Dateline San Francisco, November 15, 2011: Tom Otterness, a world-renowned artist who shot and killed a dog on film and called it art granted a $1 million+ commission to place public art in the city named in honor of St. Francis, patron saint of animals.
You may not recognize the name Tom Otterness, but you’ve likely seen his toy-like, playful, pudgy, public art. His smile-inducing bronze sculptures can be found in cities world-wide. Otterness is better known in the art world for these whimsical sculptures than for the “snuff” film, which he produced in 1977 when he was a 25 year-old whippersnapper trying to make a name in the heady days of conceptual art. The fact that the video Dog Shot Film was not the work that made Otterness famous plays a role in the current controversy–the Arts Commission did not know about it when they inked a contract with the crowd-pleasing artist.
When the commission confronted Otterness with his past actions this past September, he was, once again, contrite. He has apologized again and again, as he does in this recent statement:
“I had a very convoluted logic as to what effect I meant to have with that video. Whatever I had in mind, it was really inexcusable to take a life in service of that.”
Nice, but not enough for the San Francisco Animal Care and Control Commission, who pressed the city’s Arts Commission to terminate the $1.4 million contract with Otterness. During their November 16 special meeting, the Arts Commission voted to halt the artist’s commission for 59 bronze sculptures for the proposed Central Subway system, but to uphold the commission for the new San Francisco General Hospital (Otterness had already received $365,000 for this work, which the city would have had to refund had it also canceled the hospital project).
If you’re wondering how an artist who once killed a dog he adopted “for the sake of art” could possibly be tapped to exhibit work in a hospital, think: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Yes, Tom Otterness, too, once created a balloon for the beloved annual parade. (Come to think of it, some of those mammoth, sluggish balloons can be pretty scary, too.)
Is the ruling of the San Francisco Arts Commission another case of censorship, or a wrong finally righted? Comments during a recent phone-in program on the city’s NPR station KQED suggest the large majority of the public is unforgiving:
”Private buyers are free to buy art from this artist, but I strongly object to spending public funds on it, especially in the city named for the patron saint of animals.”
“It is unbelievable that they would give any art contract to this guy. How can cruelly killing an animal be considered art?”
But there is another consideration:
“I’ve never met a flawless person, and I doubt there are any. Our shortcomings and failures are a necessary part of the complexities of life. Trying to find someone whose background would offend nobody is a foolish concept.”
This issue finds me in a perfect yogic balance of “neti-neti,” not this, not that. Having been a curator who worked closely with contemporary arts as well as having worked in an animal shelter for five years, I see both sides. Shooting a dog as if it were nothing more than a stuffed animal is reprehensible. I have personally tended more than one dog who was once shot, intentionally, and lived. It is just as heartbreaking as it sounds. I have also worked with young artists who were trying to establish a name for themselves, and know how high that bar is set. It was even more so in the mid-70s, when conceptual art was the driving aesthetic (and economic) force.
The competition to create something that has never been done is rampant in art schools, where to be new, different, and edgy is the art school equivalent of academia’s “public or perish.” I get that, I’ve been in (and in love with) academia. The public demand for the “shock of the new” is one of the appeals (not mine) of reality t.v, a genre which is often riddled with cruel and humiliating content. But am I just skirting the issue? The man shot and killed under the guise of giving a dog a home.