i endorse animal torture, a posi-tion I share with the majority of Canadians. I don't normally think of it in those terms (nor, I'm sure, do you), but the conclusion is inescapable: I, and you, know that animal torture goes on. I, and you, make no efforts to stop it (unless you happen to be an ardent animal liberationist). I, and you, dine on the resulting corpses.If I, and you, are capable of endorsing (generally by wilfully ignoring) the well-documented horrors visited upon animals raised in grisly factory settings for slaughter -- tortured to feed our bodies -- why do I, and you, react with such revulsion to the possibility that a domestic cat may have been tortured in the name of art? Tortured, in other words, to feed our souls.
These questions have been brought rather forcefully to mind by recent incidents in the art world. Some months ago, two young artists were charged with cruelty to animals when police seized videotapes allegedly showing the torture and killing of a cat.
The case is still before the courts. More recently, police seized photographs and negatives from two other artists, Richard K., 28, and Ryan Worrall, 19, after being advised by the Humane Society that the images might depict acts that violate the Criminal Code's injunction against cruelty to animals. The photographs were to have been on display August 17 to 25 at Art System, a gallery associated with the student union at the Ontario College of Art and Design, as part of a show called Aesthetic Evil. The show went ahead, but squares of black paper marked the spots where the seized photographs were to have hung.
Dead and dying animals have a long history as subjects for art. The recent AGO show of works from Russia's Hermitage Museum provided many examples of that favourite of 18th-century Dutch genre painting, the meticulously rendered heap of dead birds, rabbits, fish and other game.
I'm not aware that anyone picketed the AGO during the Hermitage show, or broke its windows or made telephone and e-mail threats to its curators and staff -- though all of those things happened at Art System, even though the gallery did not show the alleged cat-torture video and had no plans to do so.
It was enough, it seems, that Art System had shown other work by the artist in question. And that the curators, who count the artist as a friend, turned up at his bail hearing, along with several instructors from OCAD who also wanted to show their support for a young man who must be considered innocent until proven otherwise.
I have not viewed the video in question, nor do I know anyone who has. I have had an opportunity to see some of Worrall's and K.'s photographs, and they have described others to me. Among those seized were images of a man masturbating. Of a fully clothed woman taking a shower. But the image that offended an employee at Black's Photography (where the two men took their film for processing) was that of a white rat on its back, slit open down its abdomen, the skin pinned back so that its viscera were on display.
The employee called the Humane Society. The Humane Society saw a possible breach of the law and called the police. The police seized the photographs and negatives. And are about to return them. The artists have always claimed that they did not kill the rat, that it was given to them, almost as a joke, by someone who had bought it dead and frozen from a pet store.
Detective Doug Gibson of 52 Division says he has called enough pet stores as part of his investigation to realize that many of them do indeed supply frozen rats to those snake owners too squeamish to feed live rodents to their pets. So, case closed.
No end of questions, though. Why is it permissible for pet-store owners to put down rats for snake food and for people to use traps to rid their homes of vermin, but not permissible for artists to kill rats for artistic purposes? The offending photograph was rather lovely after all -- the rat's insides a crimson, almost jewel-like, gash against its white pelt. Is loveliness not enough?
More broadly, I suppose, why are we so hypocritical? Why do we demand that films reassure us by announcing that "no animals were hurt in the making of this picture' and then head contentedly home to dine on the corpses of animals whose safety we'd been anxious about only hours before?
The questions could go on and on, but you get the point. And the only answer I can arrive at is that we've made some animals, particularly domestic pets, honourary humans, rather in the way that the former apartheid government of South Africa extended the status of "honourary white' to those non-whites it felt compelled to take seriously for diplomatic reasons.
We take Fluffy and Rex seriously for sentimental, historical and culture-specific reasons; not all societies, certainly, have been averse to dining on cats and dogs. Or rats, for that matter.
A strictly aestheticist approach to the question (by which I am strongly tempted) has its problems, too. One can't help but remember the rejoinder of Thomas Wainewright, the 19th-century aesthete, writer and poisoner, on being upbraided for the murder of his sister-in-law.
"Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do,' he said, "but she had very thick ankles.'
We can all agree that thick ankles are not a solecism for which a human should die. Yet, unless one is a vegan and ardent animal liberationist, the question of animals seems not so simple. I do know that not even the promise of aesthetic pleasure could make me want to watch a video of a cat being tortured and killed, any more than I would want to watch a video of the hideous process that finally delivers that boneless, skinless chicken breast to my table. But I have no problem with the graphic record of killings long past -- those Dutch still lifes.
Contradictions, questions, the very things that art should provoke. Discomfort, too -- for though I know my heart rebels at the prospect of inflicting pain on animals, my behaviour can lead to only one conclusion. Be it for aesthetic pleasure or the satisfactions of the table, I endorse animal torture. And so do you.