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
, or the performances of
(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.