybe even while the protesters are trying to get a handle on it….

It [the Guggenheim controversy and its resolution] all happened in the course of a few days. The show wasn’t even opened. So I think that metabolism is a really difficult problem. It doesn’t help the discourse; it doesn’t help artists; it doesn’t help artwork; it doesn’t help the institutions.

I guess it helps the protesters: Perhaps what they ask for is received. But it’s a really big issue.

Daniel Weiss: The question of what protest means is an important one for us to consider. It’s a form of impassioned communication and ultimately can help to elucidate a subject and engage people in ways that might be helpful. But in the age of social media, it goes so quickly and gets so heated that it can become dangerous. I think there’s a dynamic there, and I’ve seen it in my own work [as Haverford College president], in ways that are ultimately unhealthy.

So the question is: How do we work in the environment we’re in, to allow protests to play the role they play? Every situation is different. One shouldn’t simply never fold or concede to a protest. But there ought to be a forum where those kinds of ideas and that freedom of expression is not only tolerated but appreciated and celebrated. In the age of social media, that ain’t easy, because of how it accelerates.

Belinda Tate: Of course, these things can’t always be anticipated, but you can look at some of the events that have occurred recently and say, “Really? You didn’t engage your community before you decided to present these things?”

We start the planning process in museums long before the exhibition comes into fruition, so we also need to make sure that we are intimately engaged with our audiences long before some of these things are presented. In some of these cases, you can really see that people [at the museum] were actually out of touch and, unfortunately, the institutions were not prepared.

Here’s my own takeaway from the Guggenheim brouhaha: Feature films routinely include text in the end credits stating that “no animals were harmed” in making the movie. The same principle ought to apply to art on display in museums.

The Guggenheim compounded its missteps by issuing a misleadingly euphemistic description in its press release of what had been intended as the show’s signature piece—Huang Yong Ping’s “large, octagonal structure that houses hundreds of live reptiles and insects. Teeming with life [in the words of the press release], the work foreshadows an underlying sense of visceral realism and realpolitik that is present in much of the most interesting work of this period.”

Far from “teeming with life,” “Theater of the World” reeks with death. Its “visceral realism and realpolitik” consists of spiders, scorpions, crickets, cockroaches, black beetles, stick insects, centipedes, lizards, toads and snakes that treat each other as lunch and are replenished with new victims. Visceral indeed.

If you’re morbidly curious, you can find the infamous (now withdrawn) pit-bull piece—Peng Yu‘s and Sun Yuan’s “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” 2003—on YouTube. So as not be complicit in purveying images of animal cruelty, I’ll refrain from providing the link to that sickening clip. [CultureGrrl Warning: After a couple of minutes of reportorial diligence in watching the video, I could bear no more.]

Guggenheim officials, insisting that they were right, are not contrite. They have pronounced themselves “dismayed that we must withhold works of art. Freedom of expression [emphasis added] has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.”

In the hierarchy of ethical principles, humane conduct trumps “freedom of expression.” Not only were the museum’s officials not “prepared” to cope with the attacks that erupted, as senior curator Alexandra Munroe had professed to be (in a timely interview conducted by artnet‘s Andrew Goldstein, just before all hell broke loose). They seem still not to fully comprehend what hit them.

The buck stops with the museum’s director: A mea culpa from Richard Armstrong is called for, along with a plan for avoiding such mistakes in the future.

an ArtsJournal blog