Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Trusting Our Gut

"Sunday Cockfight at Madrid"
Wood engraving, originally published in Harper's Weekly
September 1873

Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.
-"Coriolanus" (Act II, Scene I), William Shakespeare
Human beings are exceptional among the social beasts in that our moral and ethical values are forever evolving. Educated, progressive individuals today consider all humans inherently equal, irrespective of race, sex, religion or nationality. Unfortunately, prejudice doesn't die easy, and bitter conflict remains a fact of life. Still, cultural anthropologists note that humanity has with time extended its ethical embrace from family to tribe, tribe to region, region to nation, nation to race, and race to species. In other words, bigoted outliers excepted, humanity is becoming ever more compassionate. It is notable and lamentable, however, that our animal brethren remain largely ignored. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that humanity will transcend anthropocentrism.

My optimism is muddied, however, by articles like "Exhibition with Disturbing Videos of Animals Leads to Protests in Italy." This NY Times report deals with a controversial video installation by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed. In a matter of days, an Italian judge will determine whether or not the installation can be legally displayed in Turin. Abdessemed included two shocking videos in the installation: "Don't Trust Me," a loop documenting the sledgehammer slaughter of six Mexican farm animals; and "Usine," a video of scorpions, snakes, spiders, roosters and dogs fighting for human entertainment. Both videos were filmed in Mexico, where bludgeoning of "meat animals" is standard practice and animal fights are still legal.

Because Italian law prohibits animal fighting, the courts might fairly rule that "Usine" should not be shown to the public because it encourages illegal activity. But what of the bludgeoning in "Don't Trust Me"? Can a court rule that video documentation and display of a common practice violates the law?

In many countries, sledgehammers are still the primary method of stunning and killing an animal before it is butchered. The cow, horse, goat or other "meat animal" is roundly struck with the heavy hammer on the cranium. If the initial blow is misplaced, the animal will be struck again. In the United States, the Humane Slaughter Act stipulates that a captive bolt pistol is used to drive a pressurized bolt into the animal's brain. The pistol is more consistent than a sledgehammer, but the intended effect is the same.

Abdessemed's videos merely document a brutal step in the omnivore's food cycle. He is not, then, as so many activists assert, "someone who mistreats animals." Rather, he is someone who documents socially sanctioned mistreatment of animals.

Last year, vociferous protest from animal rights groups shut down a showing of "Don't Trust Me" at the San Francisco Art Institute. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the "Art Institute canceled the panel discussion and the exhibition...[due to] unnumbered threats of violence from animal rights activists and possibly from others." Many of these outraged, threat-making individuals did not have all the facts; some of them even insisted that the artist killed the animals himself, in the name of art. But a comment by a reader of Ingrid's San Francisco Blog makes clear what most upset San Franciscans.
"I don’t want to see it (I prefer my meat in nice little packages in the store freezer), and if it is too disturbing or shocking to the sensibilities of the community, then the community should ask that the exhibit be removed."
It comes as no surprise that people don't like to be disturbed or shocked, but the commenter's preference for "meat in nice little packages" is irrelevant; that nicely presented meat comes from a living animal that was killed for human consumption. By buying the packaged meat, the consumer is implicated in the "processing" of the animal. Moreover, if she denies her connection to the animal's life and death, the meat-eater engages in irrational and immoral thinking. Were the omnivores that called for the closing of Abdessemed's SFAI exhibition compelled by shame?

And what of the threat-making animal rights activists? Excluding the individuals that erroneously believed Abdessemed was "killing the animals for art," I don't see the sense in their wanting to close the SFAI exhibition. Shouldn't they want to promote it, instead? After all, "Don't Trust Me" is cousin to videos produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal rights groups that document inhumane slaughterhouse practices. PETA hopes that these videos will inspire outrage against the meat industry and encourage vegetarianism. Why should Abdessemed's videos upset this interest group?

My reaction to Abdessemed's work is like my response to Marco Evaristti's provocative installations and performances. I agree with their detractors: the work is generally "little more than a publicity stunt to generate buzz." But if buzz gets people talking about our contemporary moral dilemmas, is that cause enough to embrace the provocateur?

Image credit: ripped from Wikipedia


Josh Dooley said...

It's funny. I love animals. I love to eat animals, and I don't mind killing animals in order to eat them (I'm not particularly good at it, but that hasn't stopped me before). I recognize that our current course of animal-product ingestion is unsustainable, but.... they just taste so good.. I am reminded of the ill-fated life of the anchovy made victim to the gastronomic desires of Futurama's Dr. Zoidberg.

Anyway, for those of you (probably all) who don't get that reference.. the idea is that, when you get right down to it, we are, as a species, slaves to our own base desires. Make something available to us, and we will consume to our limits. If others fight the temptation, they only serve to, "leave more for me."

I think that particular desire not only fuels our ever-increasing passion for easily-obtainable meat, credit, sex, information,fuel etc--- but it also fuels other activities that we tend to think more positively of... Such as our expansive social nature, "extend[ing] [our] ethical embrace from family to tribe, tribe to region, region to nation, nation to race, and race to species.

I believe that our desire for more is what makes us run, so the question is, will we kill ourselves before we save ourselves? I don't think that we can escape the cycle, so we just have to watch the wreck as it happens..

Hungry Hyaena said...


As someone who also loves to eat animals, I hear ya. But I've sworn off meat except that which I catch, hunt, kill, butcher and prepare myself. Living in New York City, this means I'm vegetarian for all but a few days of the year.

As I see it, Dr. Zoidberg's gastronomic wanting is reason to "fight the temptation" rather than to shrug off the good fight as futile.

Do I think that we'll necessarily "have to watch the wreck as it happens"? No. Do I believe, then, that we'll transcend our animal coding and emerge, on the other side, fully moral beasts? Nope, that strikes me as wrong, too. We'll stumble along, two steps forward and one step back, teetering all the way.

The striving itself is what matters.