Is Starving a Dog Art? Depends, Art Professor Says Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas tied up an emaciated dog and reportedly left it to starve. In considering whether such projects constitute art, New York University professor Randy Martin discusses the shocking, the controversial and the profound.
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Is Starving a Dog Art? Depends, Art Professor Says

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Is Starving a Dog Art? Depends, Art Professor Says

Is Starving a Dog Art? Depends, Art Professor Says

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Thanks, Mark. The news out of New Haven, Connecticut, is what's not happening. An undergraduate named Aliza Shvartz will not be displaying her senior art thesis today. This project is nine months of the undergraduate's self-inseminating and then miscarrying, or at least that's what Shvartz said the project was.

The university wanted her to issue a written statement admitting that her project was creative fiction, and since Shvartz refused to issue that statement by yesterday, or even clarify if it was fiction, Yale refused to mount the exhibition today.

This is the latest in a number of art, or maybe, quote, unquote, "art installations and projects" that have become big sources of controversy. Maybe that's the point. Helping us explore these questions is Randy Martin, professor and chair of art and public policy at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts here in New York City. Hello, Professor Martin.

Dr. RANDY MARTIN (Art and Public Policy, NYU): Hi, Mike, how are you?

PESCA: I'm well, and I'll make you a deal. If I don't ask you, but is this art? You don't have to answer, it depends on what you mean by art.

Dr. MARTIN: Fair enough.

PESCA: That probably goes on a lot in your line of work, right?

Dr. MARTIN: Yeah, it's - you could say that's the line.

PESCA: That's the line. The professor of what is art. So, let's be as tangible as we can with this particular case in Yale.

Dr. MARTIN: Sure.

PESCA: Once the university figured out, or thought they had figured out the veracity of what she was saying and they seem to have determined that it wasn't true, that the student miscarried nine times or made an installation from it, once they made that determination, what do you think the university's responsibility was?

Dr. MARTIN: Well, I think the - clearly any university is going to be concerned when it uses certain kinds of processes of teaching to say is everybody safe in the room? Can we promote the kind of community and responsibility that we want to promote in a teaching context? But I think at the same time, if there isn't - if the issue is did she speak the truth, and if she didn't...

PESCA: Right.

Dr. MARTIN: That's the academic issue, that's one line. And the other line is did she harm herself? And I think there that medically it's certainly not clear that even if she had done what she had done, depending on what kind of abortive factor she used. Many of them have long clinical trials that suggest that if she had induced abortion on a monthly basis, that's not a health risk. So, in those terms it's less clear I think where the issue lies for the university.

PESCA: And so what they did do, which was ask her to be clear about the veracity of this, what do you think of that?

Dr. MARTIN: Well, I think that's very interesting with respect to an art project, because I think that seems to me, as I understand it, and I just read a little bit about it, to go to the heart of her project. What is that line between life and its representation, and I think it's been the tradition of many kinds of public, and political, and performance art projects to explore exactly that, the ambiguity of that line. And I would also say that a lot of the controversy that it ensues from the exploration is enormous anxiety, that that line becomes very difficult to police.

PESCA: You could make the argument that perhaps the curators of Picasso's "Guernica," wouldn't it be ridiculous if they said actually the bull is not shaped like that, or the bombs didn't explode like that? That's absolutely ridiculous, and yet you had such a public outcry with this student.

There was a question of fact, and, you know, as a newsman, that's the number-one thing I wanted to know, was it true? I couldn't even make a decision until I heard if it was true or not. I couldn't even start to think about the art until I knew if it was true or not. I don't know if you think that's legitimate.

Dr. MARTIN: Well, you could say that the interest in art is probably less the truth of its materials than the truth of its ideas.

PESCA: Yeah. But I don't know what that means. I don't even know how to form an idea with this if it was, you know, a statement about having miscarriages and self-insemination.

Dr. MARTIN: Yes.

PESCA: Or if it was actually doing it. It means two totally different things to me.

Dr. MARTIN: Sure, although you could say that here you and I are enacting this particular art piece. If it's a piece whose interest is to intervene in the way we talk about, and consider, and think about these questions of women's health, of the relationship between what's actual and what's not, it's in that public dialogue because a lot of the public dialogue around reproductive health rights has to do precisely with this passing between fact and fiction.

