Chris Bratton: “I see a new, pervasive and global condition of fundamentalist violence directed against dissident images and thought”

President of the San Francisco Art Institute on art and censorship


On 19 March, the San Francisco Art Institute opened a major exhibition by the Algerian-French artist, Adel Abdessemed, titled “Don’t Trust Me”. Abdessemed is an internationally renowned artist whose recent work was featured at the 2007 Venice Biennale, among many other venues in Europe and around the world. Little more than a week later the exhibition was closed, an unprecedented event in the over 137-year history of the school. Those ten long days began unremarkably enough with the opening of the show and a lecture by the artist, well attended and eliciting enthusiastic responses. However, what was already underway was a campaign by In Defense of Animals (IDA), a Marin-based organisation that had begun to enlist local broadcast media and mount an automated internet campaign against the show that over the next several days would incite a flood of violent threats against the school’s board, faculty and staff.

A replay of the culture wars of the 1980s? Certainly there is a superficial similarity, but there is also something else, something that can’t be captured in a return to the language of censorship, the canon, or multiculturalism. It is what I see to be a new, pervasive and global condition of fundamentalist violence directed against dissident images and thought.

“Don’t Trust Me” was a large, multi-media installation. But only one of its components came to define it in San Francisco. The exhibition included six video monitors of images recorded by the artist of the slaughter of farm animals at the point of their deaths. These events occurred in a rural community in Mexico where the animals were raised, purchased, and professionally slaughtered. Outrage organised itself around these images, and that the artist became a participant, filming this exchange and exhibiting it.

The response to “Don’t Trust Me” points to an animal rights movement that applies a code—as philosopher Charles Taylor calls it—without moral boundaries, a utopianism so insistent and frenzied that it disregards all constraints on action. Here we move out of the world of censorship to the world of security: condemn your opponents as the authors of crimes. Post photos of them along with home and email addresses. Further cue your constituents with language meant to incite outrage and “direct action”. Caricatures that render them so Other that they no longer even appear as human.

Is it any wonder, then, that the languages of torture, mutilation and murder followed so relentlessly after? This was luridly and violently elaborated in threatening emails, phone calls and letters, all echoing themes of surveillance, control, and violent punishment, addressed to numerous board, staff, faculty, and their families.

Even the most evidently self-authored emails that reached the school had a striking consistency all their own. One referred to “genital mutilation in Darfur”, another to “the exploitation of children in the Third World”, “sex tourism” and many to “pornography”, all as somehow related to the exhibition. One local critic said in reference to the exhibition that responses “to inflammatory materials presented as art are local, not global”. These associative chains tell us otherwise, that in the end this is very much about a world, but one that is seen as absolutely elsewhere, where other people and cultures are understood as savage and sexualised.

The universalising claims of animal rights groups like IDA and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals further obscure the highly specific cultural assumptions that underpin this controversy.

Like modern political parties, the very survival of these groups depends on making their claims seem part of the general sense of things, as commonly held, accomplished through the familiar combination of media, technology and money. This was a case of demagoguery skilled in the manipulation of already existing prejudices.

Their stated appeals to progressivism notwithstanding, this is a variety of fundamentalism, tailored for the Western-educated and privileged, but a fundamentalism nonetheless, one that relies on a Manichean view of the world, mobilising emotion over analysis, rhetoric over dialogue, and militantly guarding its orthodoxies.

It is the challenge of mondialisation, as distinct from globalisation, that confronts us. It is the project of “thinking” the world, our work, our lives, the objects that surround us, as inextricably bound up in a complex web of local and global relations. The point is to make these interconnections visible and understood. In the end “Don’t Trust Me” is larger and even more unpalatable than its critics would allow. Larger than a discussion of privilege and resources, power and powerlessness, it is truly appalling in its flat insistence that the abattoir is the sign of a now transnational condition of exploitation and disavowal.

It is this assertion that requires dialogue, along with a willingness to examine our assumptions and accommodate the unfamiliar, even the frightening. This, we know, is the challenge posed by art; its epistemological function, to produce new forms of knowledge and experience. In the end, our relationship to the world and to each other is more complex—and yes, more terrible—than our current politics can address. This is precisely the space and time of art.

The writer is the president of the San Francisco Art Institute

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “I see a new, pervasive and global condition of fundamentalist violence directed against dissident images and thought”