On “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” & “Open Casket”

I’m normally kind of an absolutist when it comes to artistic expression. I have very little patience for “I don’t get it” or “my kid could have made that” or “that’s not beautiful” or “that’s offensive” — all responses that I can only describe as boring. I tend to think it’s good to try to be interested in just about anything. But it’s hard to see the redeeming value in “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other” and its fellow works, now excised from the Guggenheim exhibition “Art & China After 1989,” which inflict real physical and psychological stress on real living things incapable of volunteering to participate in your little art project. Maybe if the artists themselves were the ones who had to run on treadmills facing each other but never able to touch, that might be an interesting visual comment on, oh, I don’t know, alienation, physical contact, work, technology? But making dogs do it just seems kind of cruel.

Compare this controversy to the recent brouhaha over Dana Schutz’s provocative and even painful but formally-interesting and intellectually-intriguing “Open Casket,” a painting of the disfigured corpse of Emmett Till.

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I don’t think it’s enough to dismiss a work just because it might cause pain in the *audience.* Some would argue that the best art does. We have seen people say that Schutz “appropriates” a black body for her work (from which she stands to profit) and that this is a contrived spectacle that is painful for black audience members to witness.

There is no doubt some truth to this argument, but one wonders whether the image is not also painful for white audience members, or should be, and whether that might not be part of what the work has to say. One might argue that Schutz’s work is just as exploitative as the one with the dogs, which incorporates actual living, breathing (and unwilling?) bodies, but is it, really? It’s not a competition, of course, but which is worse?

I can see validity in the argument that just because a work seems to have a point to make, that’s not necessarily enough to make it advisable to execute the work in the first place, or worthwhile to ponder it from the audience. But it seems to me that’s an argument to be had by critics and collectors, not foreclosed entirely by self-appointed censors.