On the cruelty of shock art like Vargas' - one vet's unabashed condemnation
Guillermo Habacuc Vargas. That’s the name of the Costa Rican artist whose work you may have heard talk of for its incredible depiction of a dying dog in a gallery setting—and for the allegedly posthumous photographs of the stray dog (Natividad) that also became part of the work.
If you’re one of the two million-plus people who has signed a petition to limit this artist’s inclusion in the Central American Biennial in Honduras, you’ll have seen this piece.
It depicts a starving San Juan street dog tethered to a gallery mooring, reportedly in view of food and water (which she was deprived of). By most accounts, she died while there and was photographed in her death throes and thereafter.
The piece is titled “You Are What You Read,” words which are depicted in dog treats on the gallery floor near Natividad’s emaciated frame while the Sandinista anthem plays backwards and crack cocaine simmers nearby (really).
It’s true that accounts of the gallery’s installation vary and that the Internet has a way of playing telephone in unfair ways. Nonetheless, whether she was killed or not, the artist has allegedly admitted that his goal was to depict the cruelty to animals as an allegory for human suffering, thereby implicating gallery patrons who did not stop to help her as complicit in her misery and emblematic of our collective human brutality.
Vargas’ work has been well-received by many in the international art community for its insight into the human condition and its novel application of the fashionable conceptual modes of artistic expression (hence its acceptance by the Central American Biennial). But for me, it’s an abominable atrocity and a wasteful example of creative/commercial confusion.
Other artists have attempted the same: Clubbing animals to death on film. Playing finger puppets with dead white mice heads. The idea is to challenge our moral, cultural and psychological sensibilities; to shake us to our core.
Ironically, support of animal rights is often cited by artists as a rationale for such art. In light of the rest of these artists’ work, however, the claim typically rings hollow.
Shock art like this plays on our emotional attachment to animals in ways that maximize the feeling of being primally unsettled. Profoundly disturbed is more likely—but not for reasons that are genuinely artistic.
Unlike Marcel Duchamp’s groundbreaking toilet (the inscribed urinal pictured below):
The goal of shock artists is often no more artistic than the acquisition of fame and notoriety á la “Piss Christ” by Andrés Serrano (whose photograph, below, I think has a significant merit, even if it’s not to your liking).
My taste in art may shy away from a couple of the contemporary directions art is headed, but I’m not completely uneducated in this regard.
Though I'm just a rank amatuer, I collect contemporary art by emerging artists (the only thing I can afford). I have an Art History degree from a decent program. And I attend galleries and read up. But I can’t abide this crap that passes for art.
Sure, much as I find it horrible and wrong, I can envision worthy art using dead and dying dogs as much as I can imagine the same employing humans in the same light. But I’m not going to support it or allow it to happen any more than I can support murder and allow the act to persist for the sake of art.
The problem with Vargas’ “art,” aside from it’s being devoid of artistic merit by relying on shock value more than true depth of expression and innovation, is that it’s conceptually untenable.
This piece, like his others, has nowhere to go. It says nothing we haven’t already seen expressed before in more effective ways. Where it succeeds is only in pushing the limits of realism-infused performance art into the illegal and immoral.
The art community seems to feel somewhat protective of Vargas and his right to freedom of expression. But if we’re to follow the art industry down this path, where will we draw the line? Can abusing embryos with acid, killing fetuses with blow-torches or torturing the homeless with glow sticks be far behind?
We have our limits as a society and artists have never been exempt from these. Sure, there’s always a boundary art must encroach upon (think of Michelangelo and his conflict with the Church in depicting the human form in idealistic, realistic detail) but art does not necessarily speak greater volumes because it wrests our basic humanity from the depths of our souls.
Art can work this angle, for sure, and it should. But it can’t transgress fundamental boundaries—like killing a sentient being cruelly. Nor should it slaughter animals to bring attention to otherwise mediocre work. No sustainable artistic movement or truly valuable artist’s work has ever stood the test of time on these grounds.
Face it, Mr. Vargas. You may be getting press for now but no one will be buying your crap ten years from today. And few will remember your name twenty seconds after they read this. Good luck with your life and I hope you spend eternity in that special circle Dante’s god reserved for your kind.