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Rising tide

A woman lays blind folded while blood is poured into her mouth overflowing onto her chin

David Walsh

Posted on Wednesday 19 April 2017

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You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
If we're not supposed to eat animals ... how come they're made out of meat?
It's harder to get a steak 'round here than it is to get Christ off the cross.
—My father, apropos of nothing.

Here's a hypothetical in the style of Geoffrey Robertson:

Imagine I, David Walsh, go down into the gallery, kill someone at random, and call it art. A lovely ironic way to do this would be to put the suicide machine on display, but make it work. My defence would be: it's a work of art—a lesson in the complex consequences of immorality.

What would happen to the Tasmanian economy? My guess is Mona would go from being well known globally to being a household word. Disaster tourism would drive Mona to the top of the charts, and Tasmania's economy would go along for the ride. I'd see the spectacular increase in dark tourism from my prison cell, of course. And, as they dragged me away, you would probably hear me shouting something about the greater good. Mona might end up being supported by the same sort of people that go on the huge number of competing Jack the Ripper tours—given Mona's much vaunted sex and death theme (I wish I never said that) the prurient interest would be vast.1

Prior to Mona opening the biggest tourism destination in Tassie was Port Arthur—an elegantly ruined convict settlement, but also the site of a massacre. I was invited to talk to people involved with Port Arthur about potential commonalities between Port Arthur and the forth-coming Mona. I guess they were thinking about cross promotion. I started with, ‘I've been racking my brain trying to think of things that Port Arthur and Mona have in common. All I can think of is that we are both interested in death—but we are opposed to it, and you seem to be in favour of it’. I had momentarily forgotten about the massacre, so I awaited a polite chuckle. It never came.

But if the extreme form of consequentialism had merit (if ends really justified means), Martin Bryant, the perpetrator of that heinous deed at Port Arthur, would be labelled a hero. The Port Arthur Massacre changed the political climate regarding gun control, and it enabled John Howard to spend half-a-billion dollars buying back some types of guns. The result: there have been no mass shootings since Port Arthur, the decrease in the homicide rate has accelerated but, most particularly, gun-related suicide rates have plummeted with no commensurate increase in suicides by other means. The Port Arthur Massacre has saved hundreds of lives.

So why do we know that my little scheme is reprehensible, and the Port Arthur Massacre despicable? There's a clever thought experiment in psychology: the trolley problem. Wikipedia describes it thus:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

When faced with this dilemma, most people pull the lever. They kill one to save five. So the ends justify the means? Not so fast. When the experiment is slightly altered, so that one has to push a fat man onto the tracks to stop the trolley, very few will do it. If it isn't clear to you why, consider this: here's a healthy guy, but his organs will help save five people who are dying. Do you sacrifice him? It is, apparently, only moral to kill one to save five when the action is an indirect consequence of the intervention. This is a key component of how Hitler got Auschwitz done in the first place. This 'banal evil' was a side effect for almost all concerned. Only those who released the gas were directly acting and, of course, that action was just a side effect of them doing their jobs.

Recently, there has been a rising tide of opposition to a Hermann Nitsch project planned for Dark Mofo. He uses a bull marked for slaughter to ritualistically cover a bunch of people in blood. Here's a video of one such performance. I expect the tide to keep rising.

These performances are pretty gory, and superficially (perhaps at every level) pointless. These performances have their genesis in the sixties—Nitsch is Austrian and, unlike Germany, Austria had assumed no culpability in its part of the Axis atrocities of WWII. There are also not-so-subtle references to the psychological posturing and sacramental rituals of The Church. The Catholics have this great play wherein they turn wine and bread into the blood and body of Jesus (this, they insist, isn't ritualistic). They then eat it under the watchful gaze of their crucified messiah—and that crucifixion is another ritual that is periodically re-enacted. In the history of the Abrahamic religions, Abraham himself is willing to sacrifice his son. Nitsch's bull (like Jesus) gets no such reprieve—even if the protestors have their way, it will end up in burgers or cat food (maybe the protestors, if successful in their endeavour, should pay for this beast to spend the term of its natural life indulging its vegan habits—would they be happy if we agreed to spare two animals in return for this bull being Nitsched? Such is the sanctimonious calculus of moral equivalence).

