Is Starving a Dog Art?

Some years ago when I lived in Britain, during the IRA terrorist campaign, a mortar was launched into a park in central London. One or two people might have been killed. There was the usual uproar in the press. When the media frenzy had subsided, a friend, weary of the incessant coverage, cynically remarked, “Thank God no dogs were killed.”

Intentionally killing or injuring animals, especially dogs and cats, has the ability to move us to pity or outrage as few other things do. This feeling, I think, goes beyond normal human empathy. We sentimentalize animals. Without warrant, we endow them with human characteristics and project on them human needs and wants. It’s a cult. Consider that in 2006, $39 billion was spent in the United States feeding cats and dogs rich, high protein, nutritionally balanced diets, so much in fact some of them have contracted classic industrial nation illnesses, like Type II diabetes and heart disease. Billions more were spent on veterinary fees, grooming, fencing, training, toys, worming pills, kennelling and so on. Consider also that between the years 2000 and 2006 25% of the world’s children under age 5 were “severely” or “moderately” underweight. These facts are not unrelated.

A few days ago, The Vancouver Manifesto posted an account of a dog that an artist named Guillermo Vargas allegedly starved to death as part of an art exhibit in Managua, Nicaragua last summer. (I use the word “allegedly” advisedly: according to the original press report, the director of gallery where the exhibit took place denied that the dog was maltreated, and said the animal was fed regularly and in fact escaped a day after the exhibit opened.) Regardless, the images circulating on the net are disturbing. They show an obviously emaciated, even cachectic dog — symbolically named Natividad — tied in a corner of an art gallery, food deliberately placed out of reach, while patrons of the gallery callously ignore the dog’s plight.

Representing a suffering humanity

How should we approach such a work? First, we should dispense of the notion that art needs to be pleasing to the eye or pleasant to contemplate. Picasso’s Guernica is neither. Commenting on the piece, The Vancouver Manifesto writes

Good art stirs emotion. It doesn’t have to be “beautiful”. It doesn’t have to be tasteful. Good art will stir emotion. I actually think this was a powerful form of art. Yes it was distasteful, yes it was animal cruelty, yes it was just plain disgusting. But it was powerful. Think about what it represents. Everyday there are starving sickly people, children. The numbers of those in poverty are in the millions.

Yet Vargas’s work poses some challenging ethical problems, even if, as it is claimed, the dog was well-treated. (Vargas himself, it should be noted, makes no such claim.) In the end, arguments such as the artist was performing some higher good in torturing a dog are sophomoric. Trickier is the question of whether ethical impropriety invalidates a work of art. Here I would have to say no. Clearly, Vargas presents a powerful image. Indeed, the ethical dubiousness of how he achieves his ends serves to underline our own failings, our own direct or indirect participation in an immoral system which condemns millions to poverty and misery, and our inability or unwillingness to change the status quo. Using a dog, which in the West is granted more humanity than a starving child in some Third World outpost, adds to the sting.

Why then are we so shocked when a dog is tortured when millions of children with infinitely more self-awareness suffer in the most horrendous way imaginable from want of a proper diet, from warfare, from disease? I can cite some familiar answers: racism, fatigue over the constant barrage of images of desperate, starving children, systemic inequalities, globalization and so on. I think it’s much simpler, and comes down to our own complacency and self-satisfaction. No one actually fed the animal during the exhibition, though I am sure many theorized about it.

It astonishes me that an online petition against the artist has gained 1.5 million signatures. One can imagine the artist’s particular gleeful satisfaction. Sadly, it would be even more astonishing to see an online petition containing a million signatures of men and women who “get” Vargas’s work, to save one single child in Darfur or Zimbabwe.


8 Responses

  1. Children and dogs are the same on how we take care of them. But dogs are not children. And children are not dogs. A disturbing picture stirs almost everybody to do something about a situation. But that does not justify starving a dog to death. It is true that millions of children are starving every day. I come from a “third-world” or (to be politically correct) developing country so I should know. There are efforts from artistic groups and various individuals to make the situation better.
    To not pitty a tied, starving dog for a cause to pitty starving children is in a lot of ways paradoxical, illogical, and sick.

  2. i am horrified at this exhibit! i would have walked in strangled everyone involved! how utterly ridiculous and terrible!! art? he outta be shot! or rather may i use him in a “human starving” piece ? aghhhhhhh!

  3. I think the outrageous responses to this man’s artwork is completely hypocritical, considering he pulled the dog off of the streets in that type of condition. He was not obliged to feed the dog, it was a stray among millions. If anything, he offered shelter to the animal, and kept it from making a nuisance of itself, raiding trash cans and such. If people were so gun-ho about rescuing a starved dog, wouldn’t you think they’d be down there offering homes to the hundreds of strays out there? Out of sight, out of mind, I guess… It’s easy to get flustered and upset and blame others, when your own guilt is staring you in the face.

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  5. I hope whoever was behind this starves to death himself. Who is he to play god.

    And Zoe. Dogs are survivers. They can hunt for food to live. but not when theyr f**king tied up and have no where to go. This is completely cruel. Only an idiot would have thought up an answer so ignorant as that. You should be ashamed of yourself living with the fact you would turn a blind eye to something like this.

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