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Blouin-Art Info recently asked readers, “Is killing chickens art?”

Word-for-word my thoughts when I first heard of fowl slaughterer cum-performance artist Miguel Suarez and his controversial “work.” Canadian art student Suarez slaughtered a live chicken in an art school cafeteria without warning students who were trying their best to keep down their lunch last April 18.

Tacky an offensive? Yes, but not nearly as bad as Yale art student Aliza Shvarts, who claimed to serially self-abort as a performance/installation project.

Illegal? Possibly, since the university isn’t licensed as an abattoir. Still no charges were filed by police.

But is it art?

Ah, there lies the rub. It depends whom you ask, but according to current rules of engagement in the arts, if a person claims to be an artist, we are bound to seriously consider their claims until proven otherwise (which I guess means until they denounce art in favor of moving to Vanuatu to join the Prince Philip Movement – or running a chicken farm).

No surprise that the world is reacting with more hysteria over the demise of a Canadian fowl than a mound of dead fetuses. I suspect the hue and cry over chicken murder is psychologically akin to the publicity baby butcher Kermit Gosnell finally received. We know somewhere creatures are dying for our dinner but have no problem as long as the blood isn’t splattering on our Nikes. Similarly it’s easy to deny the reality of tormented, bloody babies when late term abortion is legal, contained and not mentioned in polite society. Gosnell’s trial ripped that veil to pieces … at least until the press is diverted elsewhere.

But could chicken-killing be art?

Apparently officials at Alberta College of Art + Design, or ACBA, thought not, as they swiftly dismissed Gordon Ferguson, a 32-year veteran art instructor who was overseeing the “event.” A few weeks later this decision was reversed under trainloads of pressure by artists and students who protested a lack of “academic freedom.” In his defense, Ferguson wished he “had a greater opportunity to advise and support his student” before he began the performance.

But Suarez’ stuff was tame compared to the animal “snuff film” that preceded him in Canada by a decade. In 2001 Jesse Power and two other men videoed the skinning and torture of a live cat as an “art project.” If the morons expected to win awards, they were sadly surprised by the national outpouring of hate, rants and death threats.

“This isn’t art” declared Judge Ted Ormston, the assigned jurist.

A psychiatrist in Power’s trial perceived him an “an utterly modern blockhead – a vegan, art student and political activist” who felt entitled to any action that furthered his thesis, however immoral or illegal. In his case he hadn’t quite finished up, as he planned to eat the poor thing later – as a protest against eating meat of course.

While many other performance/installation art pieces have featured more gore and violence, obviously the ACBA wanted to establish a boundary in Suarez’ case. Whether over violence, trauma, public safety, squeamishness, legal threats or animal rights, I don’t know. But current philosophy seems to run “if it’s art” there can be no legitimate boundaries or limitations imposed on artists … with rare exceptions.

These are two entirely different issues, but more and more they are intertwined. Russian art activists Voina (War) overturned police cars, set fires and rioted as political protest. Criminal enough to land a spot on Interpol’s wanted list, ironically they were simultaneously awarded an “Innovation Prize” in 2011 for visual art by the Russian establishment – the Ministry of Culture itself.

Putting aside whether protests are deserved or not, could vandalism and political activity in itself be “art?” This is being hotly debated across the world, as authorities clash with artists who claim artistic immunity for virtually everything.

A literal example of the struggle to build lines of demarcation between art and political action occurred in 2012 between artist Zhao Zhao and the Chinese government. A protégé of Ai Wei Wei and possible heir to his political clout, Zhou experience the wrath of the state when a boatload of his art was confiscated and destroyed. The official reason given? “It isn’t art.” When the Chinese government has power to decide if a statue of a dismantled policeman is art, their findings are predictable.

If political action plain and undecorated qualifies as art, why can’t everything else? All human activities at their heights qualify as “arts” or “sciences,” but until recently the term “artist” was reserved for creative, fine arts only. This obscures and mystifies culture and is a great legal loophole too.

Could a bad mechanic claim the oil he didn’t replace was a “statement against global warming and industrial waste”? A neighboring meth lab is an “in vivo art-installation referencing altered states in relation to authoritarian systems.”

Gay marriage as performance art? It’s interesting to live in such a time that any absurdity you mentally conjure … actually exists somewhere. As I speak two “married” gay men are busily engaged in an art performance so viewers can “contemplate gay marriage, queer assimilation and fetishization of the suburbs.”

Wow, I’ve always wanted to do that. Thanks guys, or whatever you consider yourselves now.

The Village Voice gushes over “A Marriage” for enacting little domestic activities together like wearing masks and speaking into inflated plastic bags – things all suburbanites do. So precious.

Performance and installation art sometimes blurs boundaries in other directions, such as pornography. Nudity is a tradition in art, but since the 1970s performance artists such Vito Acconci thought it might make their art more memorable if they just masturbated during their show. By 2008 Leah Aron working as “Amber Alert” ditched the art and just stripped while playing an X-rated video involving things I could not mention here.

Her statement – doubling as an excuse to be taken seriously – claims she is navigating the “onerous challenge” of gender norms and societal expectations while appropriating “pervasive media images and cultural messages” that assault the senses.
In other words, a stripper with airs.

Is it art? It is if academics, galleries and museums say it is and if other artists accept it as such. And look who’s working her way up to the next seat of cultural clout where such issues are debated and codified. It’s the Mistress of Miscarriage and Anti-Mother, Aliza Shvarts, currently working her way to a Ph.D. in performance studies at NYU.

Aliza Shvarts

Just to make it clear that although she will earn a Ph.D. Shvarts has no conception of how art is classically defined, she issued this statement in defense of her series of lies, toying with human life and causing legal problems for Yale: “I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity.”

Apparently Shvarts skipped out the day they taught on aesthetics in Art Appreciation 101, leading her to believe art is only a commercial application or a political one.

Although performance and installation art can be beautiful, profound and memorable, it is too often overlaid with commercial entertainment and circus oddities. Imagine Ripley’s meets Cage Fighter meets Deep Throat meets Talent Show in Vegas – with scholarly proclamations of course.

Artists will push the boundaries of content, subject and media in their art and galleries, and academics tend to accept them at face value without much questioning. Generally a plausible artist’s statement is enough to hail chicken killing, auto lubrication or coughing as an art form. The inertia comes from the public when common sense and traditional and social mores are stomped a little too hard to keep them from kicking back.

Reticence from the masses is a good thing in the long run, because it keeps artists from being too infatuated with their own reflection and forces them to consider their audience, which is often public.

When audience reaction is totally ignored, art collapses into cynical, personal therapy – a kind of mindless exhibitionism. Even more so “performance art,” which implies a designated a) performer and b) observer. Examples of performance art gone bad are everywhere, with one of the worst wandering the streets of Madrid projecting huge shadows of his penis onto sides of buildings – because he can.

Nude Jaime del Val may seem mad, self-obsessed and people may hide their children in his vicinity, but he has an artist’s statement and he hasn’t been arrested. As a “pangender cyborg” he uses “organs of power” (buildings) as a means to protest homophobia, surveillance, control and consumer society.

Undoubtedly del Val will have the enthusiastic support of Aliza Shvarts, her mentors at Yale and NYU and supporters of cat skinners everywhere.

So it’s art.

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