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.

… … …

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.

… … …

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.

… … …

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.

… … …

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.

… … …

… … …

… … …
Note: after reading some of your thoughtful comments I wanted to add here that as far as I am concerned, my forgiveness of him matters not. My thinking out loud on this is aimed more to the question of whether or not society as a whole should forgive him, or others like him. And beyond that, even if we do forgive them, should we continue to reward them in the form of large amounts of money? Where do we draw the line? Food for thought…

18 Responses to “drawing the line: a rant”

  • Sherry Smyth Says:

    Loaded topic for sure Kelly and you raise so many good, valid and insightful points. A foolish prank this was called, of a foolish youth. At age 25? By that age you are more than a foolish youth, you know fully and well what you are doing. What he did is not artistic in any way. Most would call him a sociopath for doing such a thing. That said, I do believe that many artists from all realms of art can be considered “mad” or sociopathic by our current standards. Would I be interested in seeing this man’s work and paying money to purchase it, knowing what I do about “who” he is. Me? No I would not. I have values and standards that I have set for myself. If I do not respect someone then I cannot work with them, for them or do business with them. That is my ethic and I knew that long before I was 25 by the way.

    Forgiveness…we come to that touchy hard to define subject. Some can forgive quite easily, some can never do that. In this case, I could see forgiving this artist for what he did if he is sincerely repentant for what he did and fully recognizes the sick act which he committed for what it was. Forget it? There is where my reservations come in. I can forgive people without too much difficulty (always dependent upon the circumstances) but forgetting what they did is much harder for me and then I ask myself, well then is that true forgiveness? I’ve come to the conclusion that my forgiveness need not be the “be all and end all”. That final forgiveness comes from whatever you personally believe in — whatever diety or God or statue you pray to (if you do) — and in this I am speaking about the person who needs to be forgiven.

    I also like the conversation that you had with your son, especially with regard to Hemingway. It touches on what I was speaking about in my ethics and can I “like” or “appreciate” what someone else has done or created given how I feel about the artist as a person. Easy with Hemingway..I liked neither his life or lifestyle nor his writing! But for others, I would have to say in truth that my feeling about their work would be greatly influenced by their life and values. Simply because what we create comes from “who” we are in our deepest depths.

    Great post Kelly and I’m sorry I rattled on so long…and I’m sorry also that you are in this position with a gallery that up until now you have held in high regard.

  • Jeni Says:

    I forgive and I am forgiven. I have peace of mind and heart.
    Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t always easy. It often takes courage to be the first to make amends. However, the first step toward forgiveness is the first step toward peace of mind.

    If I have wronged another or there is a perception of wrongdoing, I begin the healing process of forgiveness through prayer. I open to the healing power of God. Once admitting the need for action, I clear the way for healing, restoration and peace.

    Spirit works within me and within the situation to establish harmony, soothe emotions, and assure wholeness. Through the power of God within, I give and receive forgiveness. I am at peace with myself and others. I am whole and free.

    Bear with one another and … forgive each other.–Colossians 3:13

    I would forgive him for your own Peace but I would also NOT support the Gallery because it’s like supporting an unkind death. Even if he “apologized”. So sad. Recognizing ones work is different than supporting it.

  • Skye Says:

    It is a rough call.
    Does one (or a lifetime-full) of heinous act(s) make one a horrible person forever?
    Not in my paradigm, which includes a multi-lifetime scenario, So we have the time & opportunity to work out every wound, great or small.
    But we have a responsibility for our acts, no matter how unconscious we were when we did them.
    There is no spiritual provision for bankruptcy; we must pay the karmic debt we owe. Period.
    I do not see that he, in any way, is actually taking responsibility for that murder in his youth.
    I don’t judge him for this heinous act, but I cannot see that, in fact, he has really owned what he has done, at the deepest levels, or his heart would, probably, be calling him to atone to the dog-world.
    Part of the consequences for his action (IMHO) should be a non-reward for his work now. But since that is not happening in the larger collective, all we can do is our individual part to not contribute to his worldly “success”.
    The sticky part, the really hard part, is how can we each do that without entering into the realm of becoming stuck in the cobwebs of outrage, despair & anger?
    I don’t know. But I don’t want to join my soul (via vehement judgment & anger et al) to the soul of such a being.
    Personally, I do my own work to be free in my spirit, and bless such a damaged one as he, that they may be able to face, & ultimately, heal the pain they have birthed into the world.

