Sunday, July 27, 2008

There ought to be a law!

I've never entirely understood the sort of mentality that responds to everything bad and ugly by trying to legislate against it. It isn't really true that "you can't legislate morality": of course, you can, and we do; but there are pluses and minuses involved with all legislation, and I generally think it's best to err on the side of freedom.

So I'm not entirely sure I see the logic behind a bill introduced in San Francisco that will allow misdemeanor or felony criminal charges to be brought against any artist or financial backer who causes “the death, abuse or suffering of an animal” when making a work of art. This was proposed in response to an artist- Adel Abdessemed- whose art, shown at the San Francisco Art Institute, included a video of six farm animals being killed. The SFAI says that Abdessemed was documenting traditional methods of food production in Mexico without any gratuitous violence taking place to make the videos. In other words, it 's hard to tell if he actually broke the proposed law. Also, since he doesn't live or create his art in San Francisco, it's not clear if he could be charged anyway.

At any rate, the show was definitely controversial and had to be closed after the SFAI and the artist received death threats. The idea behind the bill seems to be that there is some sort of demand for this art that should be squelched. San Francisco city commissioner Christine Garcia, who wrote the bill, told The Art Newspaper: “If you allow forums that find this type of work acceptable, more people will produce it and can gain fame from the suffering of animals.” Of course, there have been forums that find this type of work acceptable- or we wouldn't have needed a law to close them; and they have not produced a great number of rich, famous animal killers- since we're still talking about this as a theoretical future outcome.

It seems, to me, that the hope here is that we can legislate culture. But, as culture is the sum total of billions of individual and somewhat irrational decisions- just like the economy- I can't see how we possibly control it through legislation. Or, at least, not without unwittingly and exponentially decreasing the free choices that can be made not only in real life, but in imaginative life. I'm already unclear as to what constitutes "during the making" of a work of art, or even what constitutes "causing the death of an animal". If I shoot a short film in which a fictional family is eating a real roast duck for dinner, have I committed a felony by this law? What about a catered barbecue during a film shoot? If I make a documentary about Canada's annual seal hunt, what should I do to avoid being charged? Is a documentary a work of art or not? And just because these examples are mildly ridiculous don't assume that someone won't seriously try to bring these charges in the future.

Moreover, the law seems both vague and weirdly specific. If it's already illegal to inflict cruelty upon an animal (I certainly hope so), why do we need another law specifying that it's illegal to do so for art? It's like saying that we need a law making it illegal to rob a bank and another making it illegal to model for photos while robbing a bank. Well, or it's like saying it's illegal for an adult to have sex with a child, and we need a new law to make it illegal to have sex with a child and film it. But, of course, the kiddie porn laws are just as understandable in theory as this law is- one can easily see why we have them- and are indeed so badly-thought out in practice that they've resulted in myriad legal snafus, witch hunts, and people having their lives ruined without the slightest intention of actually making or owning kiddie porn.

But, try saying that in mixed company!


Holly said...

Sort of seems like the law should be more about how it's socially unacceptable and punishable to bring to our attention things which we would rather not be confronted with... ?

Rufus said...

The "we'd rather not know where our food comes from, thank you" law?