Issue 107, Summer 2008
In a highly publicized incident this March, the San Francisco Art Institute cancelled Don't Trust Me, an exhibition by Algerian-born French artist Abdel Abdessemed consisting of video footage of animals being killed by a single blow from a sledgehammer. The cancellation of both the exhibition and a planned panel discussion about the work, came in response to threats of violence directed at staff members and their families by animal-rights activists. Can moral outrage ever justify such threats?
The images in Don't Trust Me are deeply disturbing, though probably less so than videos of animal abuse distributed for advocacy purposes by some of the animal rights organizations that protested the exhibition. The difference is that Abdessemed’s videos lack context, and thus offer no clear moral message. Had Abdessemed stated that his work condemned practices of slaughtering animals in Mexico (where the footage was ostensibly shot), for instance, it seems unlikely that SFAI would have been subjected to the threats that caused it to cancel the exhibit.
Yet it is precisely the lack of moral message, or didactic or utilitarian purpose in Abdessemed’s work which forces us to confront the guilty incoherence of our moral relationship to animals: We identify with them when we see them care for their young or experience hunger and pain, we make some of them pets and best friends, but we also routinely kill them, whether for food, clothing, scientific research, sport, or because we view them as “pests.” By not explicitly telling the viewer what to think, Abdessemed’s work elicits a much more complex emotional response than, say, a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) video. By not overtly condemning distant practices of killing animals, the installation makes it impossible to disregard our personal relationship to the slaughter of other living creatures, including our daily disavowal of the mass killing necessary for the “food production” process.
Notwithstanding the powerful effect Don't Trust Me has on the viewer, the possibility that the animals were killed just for the camera – even if they were killed instantaneously with no pain and would have been slaughtered anyway – undeniably raises serious ethical questions. But the function of art is not necessarily, or always, to provide moral guidance, or to reflect the prevailing moral standards of the day. By exploring taboos and testing the boundaries of the permissible, art can reveal the contradictions within our moral systems and force us to re-examine our assumptions. By daring to face the horror of existence and represent it in all its stark brutality, art may indeed provide insights available nowhere else.
Predictably, faced with material that confronts our beliefs and unsettles our emotions, the first impulse is to want it suppressed by any means available. The need to coexist in a diverse society, however, demands that we resist the impulse to use violence as a way of silencing those who outrage us. That does not mean that we should be mute in the face of art that offends our moral sense. There are many channels to voice one’s anger that do not include threats of violence. In the case of Don't Trust Me, after initially suspending the show in response to an outpouring of anger, SFAI planned to hold a discussion forum around the exhibition. Such a forum would have been an opportunity for all sides to express their perspectives and to explore the issues and ethical questions Abdessemed’s work raises. Threats to “gather up the children of staff members and bludgeon their heads,” however, precluded the forum, as well as any reasoned discussion in which artist, curator, activists, and audience could share their concerns.
No matter whether we find Abdessemed’s moral provocations defensible or morally unacceptable, we need to draw a firm line where threats of violence are concerned. To the extent that our society harbors such violent intolerance, it invites untold others who are convinced of the moral rectitude of their cause to adopt similar tactics. This time it was animal rights activists, and next time it might be religious or political extremists. Every time threats of violence succeed in silencing expression, fear’s stranglehold on the imagination tightens, stifling our very ability to fully explore the world and our place in it.