“The Story of Chickens — a Revolution” is an art project sponsored by the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas. The stated purpose of the project is “to transform the contemporary view of chickens as merely ‘livestock’ to the beautiful and unique creatures they are, while promoting alternative and healthy processes of caring for them.” So far, so good! This is something I might actually be able to get behind.
The kicker, though, comes at the end: the chickens will be publicly slaughtered, and then fed to participants at a potluck.
Say what? Slaughter is now considered “art”?
Here’s the basic problem that I have with this project. Slaughter is not art. There is actually a social consensus, right now, that the slaughter of animals is something which is disgusting, even if it is totally necessary. Funding this project breaks this social consensus.
As someone who regularly puts forward unpopular views himself, I’m a bit sensitive to free speech issues. But here’s the problem: this project does not advocate putting slaughter into the public arena. It actually puts slaughter into the public arena.
What is this about?
It is certainly objectionable that five beautiful creatures will be ritually slaughtered. Just by itself, though, even vegans would probably not do much more than roll their eyes at this action. Hundreds of chickens are slaughtered for food every second. What is really objectionable here is that it is considered art. If it is art, it is beautiful, affirmative, and positive.
For anyone familiar with the “backyard livestock,” issue, the political context of the project should be obvious. There is an energetic class of people who are promoting the keeping of livestock in backyards and even slaughtering it in backyards. The basic idea is that industrial agriculture is not sustainable, but that backyard livestock agriculture is. They actually think they are doing the vegans a favor: look, isn’t this better than factory farms?
From the facile responses coming from the sponsors, it appears that the issue of the effects of public violence have not entered the brains of the people approving this project. Their responses are only at the level of talk about “freedom of speech” and “unpopular views have a right to be expressed.” We are not talking about the effects of publicly advocating violence, but about the effects of legitimizing actual public violence.
The key issue here in the question of whether this is “art” is the question of what is public and what is private. Slaughter is a fact of life, but even when necessary, it is also disgusting and repulsive. These two facts, accepted by consensus, are basically what holds civilization together and keep us out of the Middle Ages.
The danger of this project is that it alters, without debate, our current social consensus that killing things is disgusting, even when necessary. By making the slaughter public and endorsing it as “art,” slaughter enters the public space. This isn’t talk about slaughter, discussions of slaughter, or depictions of slaughter, but slaughter itself.
This cannot help but desensitize the public to violence. This isn’t just a vegetarian issue. There are plenty of things which are disgusting, which actually have to be done, which we do not do in public. I need my car repaired, but I don’t want an auto repair shop next door, and if someone undertakes to turn their front yard into an impromptu car shop, I have a right to object. You may need to go to the bathroom, but I don’t want to have to see you do it in public, thank you very much. This agreement on what is disgusting is a separate debate from what is good, bad, or indifferent in private.
Similar Debates in the Past
This of course raises a lot of questions about free speech, and the eternal question, “what is art?” Don’t we have the right, sometimes, to do disgusting things as a form of advocacy? Well, perhaps, but you need to think about this a bit more than the Spencer Museum has.
The issue is not whether slaughter is good, bad, or indifferent. The question is whether slaughter itself should enter the public sphere, and this is why this otherwise obscure project has elicited such a visceral and negative response. We’ve actually had these debates before, and to illustrate, here are some cases in point. These cases are not all clear-cut, by the way; but they illustrate the terrain we are looking at.
1. What about bullfighting? Is bullfighting an art, is it culture? Many years ago, as a teenager, I read Ernest Hemingway’s book Death in the Afternoon, which is basically a glorification of bullfighting. If I recall correctly, Hemingway even made the point that the fate of the bull in a bull fight is hardly worse than its fate in a slaughterhouse and may in fact be better. So don’t object to bullfighting, the implication was, just because of concern for the bull.
Hemingway’s book may be art. But is bullfighting itself an art? This was decades before I became a vegetarian. Hemingway’s prose was great, but I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to go to a bullfight, and in fact, the idea made me a bit uneasy. Bullfighting was prohibited in Catalonia in Spain in 2010, and one slogan used by opponents of bullfighting has been “Torture is not Art, Torture is not Culture.”
