Thursday, May 22, 2008

Answering San Francisco Art Institute's False Accusations

Cancellation of video exhibit showing animals being killed provokes reactionary response from SFAI President

On May 8, 2008, The Art Newspaper, a British publication, ran an editorial by San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) president Chris Bratton entitled "I see a new, pervasive and global condition of fundamentalist violence directed against dissident images and thought". It accused animal rights activists (and specifically IDA) of "demagoguery" and inciting death threats against SFAI employees.

As this is a completely false accusation based on Bratton's fractured and fearful view of animal rights activists, and because IDA is thoroughly dedicated to non-violent advocacy for animals, we posted an online response to his editorial, so readers of The Art Newspaper will know that it was Bratton's mismanagement of the outrage surrounding "Don't Trust Me" that caused the exhibit to be shut down.

Below, read my response to SFAI president Bratton's distorted claims, and get the real story behind the controversy.

I work for In Defense of Animals (IDA), one of the organizations that Chris Bratton accuses of fomenting "fundamentalist violence directed against dissident images and thought." I wrote IDA's alerts about the Adel Abdessemed exhibit sponsored by the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), and in no way, shape, or form did I encourage anyone to make violent threats. Nor did I post photos or home addresses of SFAI employees, or "cue...constituents with language meant to incite outrage and 'direct action.'" Check the alerts and see for yourself:

During the writing process, I called SFAI trying to get some background on how Abdessemed obtained his footage, and spoke with their media liaison on the phone. I asked him whether Abdessemed had in any way staged the footage, because I find it hard to believe that crushing animals' skulls in with giant hammers is standard practice on Mexican farms. I strongly felt that the public had a right to know whether these animals were specifically killed for a work of "art."

Though cordial, SFAI's media liaison did not have the answers to my questions, and this was days after the controversy over the exhibit had begun. Why was SFAI's official spokesperson still so completely uninformed at this point about a scandalously violent exhibit the school was sponsoring? All he could tell me was that SFAI had scheduled a public hearing to open up a dialogue; however, they quickly cancelled that meeting after allegedly receiving death threats, a claim that has not yet been substantiated by any concrete evidence.

My interaction with SFAI's spokesperson demonstrated how completely unprepared they were for the public's reaction to the exhibit. I don't know why Bratton is so surprised that people expressed anger towards the Institute's complete lack of interest in addressing legitimate concerns about cruelty to animals. His editorial mentions "a lecture by the artist, well attended and eliciting enthusiastic responses." So, not even one person at that lecture saw fit to inquire about Abdessemed's role in obtaining footage of animals being bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer? Is the state of contemporary art in the city named for Saint Francis, patron saint of animals, now so amoral that lecture attendees accept it as a given that artists should be able to kill for the sake of creation?

If I'd been told when I called SFAI that Abdessemed had obtained the footage purely as documentation of a common practice on Mexican farms – and that SFAI planned to communicate this as part of the exhibit – I would have in fact recommended to IDA that we encourage people to support the show by going to see it. Indeed, animal rights activists routinely use video images of animal slaughter to expose violence with the hope that people will change their consumer habits after seeing how terribly animals suffer. Abdessemed's work, however, did just the opposite: removed from any contextualizing description or hint of origin, it implicitly encouraged people to accept humanity's exploitation of animals and the commoditization of their bodies as a supposedly inevitable, inarguable, and natural fact of life—an all too common assumption by society in general.

Judging from his self-congratulatory editorial, Bratton remains in denial about SFAI's role in the show's cancellation and oblivious to the fact that he bungled the handling of this controversy by deliberately obscuring the origins of "Don't Trust Me." Given the utter lack of explanation, is it any wonder that we would assume Abdessemed had in some way set up or provoked the scenes of killing portrayed on six video monitors? Bratton's shock that people would be upset by the intentional killing of animals for "art" indicates how deeply disconnected he is from public sentiment and empathy for the animals who were victimized so that representations of their deaths could be displayed in a gallery.

SFAI has still not fully revealed precisely what role Abdessemed played in obtaining his images. I believe he and SFAI meant to keep the images decontextualized to elicit shock in viewers: if people don't know what exactly they are seeing, their imaginations fill in the void with all sorts of wild speculations, eliciting even greater emotional turmoil. It is also likely that Abdessemed wanted to generate controversy, and he did: now he has bragging rights in the art world to say that his exhibit was the first one in SFAI's 137-year history to be shut down. He can boast that his work is so intense that people couldn't handle it.

