Does a sculptor’s horrific act invalidate his cheery, innocent-looking art?
By Josh Hughes
In 1977, Tom Otterness, sculptor of Western’s own piece “Feats of Strength,” took a dog home from a rescue shelter and shot it to death on camera as an “art” piece.
Today, in 2018, his sculptures feature whimsical, cartoonish characters that are praised in the art world for their accessibility and delicate social undertones. IOtterness still works as a prominent artist doing commissions for New York City and San Francisco.
The question that arises is simple: should we care about his ugly, unforgivable past actions and hold him accountable? Or does it matter?
“I love the piece, I think a lot of people love it, and it seems to get special attention,” said Western Gallery director Hafthor Yngvason “It was a great surprise to me when I found out about his past, because I have admired his work for years.”
In 2018 a discussion about artists lives and actions has not only become relevant, but absolutely necessary. Last week Chuck Close, a famous American portrait artist came under fire for sexual harassment allegations, and subsequently an exhibition of his art at the National Gallery in Washington closed down.
Many Op-Eds have already given their opinion on the matter, and the discussion always comes down to the relationship between art and artist. If Close’s work is abolished from museums, or Otterness’s sculptures removed from parks, does that solve the immoral actions of the creators, or does it simply remove the world of culturally significant, interpretive art?
“We are taught in art history the ‘intentional fallacy’, it’s what happens if you try to interpret artists work in light of their life and actions. You cannot interpret art history just through the lens of an artist’s life, even though it gives you an understanding of what they were doing,” said Yngvason.
The intentional fallacy can seem a bit tricky, but it’s easier to think about in terms of Picasso or Caravaggio. Two of the most revered and influential artists in history, both men would be socially condemned today for their actions.
Picasso, a notorious womanizer, once infamously said that women are “either goddesses or doormats.” Caravaggio murdered someone at the height of his career and fled to Naples.
In addition, Eadweard J. Muybridge, a famous photographer, shot and killed a man he thought was having an affair with his wife.
The list goes on, but the resounding discussion is about the artists work. What would happen if we took Picasso and Caravaggio out of art history?
The answer is that we wouldn’t. While those artists should be examined and remembered for their horrible actions, they also should be remembered for their larger impact in art and culture as a whole.
The same holds true for many esteemed novelists, poets and musicians throughout the years. The interpretive nature of their artwork allows the viewer to be the creator whenever they encounter said artwork. Additionally, neither Picasso nor Caravaggio are currently living, so there’s absolutely no personal benefit that the two gain from their importance and status as two of the greatest artists of all time.
Otterness and Close are different though, since they are both contemporaries that make money off of their work. If it can be argued that both artists’ work is interpretative and detached from their personal lives, the question shifts to how these living artists should be treated in the art world.
The Close situation is much more currently relevant to what’s going on culturally, considering the #MeToo movement and checks to male power that have dominated the American social fabric this year.
While it seems inappropriate to conflate the artist with their work, Close needs to face repercussions for his actions in ways that affect him, not his art. To associate his portraits with his actions undermines the nature of art and suggests that it’s merely propaganda with no possible interpretation.
That said, it makes sense for the National Gallery to shut down their exhibition, considering that Close would personally benefit from it. Should Close be cut out from the history books and permanent collections? Probably not. Should he be held accountable and stop benefitting from the platform he has established over the years? That’s a hard yes.
Otterness, however, is a different case, as Yngvason pointed out.
“I think about what was happening in art in the ‘70s— you know, Chris Burden? People were doing things like that, being punk, dissing everything, not caring,” he said.
Even shock-value-mastermind Burden never shot a dog and called it art, however. Otterness has apologized on multiple accounts for his horrible act, and his work ever since then has been miraculously “anti-punk”, as Yngvason says. His playful characters are a world apart from such a heartless act, but is that enough?
“[Otterness] was 25 years old at the time, when I was 25 years old I thought I was pretty grown up. But I look back and— he was just out of school, and he was looking at what people were doing, trying to be shocking and trying to be a tough counterculture guy. He did a very stupid and mean thing.” Yngvason said. “I think he’s spent his life and his career making up for it.”
There’s certainly no hint of hate or mean-spiritedness to Otterness’s work on Western’s campus. Definitely no “dog-killer” vibes. To the children, or even students that admire the work, “Feats of Strength” represents an innocence and playfulness that invites many interpretations. As many art critics have pointed out, his art is decidedly unpretentious. This makes it all the more upsetting that the creator of such a work could be so cruel, even though was forty years ago.
“What we would like to see from him is for his commission, or at least 50 percent of his commission, to go to local animal rescues. That would show sincerity to his apology.” said Lois Baum, president of Animal Rights Advocates in New York, for a 2011 article on Otterness’s past. [http://observer.com/2011/10/the-dog-killing-woes-of-tom-otterness/]
As a living artist still making money and gaining clout from his work, that seems to be the closest way to achieve justice for what he’s done. Still, the murder of that innocent, helpless dog will never be justified, regardless of what Otterness has done since then to make up for it.
“I’m surprised that this sort of thing could slip through the cracks. It’s an issue to allow content creators who we don’t ethically align with continued support,” said junior Aubrey Mange, finding out about Otterness’s “Shot Dog Film” for the first time.
As I walk through South Campus and sit on a bench to eat lunch, I see two dogs, a Golden Retriever and a Boston Terrier, and walking around the cute little figures of “Feats of Strength” with their owners . I guess ignorance is bliss.