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A Question of Ethics

Words:

Edd Norval
October 23, 2020

When we consider contemporary art, many of the most controversial works are so because of their content. From Damien Hirst’s animals frozen in time (formaldehyde) to an image of Christ on a crucifix submerged in urine, it’s the case that what we can see offends a certain group of people. However, it is unquestionably a matter of interpretation, regarding the limit of freedom of expression. There is very little room for interpretations when it comes to ethical practice though.

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Belgian artist Wim Delvoye rose to fame in the late 1990s for his controversial artworks, where he displayed pigs with tattoos on their backs in patterns ranging from Louis Vuitton designs to Disney icons. Provocative enough when the pigs were dead, the notoriety came not in the artworks as presented - like the examples above - but when more information was revealed about the process


These pigs weren’t tattooed in death, but in life. Delvoye would sedate them, shave them, cover their skin in Vaseline and have them tattooed. Many complications can arise in the post-tattoo time of recovery, when the skin is essentially covered in minute punctures. Good hygiene and a cleaning routine is essential. Something that pigs, who love to roll around in their own shit, may struggle to adhere to (or be concious of).


Consent is another issue. If we consider bullfighting cruel, despite the many viewpoints that can frame it as a performative art like ballet. Or dog fighting, or even the sale of illicit pets, then there are few arguments for tattooing a clueless and helpless pig that don’t lead to accusations of cruelty.

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Alas, we are overlooking the hypocritical nature of the art world, where one can hold abhorrent views and allow them to masquerade as art, or, maybe even worse, one can live a completely normal life, but defend people who do create ‘art’ with themes that are rightly taboo (and call themselves critics). There’s the idea of breaking barriers and challenging ideology, then there are the objectively indefensible. 


It is this grey area of artworld contradiction that seems to appeal most to the Belgian provocateur, who wasn’t pursuing the pig tattoo project solely as art, but as a stick to prod the art establishment’s ideals. You could almost hear him saying ‘come on, defend this’. Naturally, many did. However, a great many did not.


Whilst Delvoye’s modus operandi is to shock - and a lot of his projects before and after this have - something about the pigs stayed in the mind of the art world, later reflected in Banksy’s tagged sheep and elephant on display. Banksy, like Delvoye, has a bone to pick with the elitist and establishment global artistic hierarchy.

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Now, Delvoye’s project wasn’t something he did on a whim either. It graduated from the tattooing of dead pigs - their flesh being the most similar to humans - to owning a farm just outside of Beijing, where animal rights are all but a pipedream, as a sort of living experiment in art, a full submersion á la Marlon Brandon as Don Corleone. It must be clear that this was no concentration camp. Specialists would look after the pigs and veterinarians look after them as well as possible after the tattoos. 


Still the question persists: is it okay to permanently tattoo an animal without consent? This proposition presents a tricky moral and legal question. Without being able to give or deny consent, thereby actively engaging with cognate moral duties and obligations, can animals truly participate in the system required to be considered creatures with ‘rights’, as humans are? 


Many artistic works and projects, famed for their controversy, manage to fade away in time, yet Delvoye’s pigs still pose pressing questions about the art world, its audience and the integration of animal rights into democratic society. Because, by tattooing the pig, the animal loses all of its value as something for consumption, becoming purely decorative, purely to shock. What then does that say about us if we are shocked? What about if we aren’t? Is a pig better tattooed and treated well than as nature intended, yet trapped in a factory farm?


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