Abdessemed seems to enjoy his reputation as a "dangerous" artist. Why else would he pull stunts like painting a picture while hanging upside down in the sky from a cable tied to a helicopter? Well, for the attention, of course, but my impression is he's more showman or provocateur than artist. Notably, animal rights activists were not the only ones who questioned the ethical and aesthetic merit of "Don't Trust Me": members of the art community recognized that Abdessemed sought to shock and upset people with his work, and signed a letter to Bratton condemning the exhibit.

In the end, what I find most offensive about Bratton's argument is that he has linked my advocacy work for animals with "demagoguery" and terroristic threats against people. I take strong exception to that mischaracterization, and want to point out that IDA fully condemns violence as a form of activism. My words and actions are consistent with my values of respect for all species, including human beings.

Keep in mind, however, that SFAI claims they decided to pull the plug on "Don't Trust Me" and cancel the planned public hearing not because of the public's outrage, but in direct response to threats of violence. So, if no one had made these alleged threats and I had just gone about my business of writing more alerts asking people to contact Bratton and let him know how they felt about the show, "Don't Trust Me" might have been on display for its entire scheduled run. So what Bratton is essentially saying is that terrorism works.

Yes, completely ignoring the rational, respectful entreaties of the majority and then caving in to intimidation by a tiny minority of invisible bullies – that's showing them, Bratton! Seeing as how effective these supposed threats were in the success of this campaign, I strongly suspect that more activists will start using these tactics the next time a similar situation arises. But please remember, all you animal rights activists out there, that while threats and violence may appear to result in some form of "victory," they do great damage to our cause in the long run by creating fear and resentment rather than true understanding and transformation of consciousness.

Framing SFAI and the artist as victims allows Bratton to claim the moral high ground and paint all animal rights advocates – regardless of whether our activism is peaceful and law-abiding or potentially violent – as a single undifferentiated mass that will pursue its goals "by any means necessary." In making no distinctions between my alerts and life-threatening emails, Bratton shows he is totally clueless about the diversity of the animal protection movement, and the non-violent strategies used by the majority.

Given Bratton's biased attitude, it does not surprise me that IDA's attempts to reason with SFAI were largely ignored. All we wanted was for SFAI to listen and respond appropriately to our concerns. Had someone initially given me reason to believe that Abdessemed was in no way involved in the killings beyond filming them, the tone of my communications would have been very different. Instead, Bratton irresponsibly insisted on maintaining a tightly-sealed information vacuum.

Lastly, I want to address the charge of "censorship" lodged against those who saw "Don't Trust Me" as a sickening example of "art" in the form of cruelty to animals. This was a publicly-funded exhibit – as a San Franciscan, some portion of my tax dollars was spent to put this work on display. I have the perfect right to say what I think about it, and refuse to censor my writing or apologize for my actions.

In fact, it was actually Bratton, as president of SFAI, who censored Abdessemed's work, for he was the one who ordered it shut down. Rather than standing tall like a strong leader, he laid down on the ground trembling with his hands behind his head at the first sign of trouble, then blamed others for his very obvious inadequacies. If he really believed in the value of Abdessemed's work, Bratton would have done a better job of explaining SFAI's position to the public, and tried harder to defend freedom of artistic expression.


Addendum: On July 24, 2008, I received this email response from an art critic:

Regarding the Adel Abdessemed exhibition, I have just read that somebody in San Francisco is proposing a bill that would make it a felony who causes suffering to an animal while making art. More censorship coming. Last year, an artwork by Huang Yong-Ping was removed from a major exhibition in Vancouver because flies (I say right, flies) were not being treated right. Now Abdessemed's show has been cancelled altogether. What's next? A touring show of these evil anti-animal-rights artworks under the banner "Degenerate Art"? Where did our freedom go?

Regarding art, I must say, as an art critic that I am, that you have no idea about contemporary art, visual creation or art in general. You have made it clear in your response to the president of the San Francisco Art Institute.

Regarding veganism and food choices, I feel threatened by people like you. Because you are not just trying to "help" abused animals. Your ultimate mission and/or wish is to eradicate all animal consumption and resort to eating vegetables, whether your fellow humans want it or not.

If you all could, you would turn the world into a Vegan Fundamentalist Republic. Our freedom is at stake.


