Today I’m conflicted.

His sculptures are adorable. That’s the word. Hardly the adjective that’s usually used in describing works of a serious and world-renowned artist. But that’s the first adjective that pops to mind when I think of Tom Otterness’s humongous whimsical animals, noodled-arm and -leg people, and fairy-tale and fabulous characters. Often boasting roundy heads, oversized tummies, and pudgy hands, fingers and toes, they look huggable in spite of the fact they are cast in bronze. They’re amusing, no interpretation needed. His works have graced New York City’s Broadway, the dunes around the sculpture museum Beelden aan Zee in The Netherlands, downtown Seoul, Korea, and myriad public spaces from parks and libraries to courthouses and subway stations all across North America.

But here’s the clincher I’m sad to say, in 1977 Otterness killed a puppy. And not just any dog but one he had specifically adopted from an animal shelter, brought home, tied up, and shot with a gun. He filmed the act and called it art and displayed it on a video loop in a gallery. I’m told that as ‘art’ his motivation at the time had been deeper than the torture of an animal, that he was trying to make a statement, that in the kill shelter the dog was going to be put down, that the point he was making was something about the subjectiveness of an animal’s death—the misguided notion that one form of killing was less heinous than the other, when the result was the same. And as art is meant to do, his film got everyone talking, catapulting him to fame. Last year, thirty-four years later, everyone was talking again. This time in the streets of San Francisco.

The city Arts Commission had selected the artist to install fifty-nine sculptures in one of their prospective subway stations. His ‘puppy snuff flick’ was remembered. The outcry came swiftly, along with a petition bearing names of politicians as well as animal activists. When questioned last fall about killing a dog for art’s sake, Tom Otterness responded this way:

“What the fuck do I do with this?” He grew visibly upset. “Certainly the scene it was part of–it was in the context of the times and the scene I was in.” He began again. “It is something–I’ve grown to understand that nothing really excuses that kind of action. I had a very convoluted logic as to what effect I meant to have with that video. Whatever I had in mind, it was really inexcusable to take a life in service of that.”[1]

The sculptor has apologized over and over for his three decades-old single act. And as we’ve seen over and over, in this nation, redemption can be hard to come by. People have refused his string of sorry-sorry’s, and so his past deed has become all a bit costly. It cost him the $750,000 SF project; it also cost him another commission earlier last year, two lions for NY Public Library’s Battery Park branch.

But then again it cost that small black and white dog his life.

[1] Michael H. Miller, The Observer, October 4, 2011.

(Image Mouse reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

One response to “Today I’m conflicted.

  • Alex Chernavsky

    I live in Rochester, NY, where Tom Otterness has also been the focus of some controversy. The Memorial Art Gallery here in town commissioned him to create a large outdoor sculpture. Lots of animal lovers are upset about it. I have a different perspective.

    I do animal rescue both as a job and as a calling. I live with more rescued animals than I care to mention here. And I traveled to New Orleans to help save animals in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Nobody loves animals more than I do. And I’m here to say that I have no interest in Tom Otterness and the controversy that surrounds him. This is a non-issue to me. It’s true that he committed a horrible act, but it happened once, 34 years ago, and he has apparently expressed remorse over it.

    Animals today face so many real, ongoing problems that it’s a shame for us to get distracted by single incidents from the distant past. Here are some examples of current problems. We have a huge problem with pet overpopulation, particularly with cats. Breeders and pet stores still sell the products of puppy mills. Low-life thugs engage in dog-fighting and cock-fighting. Some cities are passing breed-specific legislation to ban “bad” dog breeds.

    Then there’s animal agriculture: Around 9 billion animals are slaughtered each year in the US. These animals, while they are being raised, are generally treated horribly, and they also release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute more to global warming than does the transportation industry. And the waste causes environmental devastation on a more-local level.

    These are all big problems that deserve our attention. Tom Otterness is inconsequential to me, and we should save our moral outrage for other, more important issues. I’m not in favor of (or opposed to) forgiving him. Forgiveness isn’t ours to give. His sins should be a matter for his conscience and his deity.

    The single best way to help animals is to go vegan. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for your health, and it’s good for the animals.

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