FAQ: On the Ethics of my Art / by Neal Auch

Most of us interact on a daily basis with animals products through our meals, in our clothes, and on our furniture.  Because the horrors of the factory farms that provide these products are separated from our daily grind, the underlying cruelty of the system becomes dulled and is often forgotten.  My work presents animal products that are intended as food in an unfamiliar context, allowing the ugliness of the meat industry to become manifest.  (I discuss this also in my About page.)

Probably the most common “objection” that comes up when I discuss my work with others (either in real life or online) is the apparent underlying ethical inconsistency of this project: in purchasing meat products to photograph I am financially supporting the very same industry that I claim to be criticizing. While this objection is fair on some level, I also think it’s facile.  I view the animals whose lives my work has claimed as collateral damage -- victims of a kind of metaphorical “friendly fire”.  While this way of thinking could certainly be viewed as a shallow rationalization of my unethical behaviour, I do think it’s a fair interpretation, especially given the utterly paltry amount of profit that the meat industry reaps from my art.  (I freeze and reuse the same organ meats over-and-over in my shoots, so my annual meat budget is almost certainly less than what most meat-eating households spend on animal products per week.)

But I think that there’s also a deeper issue at play here: I'm an artist, not a political activist.  My work is a visual art project, not a philosophical treatise on ethics and, as such,  I’m really not striving for ethical consistency.  Rather, my goal is to produce compelling images, and I believe that using real animal organs is integral to that goal.  On some level I frankly agree with critics who point out that my work isn’t ethical.  So what?  I’m also ethically opposed to sweatshops and child labour, but I have no illusions that every product in my home is free from such practices.  Again: so what?  The sad fact is that it’s almost impossible for anyone to move through this world without participating, either directly or indirectly, in some horrible ethical violation.  Rather than hide from this harsh reality I embrace it in my work.  Art is about the human condition and this kind of inconsistency and cognitive dissonance is, after all, a part of what is means to be human.

Finally, I want to comment on the word “vegan” as I sometimes use it with respect to this work, since much of the criticism I get online stems from my use of this term to describe myself.  The term "vegan" is sometimes colloquially used to specify a dietary preference, and other times it refers to an ethical system.  So some (self-identified) vegans will abstain from eating animal products for health reasons, but may nevertheless purchase leather clothes/furniture.  Other vegans may go to great lengths to avoid interacting in any way with animal products.  I suppose my usage of the word “vegan” to describe myself lies somewhere between these two extremes.  I have very little interest in fretting over labels of this type; it seems to me that the drive some people have to classify themselves is often at odds with the complexity and inconsistency that makes humanity so interesting in the first place.