Animal Welfare Commission Wants to Outlaw Cruel Art

Still fuming over the San Francisco Art Institute's recent exhibition of videos showing six different animals being bludgeoned to death, the city's Animal Welfare Commission is proposing a law that would treat art that abuses animals like child pornography: If an animal is harmed for the purpose of making art, it would be a criminal offense to display or possibly even keep in San Francisco. Even if the animal cruelty happens outside San Francisco, artists could still face criminal charges in the city under the proposal.

"It doesn't have to be an issue of art or free speech; this is based on what's already illegal," said Commissioner Christine Garcia, who proposed the measure, at the commission's meeting last week. "If there's something out there that's so horrendous, we shouldn't encourage an industry to glamorize it, to publicize it, to profit off of it."

Commission chairwoman Sally Stephens, however, was skeptical. This law "would end up in the court over art issues and free speech issues, and the city doesn't want to be in the position of defining what is art and what is not art," she said.

It's actually unclear whether the Humanitarian Art Ordinance would even have prevented the Art Institute from showing Adel Abdessemed's "Don't Trust Me," since it could never be confirmed that the animals were killed expressly for the making of the piece. The Art Institute's president wrote in the May edition of The Art Newspaper that they were raised for food and slaughtered professionally in Mexico. Likewise, the only other example of animal cruelty for art that commission members and supporters could cite might also have been exempt.

Critics say Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas' 2007 installation, "You Are What You Read," starved a stray dog to death while onlookers watched. (The piece, which was shown in Managua, Nicaragua, involved tying a dog to a wall of a gallery.) But a Humane Society investigation found evidence to support that the animal was taken off the street and fed by the artist. It escaped after one day.

Art is so hard to understand.

Still, a majority of commissioners seemed to support Garcia's measure, so the commission will take up the debate at its meeting next month. Proponents argue that if they don't act fast, there could be copycat animal-killing art shows around the world. Commissioners say that they don't expect the measure to be controversial. And at last week's hearing, which was packed with animal-rights activists, it wasn't — not a single person spoke against the proposal.

That might change if this goes further — such as to the Board of Supervisors. Michael Risher, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said it was likely to oppose such a law. San Francisco, he said, has no legal authority to prosecute events that happen outside its borders. He adds that the city couldn't go after local exhibitors who show the work because that would be a violation of free speech rights.

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