  • DeciduousTree Says:

    I did not know who Tom Otterness was until now … his behavior cannot be forgiven no matter how long ago it happened. His mind is no different just constrained by his notoriety, his actions dictated out of necessity, apologies and explanations required to allow his work to be shown. There is a line …

  • Sally Says:

    As Jeni and Sherry have noted above – Forgiveness is really an act you engage in for yourself.

    “It is not okay what you did to that dog. It is not okay to abuse a trust, to diminish the value of a life form and to perform an atrocious act in the name of something you hold to a higher priority; in this case, Art.

    It is also not okay that what YOU did now darkens places in my Soul, filling me with a pain and an anger that cannot find adequate release. It is not okay that because of what YOU did, I now must question the Integrity of an Institution I’ve held in high esteem.

    It is NOT okay that in committing a vile act 30 years ago – you have now upended my existence with important questions to answers I thought I already had, and now realize – perhaps I don’t.”

    A good friend of yours here in the online realm once posted a quote that stated something to the effect of this: Great Artists disturb the peace.

    You will forgive him or you won’t ~ and whatever you choose will in no way validate or even affect his behaviour, state of mind, artistic process; then or now. But it WILL affect yours.

    You are so deeply connected to the poor little dog in this story ~ and you are seeing the all of it from behind that dog’s eyes. Forgiveness can be facilitated by getting behind the eyes of the one whom you hold in such contempt, with Compassion, in the hopes of seeing the situation from a perspective that might crack the heart with potential for Forgiveness’s presence. For your own sake. For your own peace of mind – and NOT because you’re looking for ways to become okay with the act committed.

    And for what it’s worth – it sickens me to read what he did ~ and I don’t have nearly enough information to know anything about how this affected him emotionally or redemptive efforts he may have made as a result. Like Skye – I also believe there is a Karmic order to things and we bystanders don’t always make the best Judges or Juries on the behaviour and consequences of others.

  • MrsWhich (Cheryl) Says:

    This is so sticky. I’m not familiar with his art, so I can’t speak to whether it deserves to be celebrated. Presumably his art is not related to this act, just as an artist who develops his talent in prison is not making art about the beauty of the crime he committed. But because this crime was unpunished and downplayed, it creates outrage and a strong, bitter taste for revenge, for punishment, for contrition and atonement. When a person takes responsibility for their evil, they don’t just make a statement. So he has not earned forgiveness from humanity or the animal kingdom for what he has done. What does that mean in terms of his art – viewing it, interpreting it, being willing to go to that place of spirit with him in which you would be able to see the humanness of the artist as compelling through the art? Art is about these kinds of questions. Simply not installing his art, if it is worthy of installation, as a protest against his act would be unreasonable. But it should not be installed outside of the context of the artist while there is still so much unresolved between the artist and his community. To dismiss the act, downplay it, call it irrelevant or remove it from decision making is irresponsible.

  • Carola Bartz Says:

    Until you mentioned it yesterday on Facebook, I had no idea about Tom Otterness – who he is and what he did. It appalled me endlessly, and I’m still speechless and quite at a loss of words.

    What really is forgiveness? When I was in my “religious phase” of life, we often discussed that – and some said that even Hitler would be forgiven (that’s probably why I never became a true believer). For me there is drawing a line. I usually am a forgiving person (except for forgiving myself), but there are limits, and this act of a 25 year old, who at this age knows perfectly well what he is doing, is so hideous that it makes it impossible for me to forgive him. But will you be at peace with yourself? You cannot change what happened – no one can – but you can show your protest in not supporting this gallery – which is difficult again since they, as far as I understand, also include your work.

    The thing is – this guy and how he is seen now will always sicken you. Will forgiveness really change this? I don’t know. It wouldn’t for me – I don’t have this kind of generous heart (if you can say so).

    I’m sorry, Kelly – I feel the limits of a foreign language right now. I just can’t express what I really mean. But I believe you have an idea of who I am and therefore might know what I’m trying to say.

  • MrsWhich (Cheryl) Says:

    Sorry, I hit reply before I finished – my point being, if they decided to install it, they should encourage and create opportunities for conversation, learning around this rift.

  • debi Says:

    i believe people make mistakes and I believe we learn to forgive, to give 2nd chances. But what he did to that dog was not a mistake and it was not art, and I will argue with anyone who says otherwise. He deserves nothing, and I find it hard to believe he wasn’t prosecuted for this.