PESCA: You are a professor, and I'm sure you've had students who've wanted to push the envelope, that's kind of why students get into contemporary art. What rules does Tisch and NYU have?

Dr. MARTIN: Sure, it's a good question. Tisch has had issues in the film program where students have wanted to engage, and have their actors - they engage in sexual acts in a studio in order to represent ideas about sexuality, and the school has said you can't do that because that violates the kind of sense of safety and protection within that classroom.

And our norms for what kinds of films you can make are consistent with kind of commercial norms of what would be considered an R-rated movie. So, that kind of relationship between acts and of their representation is something that the curriculum is devoted to get students to think about.

PESCA: You are a professor of art and public policy, which is an interesting tandem, I would say. Now, so often with artists, especially contemporary artists who make news, what they say is they're trying to illicit a reaction. You often hear that as a justification for art. If it is indeed a justification, would you say it is the shallowest of justifications?

Dr. MARTIN: Well, it's not clear to me what the distinction, especially now after say Andy Warhol, and attention to celebrity in art, and in culture more broadly, who isn't trying to illicit a reaction for some attention? I mean that is the medium of culture we're operating in.

PESCA: Right. And people who - I don't think anyone would call artists are trying to illicit a reaction like Ann Coulter, or everyone who does a reality show.

Dr. MARTIN: Absolutely.

PESCA: Right. And you know, then there's another justification for art or explanation. We're trying to challenge the audience. Who do you think this audience is that's being challenged? Because I find that the people who go to the installation art shows, they're the ones who want to do the challenging.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

No, I think it's you and I, if I can butt in here. I mean, the very conversation that's happening right now is the manifestation of that challenge. Don't you think, professor?

Dr. MARTIN: Absolutely, and it's to the extent that this is an artwork that is using the ambiguities of form and function, that's the terms that the artist uses, to think about issues of public policy. She is, as I understand it, trying to challenge the underlying assumptions that we use when we speak about these issues, and that certainly is consistent with many kinds of artwork.

PESCA: In another story somewhat related to art, or someone trying to use art as a justification, there is an adult video creator and distributor named Ira Isaacs who's being tried right now in California on federal obscenity charges, and he's offered a defense for his work that essentially says people watch his videos to be shocked, not to be sexually aroused, therefore it's not obscene. What do you make of that argument?

Dr. MARTIN: Well, I think the effort to establish obscenity, which is - goes back many years, but more recently you could say around the controversies with the NEA grants in the late '90s, and there was a claim that if the artwork violated certain kinds of community standards it could be considered obscene, and therefore shouldn't be funded. The problem is, in practice it's very difficult to know how to establish a standard for a community in terms of what their aesthetic preferences are.

PESCA: Right. So, this is the argument about obscenity, but he's trying to kind of say I'm an artist, even though you can only buy his videos on adult video sites, and not art sites. And his - the logic of his argument is that you really couldn't get sexually aroused by it, and I was troubled by that argument because I thought about the inverse, which is oh, so if you could get sexually aroused by something than that is obscene?

Dr. MARTIN: Sure. Yes. I think the general claim that you can forecast or induce a reaction in an audience I think is a difficult one to sustain for the reasons you're saying. There's a whole range of responses, and this is as true of pornography as it is of the news. Right, people have all kinds of responses to what they see. But I think the claim that when an artist makes it, that their interest is in shock, has to do with a set of critical concerns they have about the world. This is what I think is wrong with the world...

PESCA: Right.

Dr. MARTIN: This is what I'm trying to get people to pay attention to, and again that has been a thematic throughout the last hundred years of artistic production, not just of Picasso's "Guernica," but of Dada, of Duchamp, of a whole series of artists who positioned themselves in the critical relation to the rest of the world, and saw themselves as the bearer, right, of a kind of explosion into that world.

PESCA: All right. Randy Martin is a professor and chair of art and public policy at Tisch School of the Arts here in New York. Thank you very much, Professor Martin.

Dr. MARTIN: Thanks so much. It was a pleasure.

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