An Art Show “For Dogs”?

Designer Dominic Wilcox, apparently having plenty of time, and no particular place to be, curated what he called “The World’s First Art Exhibition for Dogs” in London last week, to enthusiastic, if uncritical acclaim.

Ignoring the provocative title, the exhibition space had several play areas designed to entertain dogs. It looks like at least some dogs did have fun, though dogs are not that hard to entertain (that’s one of the great things about dogs).

I don’t have a lot of experience with dog parks (my cats are playful, but have no use at all for public play spaces). But it seems to me that Wilcox’s exhibits are at least as much about dog owners as dogs.

OK, the artists made some effort to use media that are species appropriate, the paintings used colors visible to dogs, the “wind” was filled with scents for the canine nose.

For example, one station was a big pen with chewable toys, for the patron dogs to jump in and bite. This makes sense to canines. But it was configured as a giant dog food dish, and the toys were rendered and giant kibbles. This is a funny joke for the people, but surely beyond the notice of the canines. So what was the point?

Similarly, there is a station with fans for dogs to stick their heads in front. This is configured with a (very abstract) representation of car windows,  so the dogs can “stick their head out the window of the car”.  There is also a painted landscape on rollers, to run past the car, “simulating” a car ride. Once again, this is a great joke for the humans, but probably pointless for the dogs.

Even the paintings for dogs–using colors they can see, set down at “dog’s eye height”, ets–were  as much a story about people making paintings for dogs, as about dogs. I mean, species appropriate colors or not, how did these patron dogs perceive the paintings? Do dogs ever look at paintings?

So, I think that calling this an “Art Exhibition for Dogs” is fundamentally misleading and, in my view, stupid.

I’ll grant you that “contemporary art” is a nebulous concept, so I’m not going to argue hard about whether these exhibits are “art” or not.   I will note that “contemporary art” is often highly conceptual, intended to provoke thought, and sometimes to propagandize. More than anything, contemporary “art” is something that artists talk about and something that gets people to talk about the artist. So you certainly can call this a “contemporary art exhibition” if you want.

What I have trouble swallowing is the assertion that this is “for dogs”, when it clearly isn’t. For that matter, most of the “art” is probably not even noticed, let alone meaningful to the canines. It’s rather patronizing to say your created art “for” dogs, when it is clearly intended to be “for” people.

This point can be seen clearly comparing two of the videos. The first one, captioned “The first contemporary art exhibition for dogs”. The video features—wait for it—the artist talking about the exhibit. It also features highly edited cute pictures of happy dogs, interacting with the exhibits. What was edited out becomes clear in a second video.

A second video, captioned “The World’s First Art Exhibition for Dogs” has additional footage that includes the dog owners. In this video, we see the dogs interacting with their people, and with other dogs, and only slightly attending to the exhibits. In some scenes, we see people showing the dog how to “do” the interactive exhibit, and the dog having fun pleasing its person.

Examining the publicity, we see that the “art works” are at least partly propaganda to advocate people to “play more” with their pets. Combined with the design of the exhibits, we can see that the main target audience was clearly dog owners, not dogs.

Of course, propaganda is a long standing form of contemporary art, as is advertising. So this is technically “art”, but really not “for” dogs, per se. (And BS is hardly out of bounds for “contemporary art”, is it?)

Fortunately, the dogs seem to like it anyway, and don’t really care about the nonsense the humans are talking. Indeed, if it got their people to take them out to play, clearly that was fun for Rover, so that’s good even if the “art” claims are bogus.

And if this silly stuff helps get more quality play time for people and dogs, then it is a good thing, regardless of pretentious claims.

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