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No Art Ever Came From Such a Dulled Soul

A few weeks ago, Lime and I had argued about something — one of those dumb, petty, transient arguments that all couples have — and I went for a walk to cool off. As I walked along the street, I saw something awful happen.

There was a thin black cat on the sidewalk, coming towards me, and it was so skinny that it reminded me of that poem of Basho’s about the girl cat, so thin on love and barley. Except that this cat wasn’t beloved, wasn’t fed on barley. It was so thin on rats and garbage, poor thing. A city is not really any sort of place for a stray cat. Yet it was living, the little rough-coated thing, and that was something. I didn’t give this particular cat much though, but the cats on campus — homeless creatures that struggle through the lean summers and winters, and which Lime had taken to feeding boiled scraps of leftovers, since boiled as salty table scraps are bad for cats — are creatures that, despite being scavengers, have always summoned in me a kind of admiration: they are tough little things, supremely designed for survival, so that a scarcity of rats and birds has slowed them, but not wiped them out.

But off campus, things are wilder. The cat I saw dashed into the road, and unlike it, I could see disaster headed its way. The headlights lit up its coat for a moment, and the wheel slammed into it. It was a green light at the intersection nearby, and there was no sense in dashing out to pull it from the roadway, but I could not walk away. The little thing struggled, shuddering, trying to move, but too many bones were broken. Another car slammed into it, breaking its neck but not smashing its head, and it lived on a few more moments, as the few more passing cars crushed its tail, its legs. One paw in the air, fighting for a movement that would never come again.

Then the traffic lights changed, and the cat lay there for a few moments, almost completely still, but probably not quite dead, and I found I was not the only person standing there. Half a dozen other people had stopped, were staring, uncertain what to do. Finally, one woman hurried to the cat, picked it up, and set it down on the sidewalk, and after a few moments, it seemed everyone agreed that there was no more anyone could do for it, that it would probably be dead in moments. It seemed too much a cruelty to extinguish that life, when it would be gone so soon.

Probably, like me, the others were in a shock. We do not see death often. To call this a “powerful experience,” though, would be to demean it. It was life. Cats get run over. It happens. But we saw those moments of suffering, and of the indignity of being crushed after the fatal wound, and felt for the poor beast. This is what it means to have the human spirit within one, to be truly human: we are just as ever mammals, and we scent in any death the reminder of our own inevitable fate. We sympathize, empathize — we bodily feel revulsion at suffering, and are moved. We feel pity for the thing that cannot survive, and are moved at least to witness; the finer souls among us are moved to gentleness, but even such as me are moved to witness, to see the beast and be present with it, somehow. It is a drive bound within us.

I was not the only person on that street, that evening, who was shaken.

I felt sorrow for the beast. I came home and talked to Lime, shrugged off whatever the argument had been about. I saw that her life, like mine, was finite, and I was haunted by it, that night, in a way familiar — I was haunted, more deeply, by my father’s passing. But I was haunted by that little black cat, too, at the moment. Any beast’s passing is, for the beast itself, a tragedy. It is the conundrum we all face, our universal, mutually hidden chagrin.

I was not the only person on that street, that evening, who who blinked, in shock, thinking, no, those are not tears, they can’t be, whose throat went a little tight suddenly, whose heart went out to the beast who could not be helped. It’s not about animal rights, or anything as consciously political or abstract as that. It’s simple human compassion.

Which is what makes me find this clown, a self-described artist in Costa Rica by the name of Guillermo Habacuc Vargas, such an offensive clod, such a worthless waste of human energy. As described here:

A Costa Rican artist found himself in hot water with the animal protection people in his home country after using a starving, sick street dog as part of an exposition in Managua, Nicaragua, in August. Guillermo “Habacuc” Vargas allegedly found the dog tied up on a street corner in a poor Nicaragua barrio and brought it to the showing. He tied the dog, according to furious animal lovers, in a corner of the salon where it died.

Don’t get me wrong, the people who are threatening his life as pretty horrifying too, but they’re also, I think, mostly verbalizing. They’re not uttering threats, I imagine, so much as expressing revulsion — just as the mother who says, “I’m gonna kill you!” to her misbehaving kids usually doesn’t have murder in her heart.

The guy’s defense, though, as described here, seems to be riddled with all kinds of claims about how bad things are for street dogs, how the dog was sick anyway and would have died… but all I can say is, starving to death is painful, and maybe the dog wouldn’t have died that way. Maybe someone would even have mercifully put it down if it got really sick?

But there was certainly something nasty in this Vargas fellow’s heart. He actually blogged about it, here, and there’s a Youtube video. (Which I’m going to paste in below, so LJ readers, click the link to see it, as it’ll cut off the end of this post.) This was not art, and I’m sorry if I’m being arrogant or a fuddy-duddy… no, wait, I’m not sorry, actually. Screw it. Art is not for deadening our souls, for cultivating cruelty. Art is for the anointment, the refinement, the deepening of our ongoing struggle to become more civilized and more human than we are. Art is our bridge to the heavens, the doorway that opens our hearts and minds to the ability to really love the world and rejoice in all around us, and ourselves. It is not killing animals in painful ways. That’s nothing more than an early warning sign of sociopathy. Vargas should be made to realize that, should be shamed into dropping his prevarications, should already have been shunned utterly from the art world.

There’s a petition too. With almost two million signatures. Why not go sign? You don’t need to be an animal rights activist, or a raging extremist, to see that this wasn’t art. And that it shouldn’t be defended as such, or given a space in anything like a major art exhibition again. (Because the petition is to keep the guy from doing the same thing again at la Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008.)

Yes, there are humans starving to death too. That’s not okay. But we can’t fix that by signing one petiton. However, maybe another dog won’t have to starve in an art hall, from your few moments’ of time for signing the petition? Before you click away somewhere else for free entertainment, think of that dog he wants to catch, to bind to one small space in a gallery, and let starve. To death. For so-called art’s sake.

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