"WE ARE dismayed that we must withhold works of art" was the statement from the Guggenheim Museum in New York as it announced the removal from an upcoming show of three pieces that had aroused vehement protests from animal rights activists. We share that dismay. Shouldn't an institution that says it values freedom of expression as "paramount" have stood up for it rather than cave to organized threats?
The museum announced last Monday that it was pulling three major works from an exhibition of art by Chinese conceptual artists, including the show's signature piece. The show, "Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World," set to open Friday, had come under increasing attack because of three pieces involving living animals that advocates for animal rights said amounted to cruelty. Most controversial was video of "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other," in which four pairs of dogs try to fight one another but can't touch because they are on nonmotorized treadmills. An online petition drive had collected more than 700,000 signatures, and protesters marched outside the Manhattan museum over the weekend.
The museum first insisted the works would remain. Of "Dogs That Cannot Touch Other," a museum spokeswoman said "it was not a question that it would stay in the exhibition," and a statement by the Guggenheim encouraged patrons to consider what the piece "may be saying about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share." It changed its tune last Monday and, in pulling the pieces, cited "explicit and repeated threats of violence" and concern for the safety of staff, visitors and artists. Officials declined to discuss specifics.
Safety should never be discounted. Nor should concerns about exploitative abuse of animals. There is dispute about whether the dogs suffered: Animal rights advocates say the performance caused them pain and distress, while the artists called the animals "naturally pugnacious" and said they were examined by veterinarians before and after the performance. That the Guggenheim pulled the work while expressing "regrets" suggests it did so out of fear and not on the merits. That capitulation sends a chilling message about artistic freedom, which could set a troubling precedent the next time some other institution plans to display something someone else doesn't like or approve of.
"Museums," Tom Eccles of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College told the New York Times, "are here to show works that are difficult, uncomfortable, provocative." We won't pretend to like or understand the three works that are at issue here, but there can be no misunderstanding the danger to society when artists — and the institutions that display their work — are denied freedom of expression.