For Art’s Sake: The Ethics of the Tattooed Pig

Is it OK to tattoo a pig?

Posted Mar 01, 2012

I recently visited a modern art gallery with a few friends. One of the exhibitions was a series of pig skins tattooed with various patterns. There's nothing terribly exciting about that. Somewhat later, a separate exhibition was a film of a pig farm in China. It depicted live pigs living on the farm; the only notable thing about the pigs was that they all had tattoos on their bodies. Put the two exhibitions together and you get an exhibition in which pigs are bred with the purpose of tattooing them while alive, and then later they are slaughtered in order to create the tattooed pelts we see on the walls. It is one of Wim Delvoye's exhibitions.

My friends found this exhibition quite confronting. The idea that animals were bred and slaughtered for aesthetic ends was, they felt, immoral. I was intrigued by this reaction. I'm a vegetarian, so the idea of breeding and slaughtering animals is, to my mind, immoral regardless. But my compatriots were all meat eaters who disagree on that score. What's the difference, I asked, between breeding pigs for art, and breeding them for eating? They're dead at the end either way.

Set aside whether or not tattooing pigs is painful to the pig. Cruelty is cruelty whether in the service of meat or art. But let's suppose there's no cruelty in either case (not a supposition I take to be true). Since this was not the problem my friends had with the exhibition, let's suppose that tattooing pigs, is perfectly pain free.

What did my friends find so objectionable? One possibility is that humans are omnivores, and so eating meat is, in that sense, perfectly natural. Tattooing pigs for art is not. But that's not a very persuasive argument. No humans need to eat pigs. We could easily get by without eating meat. So it's not that farming pigs for meat is necessary while farming them for art is not.

Moreover, my friends do not object to turning pigs into art after they are dead, if they were bred for food, or if they died of old age, or as the result of an accident. Their objection lies in breeding them for art. That's an interesting perspective to have, since presumably my friends are not of the view that meat (or food more generally) is more valuable than art. At least going by market prices, many pieces of art are worth any number of pigs, dead or alive. So it isn't that the end product of meat is more valuable than the end product of art. Nor can it be that viewing living pigs as art-in-potentia is somehow worse than viewing them as dinner-in-potentia. If art is valuable, perhaps more valuable than meat (at least under certain conditions) then being viewed as "going to be" art doesn't seem to be any more objectionable than being viewed as "going to be" meat.

My friends asked me to consider how I would feel if very powerful aliens came to earth and started farming humans. Suppose, they asked, that you have a choice of being farmed and then turned into meat, versus being farmed and then turned into art. Wouldn't you prefer the former to the latter? Wouldn't you think that it was far worse of the aliens to farm you for art than for meat? I confess I just didn't share either of these intuitions either. As to whether I personally would prefer to be farmed for art or meat, I think I might all things considered prefer the former. At least that way I get to have ongoing aesthetic benefit. It's a way of not being forgotten even in death. Whereas if someone eats me, at best they will remember how tasty I was for the next couple of days. It is also difficult to see why I should think the aliens more morally egregious for farming me for art than for meat given that they are free to choose to abstain from farming me for either.

Perhaps an intuition behind my friends' reaction is that it is somehow part of the telos of the pig that it be farmed as food, or at least, that it be eaten, so it is natural and right that it is, whereas it is not part of its telos that it be farmed for art, so it is not right. Quite apart from what seems a somewhat dubious claim, that a pig's telos is to be eaten, this would not explain my friends' view that it would be worse for aliens to farm humans for art than for meat: unless they think that because humans were once eaten on the savannah plains many hundreds of thousands of years ago our telos is closer to one of being eaten than one of being turned into art. That seems a stretch.

All this raises some interesting issues. An obvious hypothesis about what is going on between my friends and I is that each of us has a very different disgust reaction to the two scenarios. My friends find farming animals for art provokes a strong disgust reaction, while farming them for meat does not. I find farming them on either count equally disgust provoking. But perhaps there is little more to say than that, since perhaps the disgust response is not a good indicator at all of what is right or wrong. These are issues that I will consider in the next post.

Nevertheless, my friends' reactions should prompt us to think about the various ways that art is, and can be, controversial and the ways in which it challenges us. Some art is controversial because it is unclear whether it is good art, or indeed, whether it is art at all. For some, Marcel Duchamp's famous Fountain no doubt fell into that category when he first showed it. Other art is controversial because it challenges preconceptions: political, ethical or aesthetic. Patricia Piccinini, one of my favourite artists, pushes us to consider a variety of issues in ethics. It is much rarer that art is considered morally objectionable or controversial in itself.

The most obvious candidates for art falling into this category are uses of religious imagery that are considered offensive. Cosimo Cavallaro famously pulled his chocolate sculptures of Jesus from an exhibition because of complaints from religious people. An artist's work merely being offensive is not, of course, the same as its being in any sense immoral or unethical. One might argue that art that can be expected to deeply offend a sufficient number of people if it is shown, will have sufficiently overall negative consequence that we have moral reasons to refrain from showing such art. But even if that were true, it would not suggest that the creation of the art itself unethical. Only if, in the case of religious depiction, there really were a God, and that God would be affronted by such representations, might one have a case to say that the production of the art work is, in itself unethical and that the consequent art work is immoral.

What is interesting about the tattooed pigs? At the very least, this is artwork that is a candidate to be unethical in itself. Of course it is very easy to think of hypothetical cases like this. Rocketing gerbils out of a canon at a canvass to create art would fall into this category. But it would do so because, at least in part, this involves cruelty to gerbils. The tattooed pig  is interesting because my friends think it objectionable whether or not the pig is harmed in the process. They think it objectionable to use the pig for art. So at the very least the tattooed pigs should prompt us to reflect. They should prompt us to consider the ways in which art can be controversial, and to ask ourselves whether there is a kind of art whose production is itself unethical not in virtue of causing pain or other such disbenefits, but in virtue of viewing something as art rather than as some other kind of thing. This is a fascinating question that deserves further thought. While we are reflecting, those who find themselves with the intuition that breeding pigs for art is worse than breeding them for meat ought to ask themselves why they think this. Is there any ethically important difference here, and if not, perhaps this is good reason to revisit the issue of whether pigs ought to be bred to be eaten.