  • Nana Says:

    Maybe it’s just me and my “simple” thoughts, but I’d like to know how anyone thinks that the murder of something or some one is considered ARTFUL…..
    I’m appalled at the Gallery……………

  • beth Says:

    i like what debi said. if he wasn’t prosecuted for such a heinous act, he should have been.
    if he thought killing that dog was art, well i believe he’s demented in a way that will be part of him forever.
    forgiveness is a slippery slope and in this case, sure, people will forgive him but NEVER FORGET what he did when he was 25. but to support him in any way…well i couldn’t do that…..UNLESS he was giving back to human societies around the world or specifically to the one where he was beyond cruel to an innocent dog.

  • Mama Zen Says:

    Despite what he did, I suppose the guy still has the right to earn his living in his chosen field. However, as an art patron, I have the right to respond to his work with an urge to vomit because of what he did. To me, it’s not really a matter of forgive vs. not forgive. His act was so appalling that it tainted my enjoyment of anything else he does, and I don’t wish to pay for it.

  • Jayne Says:

    A prank of foolish youth? More like the act of a very disturbed, very haunted young adult.

    But how do we really know a person? We know of his actions, his words. Looking at his whimsical sculptures of various animals, it’s almost inconceivable to believe that the same artist put a gun to a dog and killed it in the name of art (or what he thought was in the name of art. One would have to be in a very deranged state. One wouldn’t be of the right mind at the time. One would not have a grasp of “in the name of art” or life.

    It might be easier to forgive him if he had done more than write a blanket statement–of which we are suspect. But, I don’t think that his statement cops to youthful prank. It seems sincere. We would also be just as suspect if he were to attempt to atone for his sin by donating to an animal shelter. I think this would be perceived as as empty, meaningless a gesture as his statement. Too easy.

    I don’t know this artist–I just did some cursory research–but it makes me wonder if his work, these sweet, exaggerated works of art are, in a way, his act of atonement.

    Perhaps there is so much shame in his darkened and heavy heart that he cannot do any more than to offer the world lighthearted, hopeful, playful art. yes, in his work I do see atonement.

  • Marcie Says:

    I came here yesterday..but couldn’t leave a comment..unsure of where I stand.
    People – especially when young – do stupid things. And – I’d like to think that they might learn from those mistakes and things…and that they find a way to atone and make things right. But there’s something about the cruelty of this particular ‘stupid thing’…and that it seems to be pushed aside and under the rug. If he’d hurt or mamed or god-forbid killed a person – he’d be serving a jail sentence without the benefit of riches earned from his cell. This – in some ways – isn’t that different from that.

    But – all that being said – I do believe in second chances. I just wish – as you’ve suggested – that he at the very least offer up his earnings to support animals in dire and desperate need.

    Thank-you for bringing this all to our thoughtful attention.

  • Graciel @ Evenstar Art Says:

    yours or my forgiveness means nothing. atonement will happen at some point in his soul’s development. accounts are always balanced, debts are always paid. inflicting intentional suffering is one hell of a big debt. but for me? i’m pigheaded and stalwart enough to never go to that gallery and also tell them why.

  • Al Says:

    Apologies mean nothing if they are not offered until you are caught and exposed for your crimes. 25 is not youth. Youth may be a relevant term but it is old enough to know what you are doing and many of us live the rest of our lives with the decisions we make before we turn 25 (Career path, children, marriage, etc.). I don’t see how this is a complicated issue at all. He comitted a crime. He was never charged, convicted nor sentenced. He mas been hugely succesful yet has never offered anything more than an appology to attone for his crime. A large portion of his success comes from selling his work to publicy funded galleries and museums and his work shown in public places. Now that he has been exposed for who he is, the public has every right to say NO!

  • Robin Vigfusson Says:

    Excellent rant. Says it all. This was not a ‘mistake’ or a ‘stupid’ thing one does in one’s youth. It was a calculated act of sociopathic sadism and cruelty. I have never forgotten this comment I read by a man who actually saw Otterness’ snuff film: “I never speak of this because I have no desire to perpetuate his name as an artist, but I saw the film 25 years ago (was it 25 years?), it was horrible, the audience had no idea what was coming at them. Can he remove the memory of that film from that audience with an apology, I think not. We few bear his cheap attempt at fame like a scar.” Anonymous comment about Otterness’ ‘Shot Dog Film.

  • Pat Byers (Tilda) Says:

    what Graceil said, I say ditto. accounts are always balanced. debts are always paid. i would NOT support this ‘artist’, and i applaud you for your indignation of him.

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