drawing the line: a rant
This is a story of art vs. artist, forgiveness vs. accountability.
I don’t usually talk about things like this here, but I am so angry that I have to get it off my chest. I have to rant. And I’m interested to see what you have to say about it.
Yesterday I received a letter from the local art gallery, the big, institutional, owned by a large university art gallery. I received the letter because I am a member. This is the gallery that hosts the biggest/best art festival of the year, in which I participate.
The letter was sent as an explanation for the fact that the gallery is installing the work of Tom Otterness in its latest large project, an outdoor sculpture park. The letter was not sent as an apology, only as an explanation for their decision.
But now, in case you have no idea who Tom Otterness is or why they need to send such a letter, let me stop right here and explain.
He is, according to the letter, “one of the notable sculptors of public art in America and abroad.” He is “internationally renowned.” He is “an artist who is probably the most responsive to community of any artist in America.”
He is also a dog murderer.
Before he was all of those other things, back when he was 25, Tom Otterness made a plan and went to an animal shelter, adopted a dog, tied it to a fence so there was no chance of escape, shot it, and then filmed it as it died. He called this an art film.
I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.
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This all came out a few years back, after he was already famous and celebrated and “renowned” for his cutesy, whimsical work. Which in my opinion, is the most twisted thing of all.
When it came out, and people started to protest the very large sums of public money he was being paid for his art, this is the apology he offered:
“Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me — Tom Otterness.”
And I should add that as far as I can find out, he has made no attempt to do anything beyond that to show the sincerity of his regret. Many people have stated that the least he could or should do is donate a large portion of the huge commissions he makes to animal shelters. It wouldn’t in any way erase what he did, but at the very least he could put his money where his mouth is.
The letter I received goes on to state that the gallery feels it would be unfair to hold this act (which is described almost as the prank of a foolish youth) against him after a lifetime of (what they consider to be) important work.
I don’t think it is fair to call an act like that a “mistake.” It was quite intentional.
I am angry. Appalled. Disheartened.
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I recently (before this happened) had a conversation with my son about art vs. artist, we were actually talking about Hemingway, and how so many people don’t really like who he was as a person, and whether or not that affects the way they do or do not appreciate his art. And whether or not that should or should not be the case.
Does an artist’s work stand separate from who he is and what he does as a person? In general, it’s a tough question to answer. In the case of Tom Otterness, for me, it turns his work into a sham.
I don’t see sweet and whimsical, fun, family-oriented art. I see a dog, who must have been inwardly jumping for joy to know that he had been rescued from a shelter, being led to a fence and tied in place to prepare for what can only be called an execution. A worse death than the one he had been rescued from.
I cannot reconcile this image with the cutesy work I see. The bloodstains taint my vision.
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And then we get to the part about forgiveness, which raises the question of what should or should not be, can or cannot be, forgiven. I don’t have the answer for that one.
Does one heinous act make you a horrible person forever?
Is it possible to atone for such an act?
Who gets to decide?
For that part of this story, ultimately I can only live with the questions.
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But I can draw the line about whether or not I think his work should continued to be installed in public parks and places aimed mainly at children.
That just feels evil to me.
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