Violence Is Not Art: An Open Letter to the Spencer Art Museum

Today I sent the following letter to my alma mater, the University of Kansas, in protest of an upcoming exhibit at the university’s Spencer Art Museum called “The Story of Chickens.”  This project will encourage townspeople to get to know and care about five chickens over a period of time, then the chickens will be slaughtered in public and served at a potluck.

To the Spencer Art Museum:

As a native Kansan and KU graduate, I am writing to urge you to cancel “The Story of Chickens” project. While helping the public get to know chickens as “beautiful and unique creatures” and learn to care for and about them is admirable, the inclusion in this project of public slaughter is definitely not.  Just as public spectacles of human execution used to be the norm, public animal slaughter also used to be common, hardly noticed or even made into a sport, but that kind of behavior is fast becoming obsolete.  Consider this evidence taken from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s recent book on the decline of violence, Better Angels of Our Nature: Fox hunting was outlawed in Britain in 2005, and the last U.S. state to permit cockfighting banned it in 2008.  As of 2010, bullfighting became illegal in the entire Spanish region of Catalonia, and the state-run Spanish television network has ended live coverage of bullfights because they are considered too violent for children.  The European Parliament has considered a continent-wide ban as well.  Regarding hunting, the proportion of Americans who report that either they or their spouse hunts has been steadily declining for decades.

Giving approval to public violence against animals, performing it in front of audiences which may include children, and especially elevating it to be considered “art” is to increase tolerance for violence, to make a wider segment of society accept and practice it.  There are good reasons why actions that are naturally repulsive are done behind closed doors.  To bring animal slaughter into our neighborhoods coarsens society and stifles discussion of the options humans have to reduce  animal slaughter rather than promote it.  The project description refers to the planned slaughter as “a phase of the [chicken’s] life cycle.”  While death is certainly part of a chicken’s natural life cycle, being killed by a human is not.

I have no problem with allowing shocking art forms as part of the free speech we all cherish, but the line must be drawn at exhibits which include actual harm, pain or killing of living beings as part of the exhibit.   That KU would be sponsoring such an exhibit casts a bloodstain on its otherwise fine reputation.  I urge you not to be a party to making public animal slaughter acceptable; cancel “The Story of Chickens.”

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