Thoughts on the Ongoing Debate

Thoughts on the Ongoing Debate

Expression is at the heart of our community values. As Rochesterians we have the great fortune to live in a place that daily evokes the names of Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and many others who have sought to better our city and the world at large with their efforts. We value dialogue, discussion and critical thinking in our public discourse. Fairness and equity should be our goals in both our private and civic lives.

The ongoing debate on the sculpture garden at the Memorial Art Gallery is a great example of our community’s strong history of debate and civic engagement brought about by an earnest desire to have Rochester exemplify our values. The major issue of contention is the inclusion of work by Tom Otterness, a renowned sculptor. This contentiousness comes from an early work of Mr. Otterness’ called Shot Dog Film created in 1977. This work is a looped video piece where a dog is shot with a gun and dies. The footage is looped and the short segment of film is repeated. In real life, the dog died only once. On film, the dog is continually dying only to come to life and die again. By all reports the footage is gruesome and disturbing. Mr. Otterness has since apologized for the creation of this work and done so repeatedly. His most definitive comment on the work is from a 2008 report in the Daily Eagle, “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”. There is more to this story however and much that needs to be discussed to fully understand what could cause a man like Mr. Otterness to create a piece of work like “Shot Dog Film”.

The United States ended its involvement in Vietnam in 1975. This represented the first time in the history of the world where video and images of war were readily available to the American viewing public. Although the public was initially unaware of the true cost of the war, it became clear at the close of the war that citizens were not getting the full truth of what was occurring in Vietnam and that film images were being selectively shown to sway the public in favor of the war by promising viewers easy victory with little human cost. This created great cultural confusion where many had greater access to information and yet could trust that information less and less. It created great societal distrust of authority and had many questioning their own personal realities. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr is assassinated. In, 1965, Malcolm X is assassinated in full view of 400 people attending an Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. In 1963, President Kennedy is assassinated with the act being caught on film. His killer is subsequently killed by Jack Ruby during a prisoner transfer while cameras rolled thereby broadcasting the crime live to millions of people all over the world. In 1973, Vice President Agnew resigns amid allegations of money laundering, tax evasion and bribery. President Nixon resigned in 1974 due to the Watergate scandal leaving Gerald Ford President. Ford ascended to the presidency and remains the only President who was never elected President nor Vice-President. His later pardon of Nixon led to widespread distrust of this appointed President leading to more national uncertainty.

It may not surprise you to know that art is a reflection of the society it was created in during a certain point in time. It is a time capsule of what the world is like and what people felt about the world at that particular moment. During this decade of historic wrath and uncertainty would it surprise you to know that a performance artist had nails hammered into both of his hands while laying atop a Volkswagen Beetle as if he were being crucified? A few years earlier, Chris Burden, the artist would debut a performance piece Shoot in which he was shot in the arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters. Much of this artist’s work revolves around personal danger as essential to the artistic expression. In 1974, Marina Abramovic ingested a variety of prescribed drugs as part of a performance art piece entitled Rhythm 2. One drug paralyzed her body yet kept her mind alert. A second drug taken later would mentally incapacitate her while allowing her body to remain alert. Her work during this period of confusion and uncertainty centered around a quest of personal endurance in a world that is increasingly chaotic. In Rhythm 0 performed in 1974, Abramovic placed seventy-two objects on a table and invited the audience to use the items in the manner of their choosing. Some of the objects are a feather, honey, a whip, a scalpel, a gun, a bullet, etc. During the course of six hours, audience members take the objects and become increasingly more violent towards the artist who remains passive during the experience. After six hours her clothes are cut, her body repositioned many times and an audience member aims the gun at her head. Burden and Abramovic are not circus freaks by any means. Both are active artists today and their work is considered by many to be a foundational element of performance art. Their events would often be one-time occurrences, but the availability of film allowed these performances to be recorded and broadcast in a way that had previously been unavailable. Both artists sought to explore the human condition and demonstrate the reality of the human condition in direct contrast to the manipulated images broadcast around television and film. Firearms were a common fixture of the period. The prevalence of war and assassination made the use of them very potent artistic tools in this regard.

In 1977, Tom Otterness would create Shot Dog Film. As a young artist, he reflected the turmoil prevalent in a troubled society while at the same time mirroring the work of others whose art was at the forefront of the culture. Mr. Otterness is never charged with a crime, as the killing of the dog was not a criminal offense at the time. Thirty-four years later, there is a desire among a small portion of the populace to punish Mr. Otterness for the film he created and overlook his career as a creator of family friendly public art. They wish to judge him by one act rather than an entire lifetime of actions. If a person is to be judged by others, they need to be judged on the totality of their lives and not one regrettable act. In the world that exists today there are many opportunities for people to make a positive impact on the lives of animals whereas threats against Mr. Otterness and demonization of the Memorial Art Gallery will have negligible impact on the overall health of creatures great and small. The ASPCA promotes spaying and neutering of pets to help prevent overpopulation. Interested persons should adopt animals from a shelter rather than purchasing pets from a breeder. Puppy mills are common with dogs developing degenerative conditions from inbreeding and generally poor living conditions. By adopting a pet from a shelter you are providing a home to an animal that faces the prospect of euthanasia. PETA, despite its stance as hard-line animal activists, euthanizes approximately eighty-five percent of the animals left in its care. This represents more than 17,000 animals since 1998.

Lastly, there needs to be an understanding among the members of societies great and small that one act should not define the character of Mr. Otterness whose spent the rest of his career producing art that is diametrically opposite this early work which he apologized for on many occasions and without reservation. If there is condemnation for the bad act that he has committed there must be praise for the good acts that he continues to accomplish in our city and cities around the world. There must be equity in all actions and fairness behind each act if we are to live in a just world. At no time should a person live in fear of losing their livelihood, be under the yoke of organizations extorting money, threatened or made to feel in danger of their lives. The equality gifted by our progenitors, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass demands equality for all and not just for some. Judge Mr. Otterness on the totality of his life, not one act. No one has yet to achieve any kind of perfection in life and the true mettle of a person is not what they do with their success, but rather what they do after they make a mistake.

- J. R. Teeter