Everyone seems to have an opinion on the prize-winning entry at last month’s 927 Art Show at the Veterans Memorial Building.
The show was billed as a “nontraditional art exhibition,” and certainly the piece titled “PETA Pussy” is anything but traditional.
The depiction of a petrified cat decked out in oversized beads, flashy fluff and long eyelashes left a lot of visitors to the display distressed and uncomfortable. The show was billed as “zany, crazy, quirky and fun,” but it wasn’t much fun for some animal lovers, especially when they learned that the piece had been named Best in Show.
The episode reopened age-old debates about censorship, what constitutes art and who gets to decide what’s appropriate. Those debates haven’t been resolved over thousands of years leading up to this controversy, and they won’t be resolved in its wake.
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But if the ruckus over “PETA Pussy” leads us to examine our emotions and if, in doing so, we learn to better understand ourselves, that’s a good thing.
It’s worth asking why people were so offended by this particular piece.
Just this past week, I took my family to see the Museum of Natural History in Morro Bay. For those who haven’t seen this place, it’s worth a visit. The displays are informative and well-maintained, and it offers a great view of Morro Bay and its iconic rock. It also contains something else: Numerous stuffed and mounted birds and animals.
This museum is a popular destination, and people come and go all the time without objecting to these displays. They give visitors a better idea of what these animals look like up close. They’re educational. And the animals displayed there are displayed in a dignified fashion, meant to enhance our appreciation of them.
That’s important, because many of us have a soft spot for animals — and even more so when it comes to pets. We treat them as part of the family, and we rely on them to bring us joy, amusement and laughter even in the toughest of times.
We’re inspired by a Secretariat or a Seabiscuit. We see a bit of ourselves in a Grumpy Cat. And when our beloved animals die, we mourn.
If pets evoke powerful emotions in us, death does, as well. We fear it, struggle to come to terms with it and rail against it when it has the audacity to take someone we treasure from us.
Anyone who presents an image of an animal — especially a pet — in the context of death should be prepared for a powerful, emotional response. It’s simply human nature. Even the Morro Bay museum exhibit may be disturbing to some.
It should come as no surprise that, when an artist mounts a cat carcass and decks it out for what appears to be a night on the town, a lot of people find it disconcerting at best.
We think of our own cat and wonder to ourselves how anyone could show such apparent disrespect for an animal someone may have loved as part of the family — or, perhaps sadder still, an animal who never had a family to love.
I say “apparent” because I doubt the artists meant any disrespect. That’s just the way it came across to many who attended the show, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Yes, it’s art. And yes, artists have a history of pushing the envelope. But declaring something art doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
I can’t think of a single time in my life when I’ve seen a dead animal and thought to myself that it was zany or quirky or fun: the qualities the 927 Art Show organizers set out to celebrate.
Visitors went to the show expecting light-hearted whimsy and frivolity, and in most cases, they saw just that. But then there was the image of that dead cat. They weren’t expecting that. The fact that visitors weren’t prepared for it must have made the experience all the more jarring.
To those who found the piece offensive and/or out of place, its selection as Best in Show must have added insult to injury.
Organizers have every right to select what they include in the show and which pieces win awards.
To my way of thinking, it’s not a question of censorship or a matter of deciding what’s art and what isn’t. It’s just a matter of taking the human element into account, considering the context and being sensitive to how people might react.
We’re human and we love our animals. It’s as simple as that.