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February 1999
Editorial: Palate or Palette: Is it Art?
By Martin Rowe

 

According to artist Sue Coe, there were two reasons why slaughterhouse managers allowed her to sit and record the scenes of animal slaughter in their establishments. First, she was a woman, and therefore would somehow fade into the background amidst the macho massacre. Second, she was an artist and not a photographer. Somehow, it was decided that these two features in combination would render her and her rendering of rendering invisible.

How wrong they were. The work that Coe produced over a number of years was collected into the book Dead Meat (Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1996). It remains, for me, the most devastating indictment of the conditions for both human and non-human animals in slaughterhouses precisely because of its artistic qualities: its muted tones combined with vivid spot coloration capture the physical and psychic agony of killed and killers; the stylization and use of text on the paintings powerfully critique the power structures of the agricultural–industrial complex; and the beautifully executed charcoal sketches illuminate the pathos of the mechanized life of the slaughterhouse. If any evidence were needed that art can be as powerful a documenter of life (and death) as photography, it is here in Coe’s work.

This issue of Satya is dedicated to a selection of artists working in the fields of art, performance theater, music, and spoken word. These artists have brought their concerns regarding the environment and animals into their art, and their skills as artists to the issues of planetary devastation and other-than-human life. It might be asked why artists such as Damien Hirst or Jannis Kounnelis or Hermann Nitsch are not featured in this issue. Hirst, the enfant terrible of British art, has used cows and pigs in his art, and has even had his supplies freshly killed for the purpose. Austrian Nitsch was the orchestrator of a six-day festival in August last year during which participants slaughtered three bulls and six pigs. Rather more tamely perhaps, Kounnelis—who has used live animals in his art since the 1960s—staged an exhibition in SoHo last year where five starlings were caged as part of a rather banal reminiscence of how canaries used to warn humans of the presence of dangerous gas in mines.

It is not immediately clear what Hirst’s art involving dead animals is meant to represent. When Hirst was asked what his piece entitled “Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything”—in which two cows were sliced up and suspended in 12 tanks of formaldehyde—meant, his only reply was that it was “worth a lot of money.” While the New York Sanitation Department took a dim view of Hirst’s displays of dismembered pigs, David Hockney found it all delightful. Commenting on “Some Comfort...,” he said: “It’s like a fairground isn’t it? This is like the attraction of 3-D photography.” Nitsch, who described his six-day theater as being a celebration of Being, wanted to recapture the sacred dimension of the Dionysiac cultus of blood frenzy and ingestion of animal power and link it to a modern day “re-enactment” of the Christian Crucifixion and Eucharist. Defending his slaughter of the animals, Nitsch announced that his art was no different from what happened in a slaughterhouse.

As for Kounnelis, after protests and when the exhibit was over, the birds were released to a bird rehabilitator.

It would be one thing if these artists’ well-remunerated attempts pour épater le bourgeois offered much insight into the often-tortured dynamic between human and non-human life. It would be another thing if Nitsch had accompanied Sue Coe to a slaughterhouse to see if what he was doing was exactly what they do in a slaughterhouse and whether his festival of love and peace was properly representative of the commercial act of killing. I understand that the shock of the new is fundamental to art—indeed, art needs to keep shocking us so that we may better understand the human condition. But what irks me about these artists is that their observations are so uninteresting: they aren’t new and only shock to the extent that one doesn’t run across cows’ remains in galleries very often or (in Nitsch’s case) trample on animals’ intestines every day. While Nitsch could point out our common collusion in animal slaughter—even down to the use of gelatin (or crushed cow bone) in photographs—as an excuse for what he did, it remains a poor excuse for art. Art should challenge and transmogrify; it should provoke, yes; but it should also evoke. Grossing people out, I would venture, is hardly the stuff of an artistic manifesto.

The artists in this issue are all in their way activists. Outrageously, they actually want to do something with the insights their art offers them, and they are using their considerable skills to bring about change. If this makes them too tame or lamentably outré or insufferably de trop for the gilded children of the international art scene, then they are willing to take the risk on the off-chance that our world may be the better for their efforts.

Martin Rowe


 


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