Bruno LeMieux-Ruibal

But wait, there’s more! After I published his first email (admittedly, without his permission), he wrote to me again three days later:
Ayatollah Mat,

As I thought, dialogue or conversation are not your forte. You'd rather publish private e-mails without asking (so rude), accuse me of things I never said (so wrong) and laugh (so childish) than answer my letter in the same channel as it came, that is- personal and private.

But listen, I'd rather be hated by intolerants like you than used by ignorants... like you (I see you respect animals, but not humans).

Now, make it public, be in bliss and feel oh-so-good about yourself. Because it's great being you, isn't it? Illuminated and ever right, ready to teach the world and punish the wrong. Yeah.


My open response to Mr. LeMieux-Ruibal – for all to see:

So, you were upset that I posted your “personal and private” words on my blog – hey, welcome to the 21st century! And yet despite this complaint, you have sent me an even juicier email. Methinks thou doth protest too much! So then, I assume you must want me to post the second one, too. Okay, if you insist…

Well, why not, anyway? Sure, you personally offended me, but much more importantly, you’ve insulted all animal advocates, and the movement community has a right to know about that. If you’re really so sure that your opinion of me and other animal advocates is correct, then you should want everyone to know about it – no need whatsoever to hide or be embarrassed, right?

I publicly and proudly proclaimed my perspective on the animals-in-art issue in IDA alerts to SFAI, as well as my detailed response to Bratton’s editorial. You responded to my writing by attacking me personally – a stranger who you don’t even know – yet you call me “rude”? Give me a break!

And claiming that I should take personal attacks as an invitation to converse is the height of hypocrisy. Don’t pull that with me. If you were really interested in “dialogue or conversation,” you would have written a rational explanation of why you believe people should be allowed to kill animals for art. In contrast, declaratively stating (with no analysis to back up your claims) that I “have no idea about contemporary art, visual creation or art in general” and calling me “fundamentalist” are not valid critiques of my work, but merely personal insults. As far as respect is concerned, I reserve that for those who earn it by granting me basic respect, not those who don’t know me yet cast outrageously false aspersions about who I am.

But I certainly don’t “hate” you, as you seem to think: I simply recognize that we hold widely disparate values. That is, I wholly oppose the unnecessary killing of sentient individuals for art, food, etc., and you are in favor of killing sentient individuals for art, food, etc. I am for animal rights, and you are for animal exploitation. I see no need for “dialogue or conversation” about that because you’ve already made up your mind about this issue, and about me – “Ayatollah Mat …Illuminated and ever right, ready to teach the world and punish the wrong.” Clearly, you don't know me, and you don’t want to talk: you want to argue and disagree and call me silly names because you need to convince yourself that you are “right.” Sorry, I’m not about to waste my time playing your head games. I am only indulging you now because some readers may find this exchange amusing and informative.

In conclusion, the wildly stereotypical inaccuracy of your conclusions about me and every other animal rights activist makes your emails unintentionally hilarious, so I continue to post them. Seriously, The Onion should write a story about you! Incidentally, you might want to work on your sarcasm – we’re laughing at you, not with you. Also, there is no such word as “ignorants” – “ignorant” can only be used as an adjective, not a noun, so there is no plural form. Consider gaining a basic command of the English language before accusing any more of us “ignorants” of ignorance.

p.s. For educational purposes, you might try putting a contact button on your blog so people can give you feedback.

You see, the encouragement and constructive criticism I get from readers is important, but what better way to start my day than with a hot steaming mug of blind bigotry and belligerence? Frankly, I think the experience would benefit you – especially as an art critic. My email address is publicly available on my website and blog, so any angry, bitter crank in the world can personally chastise me and belittle my life goals and values any time they feel like it. And yet, while I have your email address, the public does not, and therefore no one else has any way of letting you know what they think of you or your work.
Guess what I’m trying to say, speaking as one devoted to ideals of freedom and liberty, is that avoiding contact with the reading public doesn’t exactly foster interactive free speech…but then, I guess that’s convenient for you, anyway.


Ayatollah Mat Thomas
Chief Grand Poobah, Vegan Fundamentalist Republic

Tune in now for the semi-interminable continuation and exciting conclusion of this fascinatingly combative ethical/aesthetic discourse (same Brat Time, same Brat Channel) by consulting the comments section directly below! KAPOW!!!