Animal Rights

After Massive Outcry, Guggenheim Museum Pulls Work Promoting Animal Cruelty From Show

People who are entertained by watching animals try to fight each other have twisted interests.

Photo Credit: veroxdale/Shutterstock

In a rapid about-face, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City canceled plans to display a callous and cruel video of dogs straining to fight one another. The piece, which was slated to be shown in about a week's time in an exhibition of Chinese conceptual art, is a seven-minute video of four pairs of American pit bulls charging each other, but unable to make contact because they are confined to non-motorized treadmills.

The outcry was massive and swift. According to Stephanie Lewis, who created a petition on Change.org, half a million people signed her petition in just 100 hours. "That’s 12,000/hour, or 200/minute continuously since crossing the half million signature threshold, into the wee hours of the night," she wrote in her petition update

Clearly, the Guggenheim doesn't have its pulse on public sentiment when it comes to animals.

The dogs in these exhibits experience the same emotions that we and our beloved animal companions do. They're emotionally complex and highly intelligent living beings, not props. They are not participating willingly, and no one should force sentient beings into stressful situations for the sake of art or sport.

People who are entertained by watching animals try to fight each other have twisted interests that the Guggenheim should not cater to. After they've been forced to fight, dogs are mangled, bloody, sometimes unable to walk or stand, and covered with cuts, bruises and scars. The "losers" of these fights are often killed by their handlers. 

Real dogs were used when the piece was first shown in 2003 in Beijing, and even if the Guggenheim was only planning to feature the video, by doing so, it is still promoting dogfighting. Showcasing dogs in these stressful situations is just as wrong as showing it live.

The museum posted the following statement last night:

Out of concern for the safety of our staff, visitors, and participating artists, we have decided against showing the art works "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other" (2003), "Theater of the World" (1993), and "A Case Study of Transference" (1994) in the upcoming exhibition "Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World." Although these works have been exhibited in museums in Asia, Europe, and the United States, we regret that threats of violence have made our decision necessary. As an arts institution committed to presenting a multiplicity of voices, we are dismayed that we must withhold works of art. Freedom of expression has always been and will remain a paramount value of the Guggenheim.

While it is a victory that the museum bowed to the massive outcry of animal advocates and decided not to display the works, the statement leaves much to be desired, making it clear that the decision wasn't because the works promoted dogfighting, but because they were concerned for people's safety. The huge opposition to these works is a clear indication that the Guggenheim is out of step with the public on the issue.

Crush videos, in which fetishists kill small animals by stepping on them, could also be seen as "just videos," but people who make them have been arrested and convicted of cruelty to animals. The so-called artists who feel that they have to hurt animals in order to make a point should be handled in the same way. 

Dogfighting is illegal in the U.S. in all 50 states. Celebrating this cruel blood sport in any way or treating it as though it were acceptable by calling it art is as damaging as it is ludicrous. 

Most of the activists and animal advocates who came out against the Guggenheim likely have no wish to stifle artistic activity or talent, but abusing animals should never be taken lightly. China has no meaningful animal protection laws, so withdrawing these pieces will hopefully send the important message to China and its artists that animals are not props and that they deserve respect.

The College Art Association has several principles in place for artists who engage in any practice using live animals, including that "[n]o work of art should, in the course of its creation, cause physical or psychological pain, suffering, or distress to an animal." It is obvious to anyone watching "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other" that the dogs used in this video experienced a high level of stress.

The Guggenheim and all other museums of art should follow the lead of CAA and implement policies that prohibit the display of any work of art that was created by causing any animal physical or psychological suffering, pain or distress.

Animals exist for their own reasons; they are not property to use and exploit. Teaching respect and appreciation for all animals is key to building a more compassionate society. 

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

John Di Leonardo is the Animals in Entertainment Campaigner at PETA.