IN 2014, news stations all over the world followed the plight of the pig that risked jumping out of her truck bound for the slaughterhouse. She was rewarded for her desire for life by being adopted by the Guangxi police station in the usual place of the station’s police dog. This is a reoccurring story all over the world. In 2013, a cow jumped over a six-foot high fence to escape his slaughter pen, he ran down Jefferson Avenue, the media named him Jefferson, and Jefferson lived happily ever after at Sasha Farm Animal Sanctuary.
The story of the heroic farm animal is just as much disturbing as it is heartwarming. Why is it that humans feel only selective empathy? Why protest for the life of Jefferson when Daisy is already on your dinner plate? Well for one it makes for a bloody good story, and two, Jefferson showed us he actually wanted to live. He proved it.
Prove it is a series exploring the phenomenon of the ‘hero’ farm animal and the psychology of selective empathy. Currently a work in progress, Prove it will be a mass installation of prints and paintings of pigs with the words ‘prove it’ written across the series.
But just how effective is protest art? When people come to the opening are they going to come out as vegan? No. Are they going to connect with the issue? If we’re lucky. Are they going to take the content as a personal attack and put me on their ‘to kill’ list along with Jefferson the cow? Probably about 50-50.
When done well, protest art can be absolutely fabulous. It can strengthen the morale of the converted, and provide an unthreatening entry point into the issue for the skeptics. However, protest art’s classification as ‘art’ can be both beneficial and destructive. Although it can attract a wider audience for the issue, the ‘art’ label can also reduce the seriousness of the argument. It can also become emotional. Oh the horror.
To avoid this issue, many artists incorporate ‘science’ into their work. They use statistics, research, field studies, you name it! I’ve seen artists go to incredible lengths to get their facts straight, and yet ‘science’ in art is often just as easily dismissed by a critical public as emotion is. So where does this leave protest artists? In a very tricky, often impoverished position. Not dissimilar to most artists really.
So how do protest artists survive? Well, I’ve developed a few recommendations for how to avoid getting your head bitten off, or really how to not care too much about having a bitten off head.
1: You must have an unshakable conviction that what you are standing up for is right. Self-doubt is a constant companion for many visual artists, so you don’t need any more floating around your head when you’re setting up for that big solo show to save the dolphins.
2. Be proud of what you are doing, no matter what others say: be ballsy. Haters are going to hate. Lazy, ‘I don’t give a fuck’ people are going to try and put down less lazy, ‘I do give a fuck’ people. It makes them feel better about their miserable existences. The dolphins need you; don’t let them down just because of snarky comments.
3. Remember that not everyone is going to agree. I’ve found this one out the hard way. No matter how passionate you are about the issue, no matter how good your art addresses the problem, you have to accept that some people are not ready to listen. This is ok, think about how you might be able to convince them next time, and focus on the more open-minded in your audience.
4. Have lots of like-minded friends at your opening. Preaching to the converted might not seem like the most useful way of changing the world, but neither is walking into the lion’s den alone. If you’ve got the crew of the Sea Shepherd behind you those lions are going to think a bit harder before they pay out your dolphin paintings.
Be brave, be emotional, be scientific. Be a protest artist! And wish me luck in the lion’s den at the opening of Prove it, I’ll let you know if they like the hummus and celery.