1.8.18 — Silence without Censorship

To pick up from last time on “Art and China Since 1989” at the Guggenheim, Xu Bing filmed the pigs back in 1993 as A Case Study in Transference, Aun Yuan and Peng Yu the dogs in 2003, but they still drew hundreds of thousands of signatures in protest. Huang Yong Ping knows that his habitat, too, is not for the squeamish. Now that we can look back, did the Guggenheim make the right decisions?

Huang Yong Ping's Theater of the World (Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, 1993)If one thing unites the roughly seventy artists, it is reaching for the big, the brash, and the obvious. Ai Weiwei built an international reputation with spectacle and performance—such as shattering ancient urns, marking others with a Coca-Cola logo, and salvaging art from the trash. Cao Fei earned a show only a year ago at MoMA PS1 for animation with the look of anime and the pace of a video game.

And that leads once again to the issues of silence and censorship. The Whitney kept Dana Schutz in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Should the Guggenheim have stood its ground as well? Even before Theater of the World, Huang ran histories of Western and Chinese art through a washing machine, and the show displays the results. Surely he and the museum should know censorship when they see it. Maybe so, but then why does the outrage at the museum’s compromise leave me so uncomfortable?

For one thing, everyone deserves a voice, but not everyone deserves a show at the Guggenheim. While bad art can never excuse censorship, each of the works now withdrawn has that obvious message that makes me reluctant to feel sorry for it. It is also a confused message. Huang may speak of “survival of the fittest” as life under capitalism or communism, but how far can science serve as a metaphor for society? And while it is hard to pity cockroaches and tarantulas, he and not Darwin, China, or the global economy were going to put them to an early death. The other two works are still more of a mess.

For another, censorship implies government or institutional power—much as when a senator tried to crush Robert Mapplethorpe or a mayor tried to remove Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili. It also implies fear of a point of view. In the case of Schutz, it turns on a white artist’s right to speak to out about racism. Here a public protest objected not to a work’s message or its artist, but to cruelty to animals. That is something else entirely, and it does not take treating animals as human (another lame defense) to object. I do not strangle cats and call that museum-quality art either.

Defenders of the art have pointed to football players as victims of abuse much like the dogs. That sounds to me like a child in a playground pleading “he did it first.” Then, too, humans, one can hope, have a choice. Defenders also speak of the dogs as using the treadmills for the pleasure of a run, but that hardly accords with their pursuit of each other to the point of exhaustion. And the museum can fairly claim not to have quashed debate, but rather to encourage debate through its compromise, retaining the monitors and cages while adding artist statements. Unlike a censor, it is not trying to forget.

Still, the outcry has a point. Animal cruelty only barely defines display of a video more than twenty years old, one that hardly approves of cruelty, and it does not define the other two works at all. The museum also made a decision to display them, and that decision should not come up for a vote, not even from an informed and passionate public. It speaks of protecting its staff from danger, but the only danger I see comes from scorpions, not PETA terrorists. In the end, I support the outcome but with fears that it, too, like so much of the work, may be repellent. With luck, the debate over contemporary Chinese art can now look beyond the silence of the pigs.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.