Last night, the Guggenheim Museum released a statement announcing that they would pull three rage-inducing works from their upcoming show Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World. The three inclusions–Peng Yu and Sun Yuan’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference and Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World, which gives the show its name–faced accusations of animal cruelty by both PETA and a Change.org petition that has, as of publication gathered, 667,265 signatures.
If you haven’t been paying attention, these artworks are hard to defend and their inclusion in a major museum exhibition is even more difficult. The video Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other documents an original 2003 installation, which presented dogs tethered to treadmills facing-off and aggressively attempting (but failing) to attack each other. Perhaps the worst is Huang Yong Ping’s giant coliseum of carnage that supposedly shows us the world’s cruelty through a group of insects, amphibians and reptiles that will inevitably kill and devour each other through the run of the show. As if viewer’s would never learn about global violence without seeing live animals murdering then munching. Jesus, people, whatever happened to watching procedural crime shows to satisfy voyeuristic and sociopathic impulses!
Now, there’s a lot that can be said about the unsettling and ill-advised decision made by the curators Alexandra Munroe, Philip Tinari and Hou Hanru to show these works, as well as subsequent outrage and removal (For example, why can works featuring animal cruelty be removed while exploitation of Black pain (I’m looking at you Dana) stay on institutional white walls?). And yet, what has stuck with me the most after reading the Guggenheim’s indignant statement last night is this nagging question: why do wealthy art institutions sound an awful lot like the alt-right these days?
“Out of concern for the safety of its staff, visitors, and participating artists, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has 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 its 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, the Guggenheim regrets that explicit and repeated 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.”
First off, who wrote this? Milo Yiannopoulos? Stephen Miller? Sarah Huckabee-Sanders? What is Sean Spicer doing nowadays? With its willful misrepresentation of freedom of expression and framing outcry and protest as unhinged, hysterical violence, it’s like they just pulled someone off the street who was visiting Berkeley for Milo’s hilariously failed “Free Speech Week.” At the very least, someone in the Guggenheim’s communications department read Dangerous.
From the beginning, the statement frames the removal of the works as a safety issue for workers and visitors alike. Rather than engaging critically with the reasons that over half-a-million people signed an online petition against the works, or at the very least, apologizing, the museum, instead, points to unspecific threats. In so doing, they position “the other side,” if you will, as unreasonable, dangerous and quite possibly homicidal.
Huh…where have I heard this before? Oh, Right. For instance, alt-right leaders planned protests in August against Google’s diversity policies, in support of that douche James Damore. After Charlottesville, the organizers canceled the marches, citing “credible threats from known Alt-Left terrorist groups.”
While I won’t deny the possibility that the Guggenheim received threats of violence, it also isn’t the museum’s first attempt at squelching protest by pointing to vague threats. Hyperallergic has the receipts: “This claim was also made against Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) protests in 2014, and Guggenheim officials at the time told Hyperallergic they were concerned about possible damage. No damage or harm during those protests ever occurred.” Instead of engaging with the human rights offenses being committed in the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, their tactic–like last night’s statement–was to redefine protest as malicious and even, terroristic.
If that weren’t enough of a reminder of alt-right tactics infiltrating museum systems, the Guggenheim’s reliance on freedom of expression as a catch-all defense of unethical artwork is chillingly similar to the alt-right and the Trump administration’s recontextualization of freedom of speech to include hate speech. Beyond forgetting to mention that other institutions have been forced to remove artworks like Theater of the World, which was taken down after protests in Vancouver in 2007, the museum wields the First Amendment as a weapon against dissent, sounding all-too-much like the attention hogs of the alt-right.
In fact, the Guggenheim’s remark about freedom of expression sounds as if it came straight from the Breitbart handbook (which recently promoted a Facebook post with the line “Progressives hate free speech”). Take, for example, a statement from Milo Yiannopoulos, which reads like a more concise version of the Guggenheim’s statement with its framing of outrage as PC hysterics. With an entire chapter on Freedom of Speech in his book Dangerous, Milo Yiannopoulos writes, “The practitioners of the new political correctness are not equipped for a world in which individuals can disagree with what is deemed appropriate thought. They rely on silencing the opposition with hysterics, instead of winning with superior ideas.”
And just today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions provided another perfect example of the symmetry between the Guggenheim’s self-righteous evocation of free expression as an excuse for torturing animals and the Trump administration’s misrecognition of freedom of speech. Describing college campuses as “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos,” Sessions said, “In other words, the school favors the heckler’s disruptive tactics over the speaker’s First Amendment rights.”
Sessions, Yiannopoulos and the unnamed Guggenheim writer all represent a fundamental and purposeful misrepresentation of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, two rights which are key to our democracy and are cheapened by these tactics. And to be fair, it’s not just the Guggenheim–other institutions have exhibited similar alt-right tactics. The Whitney Museum and Dana Schutz’s defenders during the Biennial similarly cried censorship and hid behind freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech and expression don’t mean freedom to avoid critique or, in the alt-right’s case, freedom to avoid consequences for voicing white supremacist, homophobic, racist, anti-Islam, transphobic, etc. views. In the same respects, freedom of expression doesn’t mean freedom to maim, abuse and traumatize animals for art. In fact, PETA, in their letter, cites the College Art Association’s principles for artists using live animals in their letter to the Guggenheim, which state, “no work of art should, in the course of its creation, cause physical or psychological pain, suffering, or distress to an animal.” So, if you have a problem with that Guggenheim, maybe take it up with those censors at the College Art Association.
In an interview with Artnet News, conducted before the works’ removal, curator Alexandra Munroe breathlessly describes anticipating the controversy, saying: “We will see. It’s quite fascinating. We’ll see what the reaction is. I think we’re well prepared, but I think we also want to remind people that this is both a metaphor and it’s real. That they will digest this, be nourished by this, and they will move on.” While the museum showed that they weren’t, in fact, prepared, I think the Guggenheim needs to know that some of us will have a hard time moving on from their echoes of the alt-right.