When Does Avant-Garde Art Go Too Far?

Jackson Arn
Dec 10, 2018 9:01PM
Tom Otterness
Drunk, 2017
Marlborough Gallery
Vito Acconci
Sound Barrier, 1971
Christopher West Presents

There’s no point in beating around the bush: In 1977, at the age of 25, a New York–based artist named Tom Otterness adopted a dog from an animal shelter, tied it to a tree, and shot it to death. He recorded the whole thing with a movie camera and titled the footage Shot Dog Film. The film played at a Times Square theater, and on Christmas morning in 1979, it aired on Manhattan Cable TV, where hundreds of people watched it.

What happened next might be hard for 21st-century Americans to imagine. For a few months, Otterness was pursued by the Animal Protection Institute, which demanded that he pay, or at least apologize, for his crime. But then, very quickly, Shot Dog Film slid down the memory hole, and Otterness reinvented himself as one of the world’s most sought-after public sculptors. His puckish, semi-comic bronzes adorn parks and plazas in Los Angeles, Toronto, Seoul, and New York City—if you’ve been through the 14th Street–Eighth Avenue subway station in Manhattan, you may remember seeing his handiwork. For more than two decades, it was nearly impossible to find mention of Shot Dog Film in print. A fawning Times review from 1990 interpreted Otterness’s sculptures of chained dogs as part of “a fable about desire, curiosity, and folly,” oblivious (one would hope) to the artist’s earlier, horrifically literal canine art.

2004, the year Otterness completed his installation for the 14thStreet subway, was supposed to be a time of triumph for the artist. But it was also the year that the writer and artist Gary Indiana, another up-and-comer of late-1970s New York, saw fit to remind the cultural elite of what they’d conveniently forgotten. Hot on the heels of his subway coup, Otterness had been honored with a spot in the New Museum’s exhibition on the East Village art scene. In a long, frankreview of the show for New York magazine, Indiana wrote that the artist had killed an animal “for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film,” and, for good measure, called him “a sculptor of limitless nonentity despite his demonstrated skill at conning public-art commissions and taste-impaired collectors into making him rich.” There are great human beings who make lousy art, and lousy human beings who make great art—Otterness, concluded Indiana, was “lousy both.”

Peter Hujar
Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, 1973
Pace/MacGill Gallery

In the following years, animal rights activists—this time with the help of the internet—succeeded in putting some pressure on Otterness. In 2007, he issued a statement in which he said of Shot Dog Film: “It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for.” After he continued to win six- and even seven-figure contracts for his sculptures, however, many argued that he’d done nowhere near enough to atone for killing the animal. In 2011, Otterness was awarded three-quarters of a million dollars by the San Francisco Arts Commission to design an installation for the Central Subway, only to have the project put on hold after hundreds of citydwellers signed petitions voicing their opposition. But in the last 10 years, he’s displayed his work in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, which seem to have found his apology perfectly, completely satisfactory. It wouldn’t be hard to conclude that, like the politicians and tycoons who love his work so dearly, he’s perfected the art of flopping up.

At any rate, those are the facts of the case, and they speak for themselves. There’s been a lot of debate in recent, scandal-sodden years about what it means, and what it doesn’t mean, to apologize, and about the severity with which people should be punished for sins of decades past. As appalling as Shot Dog Film is, the controversy seems unlikely to sway many opinions on these matters.

One part of the controversy that does bear further analysis, however, comes from an interview Otterness gave with the New York Observer in 2011. “Certainly the scene it was part of,” he replied when asked why he’d made a film about killing the dog. “It was in the context of the times and the scene I was in.” In an earlier interview, he seems to give some explanation of what he took this scene to be: “[Shot Dog Film] was the most aggressive way I could think of to show a film,” he explained, “the most damaging thing that I could do to the audience by showing a film.”

In plain English, Otterness’s apparent goal with Shot Dog Film was to make his audience as disgusted, horrified, or otherwise uncomfortable as possible—an aesthetic tactic he claims was common among New York avant-garde artists of the time. The violence he showed on-screen, in other words, was really a means of doing violence to the viewer. It’s very tempting to dismiss this explanation as some third-rate ass-covering, like a captured soldier claiming he was just aping the rest of his squadron. Most, if not all, of the artists Indiana celebrates in his New York article—who together defined the East Village scene when Otterness was starting out—opted for a more sophisticated approach, tempering shock with empathy. The photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, or the performances of Vito Acconci (to name three of the greatest New York artists of the era), sometimes elicit shock, but as a means of creating an unlikely intimacy between the viewer and the subject.

But in a broader sense, Otterness is correct about one thing: There is a long avant-garde tradition of trying to inflict “violence” upon the audience. This tradition can be felt in the playwright Antonin Artaud’s notion of the “Theater of Cruelty.” It’s there in the unsettling Surrealist collaborations of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, the most famous of which, Un Chien Andalou (1929), shows a sliced sheep eyeball. More recently, it’s there in what Moira Weigel termed the “sadomodernism” of directors like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, the latter of whom said he wanted to “rape the spectator into autonomy,” and in Open Casket (2016), the painting of a dead Emmett Till that Dana Schutz displayed at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. (It’s even there, more debatably, in the overt militarism of the term “avant-garde” itself.

In all of these cases, metaphorical violence is done to an audience by means of physical violence, vicariously felt. Sometimes, live animals are sacrificed for the causes of shock and authenticity: Animals die onscreen in nearly all of Haneke’s films (a live horse was killed and mutilated for Time of the Wolf), and, nearly two decades after Un Chien Andalou, Dalí tried to dynamite a duck. Otterness’s film may be the most sophomoric entry in the genre of violent shock art, but it’s far from the only one.

It may have been the most redundant, too. In the 1970s, students were beaten and killed for engaging in peaceful protest, serial killers bragged about their crimes in the papers, and an endless stream of frightening images flowed from Vietnam to America through the TV set. Both in American media and in American life, savage, ugly violence was the rule, not the exception. So who, exactly, was Otterness hoping to “damage” by filming a dog’s death? What point was he trying to make about the world that Americans weren’t painfully aware of already? Otterness has apologized for Shot Dog Film, but judging from interviews, it’s unlikely that he’ll be donating any of his fortune to animal shelters, as some continue to call for. One only hopes he understands how misguided the piece was—and how easily a plan to “attack” the viewer with images can veer into stupid, meaningless cruelty.

Jackson Arn