2. Political protest may also become art. In 1967, on the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville, someone created a sensation by threatening to burn a dog on campus to protest the Vietnam War. The purpose was to make those aware of what happens to people when they are hit by napalm. The dog, we were assured, was one who was going to be euthanized anyway. This was decades before the days of animal liberation, but even then, there was predictable outrage, including from a number of anti-war radicals.
In the end, no dogs were killed during this protest. The guy finally withdrew his threat. As I recall, he then went on to become a regular columnist for the Vanderbilt Hustler. He said something along the lines that he was just trying to shake people out of their intellectual lethargy, and that he never had any intention to burn a dog.
3. Sometimes art can be used to express viewpoints which we find repulsive. “Triumph of the Will,” by Leni Riefenstahl, is a Nazi propaganda film which, nevertheless, is very well done. (Actually, it was too long, and too many speeches; she could have made it more effective if she had cut 30 to 45 minutes out of it. Maybe it’s a good thing she didn’t.)
This is a more complicated case because no animals or humans were harmed in the making of “Triumph of the Will.” In that respect, it’s actually not as bad as “The Story of Chickens.” But the acceptance of these views by a sufficient number of Germans in politically important places, even though the Nazis never got a majority vote in a fair election, eventually killed millions of people. This is another dimension that we also have to think about when considering art.
If the Spencer Museum really thinks this project is “art,” then how about burning a dog to protest war? How about staging a bullfight? How about a showing of an edited-down version of “Triumph of the Will,” following by a community discussion of propaganda techniques and how today’s directors might be able to do a better job? Even the Spencer Museum should be able to see that these projects, no matter how skillfully done, would have effects that go far beyond the mere free-speech value of permitting people to defend their point of view publicly. The mere fact that something is disgusting doesn’t necessarily mean that it should always be prohibited in public. But there is a dimension to this debate of which the Spencer Museum does not seem to have a glimmer.
Our social order depends on slaughter being disgusting. We’re in luck, too — for the vast majority of non-psychopathic individuals, it is disgusting. You have to get used to killing. Being a slaughterhouse worker is one of the lowest paid and most dangerous occupations in America. If slaughter becomes something desirable or attractive, something that anyone can do in their backyard, something beautiful to behold, then you unleash violent forces that no one will be able to control.
Many people find it repugnant to watch slaughter even when they believe it to be necessary. It is a natural psychological defense mechanism; cruelty to animals is often a precursor to violence against humans. If it wasn’t horrible, we’d get a lot more practice, and be a lot better at it.
There is also a fairly simple modification to this project which would alleviate its visceral and inflammatory nature. Just slaughter the chickens in private. I don’t want to see it, I don’t want it to enter the public sphere. Even if they were slaughtered in private, this project would still serve to desensitize people to violence that is instinctively repulsive. But at least it would decrease the chances that this whole so-called art project will end badly.
People exposed to violence, either as victims or as perpetrators, experience stress. So will people exposed to things which are disgusting. Too much stress, and society will explode. That’s one reason we don’t have public executions, even though the killing itself is regarded, by society, as necessary and good.
Leo Tolstoy said, “as long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields,” and there is a strong intuitive understanding of the nature of violence here. Whatever needs to be done on a large scale, must first be perfected and practiced on a small scale. Before Vietnam, most soldiers in American wars, even in battle, would often not fire directly at the enemy or not fire at all. Soldiers needed to be trained to shoot at targets that actually looked like humans. Killing another human being, even an enemy, is instinctively repulsive. If we once become accustomed to a thing, we can do it on a large scale and repeatedly.
That is what “The Story of Chickens — a Revolution” is really doing. It is an invasion of public space, and by practicing a small ritual violence against “beautiful creatures” now, is a rehearsal for much bigger violence later.
Our world does not need this kind of thing. If you think that violence is necessary, if you think that we have to kill to eat, then fine. Feel free to advocate your point of view, compose great art to defend it, and write volumes of poetry in its defense. But let’s not pretend that slaughter is art.