Art Succeeds in Starting a Conversation, But Some Call for the Cancellation of the Project

Update: Lawrence, KS officials have banned the project, saying the proposed art installation would amount to animal cruelty.

The Kansas code allows “with respect to farm animals” for “normal or accepted practices of animal husbandry, including the normal and accepted practices for the slaughter of such animals for food or by-products and the careful or thrifty management of one’s herd or animals, including animal care practices common in the industry or region.” How does the re-contextualization of these same practices as art and giving them public visibility suddenly make them criminal? What are the lengths to which we will go as a society to refuse to examine our own practices?

Amber Hansen’s project seems to have hit a double target: the denial in which we live regarding the cycle of life, death and consumption, as well as the prevailing expectation that art is entertainment and spectacle – not so much a venue for exploring serious ethical issues. This case  is a perfect example of why controversy in art is healthy.


Previous post: February 17th, 2012

How does one gauge the success of public art engaged in social issues? It seems that a lively conversation around it would be one good sign. Art today — controversial or not — aims to provoke new ways of thinking about ethical, political or social issues. If the issue is really current and important, one can expect the conversation to be heated.

Such is the case with Amber Hansen’s community art project “The Story of Chickens: A Revolution.” Although the project has yet to open, it is already causing a lively debate amongst animal rights groups, arts activists and the blogosphere at large.

Beginning in March, Hansen will unveil phase one of her project — a chicken coop which will house five chickens near the metropolitan area of Lawrence, KS. Kansas residents will be invited to play, feed, pet and otherwise interact with the chickens during their one month residency in the coop. After one month, the chickens, as tends to happen with their farm-raised brethren, will be butchered by a local farmer and served at a potluck to be held at the Percolator Art Gallery.

Hansen’s project is meant to challenge viewers to consider their relationship with the animals they eat, the dearth of live animals in urban areas, our disconnection from our sources of food. Some critics, however, oppose the project, complaining that it does not reveal the abuses of industrial farming, or that it turns chickens into a spectacle, or that it concludes in butchering the chickens.

Given the robust discussion about art, animals and ethics that the project is already provoking, Hansen may have already begun to accomplish even more that what her work initially intended. The Kansas University Spencer Museum of Art, and the Rocket Grants Program, have maintained their support for Hansen amidst the controversy. The Museum has initiated a lively online discussion, where one can encounter various points of view and arguments over ethics and our treatment of animals. For this, they deserve our full support.

When art asks uncomfortable questions, those who are disturbed by the artwork frequently attack the organization sponsoring it, which is why many arts organizations tone down their programming. Those arts organizations that persist with their mission of stimulating civic engagement are to be commended for their courage and principled approach.Controversy and debate can be enlightening and enriching, censorship and fear of controversy, on the other hand, arrest the conversation and petrify our thought.

You can join the conversation around the project here.

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3 Responses to Art Succeeds in Starting a Conversation, But Some Call for the Cancellation of the Project

  1. rebecca says:

    Really? C’mon… it is 2012. As artists do we really have to do something as heinous as kill to make a successful statement? Look at the “artists” who killed animals for shock value in the 1970’s. Do any of them have any validity today? Does any of that work resonate in a way that caused or provoked change? How many of them even have careers that are not looked upon as laughable? I find this whole conversation kind of old hat.

    You (blog writer) give the killing a lot of validity by saying “When art asks uncomfortable questions…” in a way that makes my skin crawl. It is this very type of on-the-fence validating that is why we cannot make clear ethical distinctions about things as basic as harming an animal, and why people continue to do so. You bring up the idea of ending this project as that could be characterized as censorship – – but saving lives cannot be put into the same category as censorship.

  2. rebecca says:

    I should add: if the exhibition featured a person who was going to be slaughtered as “art” – – would you accuse the people trying to save that person of engaging in act of censorship? C’mon. I think it is ridiculous to bring censorship into this. No one is telling this artist not to express her views. But a very many of us draw the line at calling murder art. Do you enjoy snuff films too?

    You remark that “fear… petrifies the conversation and arrests thought.” Well, what if we turn that around back to face you like a mirror and posit:

    FEAR is what keeps humanity harming animals, without challenging the status quo and asking for consideration of the ethics on behalf of those who are voiceless. i.e. it allows artists to do trendy things like butcher animals in front of an audience without being challenged and then the elite get to go to the fancy chef dinner.

    Fear keeps people from challenging unfortunately too-common behaviors (in this case, the killing of innocent animals.) Afraid of being accused of censorship, people pipe down and let the animals be killed! Weee!

    Sorry – but ironically you are the one engaging in fear-mongering, and that will cause censorship again and again and again of animal rights activists working for the well-being of the those who can’t advocate for themselves, those who suffer tremendously, outrageously, undeniably from birth to death in the hands of humans. If you want to talk about who is being censored, I only see artists getting in the limelight for their so-called problems with “censorship” – – but animal rights activists are getting thrown in jail.

    Let’s get this straight: trying to stop the useless killing of living, harmless, gentle sentient beings – animals that some in our society profit from harming (AS THIS ARTIST IS) – – is not censorship. It is to be engaging in a more world-changing, revolutionary work of art and statement than this artist is capable of envisioning.

  3. What do these “lively online discussions” look like, and who participates (and who doesn’t)? Are there any moderated discussions going on in the community of Lawrence itself?

    I agree with you that debate can be healthy, but moving forward with an art proposal without full regard for public opinion and feedback is hardly courageous. Public space is challenging in that sense.

    I’m new to this controversy, but it seems like Hansen’s project offers great opportunities to hear different perspectives on the issue. The museum could network with animal rights groups or local food organizations. Plan a lecture or a panel. Get people in the door to talk to one another. Civic engagement should be more than an online forum.

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