Yvette Watt, Tasmanian local and, I later found out, a 'noted vegan crusader', expressed her opinion on Facebook that it was not good art. For my purposes, it is good art. I believe that it has already spiked a conversation (thank you, Yvette) about the appropriateness of slaughter and Dark Mofo hasn't even happened yet. That isn't what the artist intends, but Mona has a history of repurposing art to serve its own psychological or political purpose. And anyway, Yvette Watt would oppose it even if she thought it was good art. She is opposed to the ritualistic killing of animals per se—on another occasion she said, ‘On an ethical basis, I don’t think any animal should have to die or suffer in the name of art’. That's a more than reasonable position, and there is not a trace of hypocrisy about her. She opposes the slaughter of animals both directly (as an art performance), and as a side effect (for the generation of meat).

If you don't think the side-effect argument has merit consider this. We have a work at Mona by Jannis Kounellis (see this blog post). When whim pervades, we hang chunks of meat from hooks. Nobody cares. The only reason I can think of as to why that is okay, but Nitsch's meat isn't, is that Kounellis’ meat is killed for food and repurposed (side-effect), whereas Nitsch's is killed for performance and later eaten (the side-effect is the only 'legitimate' purpose). I hate that Nitsch insists on eating the meat. I want clarity of intent—I want the audience to ponder why meat for food is okay (at least people aren't protesting at Mona's barbecue) but meat for ritual or entertainment isn't.

Under the legal regimes of all the countries in the world, it is legal to eat meat. Once Nitsch has made the choice to eat meat, a choice he apparently has the right to make, he has already decided (perhaps inadvertently) that killing is moral, so for him, depriving the life of one more beast has no bearing on his morality. Unless you think you have the right to impose your choices on others beyond the law (think bombing abortion centres) you probably, de facto, agree with him. But bombing abortion centres is a direct action, like killing the fat man, so most people find it an appalling strategy. You might argue that eating meat is part of our biological basis, so it can't be immoral. Well, half a billion people don't eat meat, so it isn't necessary to eat meat. And, as I've argued in On the Origin of Art, art is also a biological necessity. In my opinion, people consume meat because they like it, and they consume art because they like it. When art (even accidentally) makes explicit what eating meat entails (slaughter, pain, blood, guts) they don't like it. Of course, that's an ends-justifies-means argument, a fat-man-on-the-track argument, so it doesn't buy any social currency.

All that verbiage and I still don't know whether Nitsch's performance is justified. I can argue that it does good by creating awareness of moral hypocrisy (highlighting the slaughter of millions of beasts a year for unneeded food) but it is hard to find a way that avoids it being categorised as a direct action, and humans generally think doing good by doing bad is wrong. But our biology is generated by evolution, and the survival-of-the-fittest mechanism doesn't maximise morality. When people are faced with the trolley problem they will routinely sacrifice one to save five. Unless that one is kin, or a sexual partner.2 That moral spasticity is a lot less concerning to me than this one: I learned as a Catholic boy about 'sins of omission'—for example, recounting a story but leaving out the important, self-incriminating bit. Murder is a sin of commission, but not saving someone when you can is a sin of omission. Some early Catholic theologians contended that these two categories of 'sin' held equivalent culpability. My Catholicism has long since collapsed but I see merit in the argument.

In The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer argues that working in rapacious Wall Street jobs (rather than being, say, a doctor in the third world) is eminently moral, because it maximises capacity to spend resources helping others.

Constructing and operating Mona has, so far, cost me around $300,000,000. The economic benefit to Hobart has been enormous, and although I didn't intend it I am often lauded for my contribution. Singer, and others, point out that mosquito nets cost around $10 (by the time they are transported to a place where they are useful) and about one time in 500 they save a life by preventing a fatal bout of malaria. So, the calculus is simple—saving a life costs about 500*10 or $5,000. Had I spent my money that efficiently, instead of building Mona, I could have saved 60,000 lives. Of course, doing that might have left Hobart in the economic doldrums. A man on the street the other day described me as a 'saint'. Little he knew. Somewhere, on that same street, another man might have been shipping all of his excess resources off to anonymously save lives (and those resources might come from honourable employment—not Wall Street nor the Japan tote). His sanctity is undeniable, but invisible.

Let's talk about you, now. I don't know you, but you may have made some great lifestyle choices. The chances are, if you're reading this blog, you are self-aware, have a social conscience, and consider yourself a bit of a lefty. But you also earn far more, and consume far more, than your average fellow human. The average global income is about $20,000 (massively skewed by rich fuckers like me—about a billion people subsist on less than a dollar a day). You probably drive a modest car (a hybrid). If you caught buses instead you could save around six lives with the money you spent on that wholesome transport. But, let's face it, you would have to get up half an hour earlier. 'What can you do? Only so much' (remember that Christian Television Association ad?).

So here's my advice to you. If Nitsch's performance is wrong (and I've been unable to find anything but moral equivalence arguments to suggest that it might be ok), get out there and stop it. It won't be a disaster for Tassie, since it'll just generate a few headlines and a bunch of Facebook discussion. But stopping Nitsch won't stop me doing the sort of self-serving, status-enhancing, biologically-bound good that I do through Mona. You should be protesting that, too. And you also should have a crack at getting your own 'house in order' (as the Bible says). You should, of course, stop eating meat, and rapacious crops, and you should stop doing anything that has cost (economic, social or environmental). And you should take all the cash you squander and spend it buying mosquito nets, or some other efficient life-saving interventions. For, as the Bible also says, 'why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?'

Your life is no longer yours. Having being released from the ties of religion, and the indentured servitude of social expectation, you are now bound by the strictures of ethical philanthropy. And also by the ineluctable need to undermine a performance that changes very little beyond expediting the unjust demise of a beast, and luring you into reading this sentence, and those before it.

P.S. Among her Facebook posts Yvette Watt made this offer:

I have a proposal for you and [Mona curator] Jarrod [Rawlins]. (I will email Jarrod.) As an artist whose own work does tackle the issue of animal death at human hands for meat I would like to meet the bull that will be slaughtered, and would like Hermann Nitsch to come with me. I would like to film this meeting. I would like to be able to at the very least recognise this animal and his individuality prior to his death, and ask that Hermann does the same. He is on record as saying he is an animal protector and from his point of view 'factory farming is the biggest crime in our society'. I would still vastly prefer that the bull is not killed for the event. But rather than simply insulting Hermann I'd like to engage with him.

I acceded to her request. It seemed honourable, and it would, at the very least, improve the quality of debate. However, Jarrod wasn't contacted, and the Facebook exchange was removed. It seems Yvette has changed her mind, as is her right, of course. But having set us on the path to enable her request, one wonders why this crusader for justice didn't contact us to inform us of her revised strategy? She thinks the bull is worth engaging as an individual. Is Hermann? Am I? So now I have a proposition. If you succeed in having the event cancelled, will you meet the bull with me anyway, and film its demise? Or, at least, acknowledge that its death was foreordained, not because of me, nor Hermann Nitsch, and not because of an iniquitous system, but because of the sanitisation of that system? I'm planning to aid and abet the murder of this animal. Is it possible that those who oppose this performance are aiding and abetting the iniquitous system, by concealing one more slaughter? Throughout this blog, and my adult life, I've not been able to find an answer to these questions, as this blog acknowledges. I expect more than the usual number of responses to this tirade. I do hope I learn something.

P.P.S. It won't save taxpayers any money if Nitsch's performance is cancelled (unless the whole of Dark Mofo is scrapped). I kick in about $750,000, so it'll just give me a better bottom line. I could donate the returned funds to an ethical charity, but that eliminates all moral ambiguity. If I was sufficiently bloody-minded, I would suggest that I make that donation only if the event goes ahead. But I'm not that much of a 'physiopath' (as one commenter just called me).

1 An earlier version used Auschwitz as an example of disaster tourism. That unsurprisingly upset people, and I'm sorry. It was a thoughtless error, both because it gave needless offence, and it is clearly not an example of disaster tourism. In an earlier version I had this reference to Jack the Ripper, and I thoughtlessly changed it to give it more punch. The punch was to my glass jaw. Again, apologies.


Read Dark Mofo's latest release on 150.Action