"Why are you doing this?" / by Neal Auch

When I started this project my intention was to present the images without context or explanation.  This is more-or-less the norm for photography websites and, after all, I reasoned that the work should stand on its own and be left entirely for the viewer to parse.  What I learned rather quickly was that it's almost impossible to present this particular kind of work without simultaneously being called upon to explain it; the question "Why are you doing this?" came up so frequently that adding an elevator pitch explanation in my About page became necessary if for no other reason than to save me the time of repeating the same statements over and over.

For an artist, explaining your intentions in this way can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, I see no reason to obfuscate my own motivations in making this work and, moreover, I feel rather strongly that providing context to an art project can often deepen the work.  For example: consider Rose-Lynn Fisher's delightful work The Topography of Tears.  It's Fisher's explanation of the work -- left sidebar of that link -- that gives the project its sense of poetry; absent this and most viewers would think they're just looking at figures from a science textbook.  (Another example: just think of how much more enjoyable the modern art section of a museum becomes when you take the time to read the little placards.)  But the downside of including an explanation is that you risk alienating viewers who may not share your sentiments and/or would prefer to engage with the work on a purely aesthetic level.

In my case, my impression is that the majority of viewers who enjoy my work do so because they like the creepy horror-movie aesthetic, but they do not necessarily share my concerns about the ethics of eating animals.  And that's awesome!  I like horror movies and creepy stuff too, and this is absolutely a completely valid way to engage with this kind of art.  I have touched on this issue somewhat orthogonally elsewhere, but perhaps it bears repeating: I'm a visual artist first and foremost, and a vegan second.   My aim with this work is to present something that we interact with daily in a new and unfamiliar context and, perhaps, to inspire thought or conversation about contemporary animal farming practice.  Obviously I do not expect that any meat-lover who stumbles across my portfolio is going to trade in his bacon cheese burger for a PETA membership.

The concern of alienating the audience by contextualizing art is rather more salient in my case for one simple reason: the word "vegan" comes pre-loaded with certain political and rhetorical baggage, which is why I avoid using it in my About page.  There are certain folks out there who, as soon as this word comes up, assume that I am the kind of guy who would be joining these folks shrieking at patrons in a steak restaurant.  (For the record: while I'm sympathetic to their concerns, I find those particular "protesters" about as annoying as I imagine most meat eaters do.  I also think that their approach is counter productive in that it reveals nothing new; asking a meat-eater why they don't eat dog will just elicit the response "dogs are pets, not food", it doesn't strike at the core of the underlying carnism in any deep or thought-provoking way.)  

Fundamentally I think what's going on here is that any mention of ethical concerns over the factory farming of livestock primes a certain subset of viewers in such a way that they engage with the work as though it were activism, rather than art.  While this way of engaging is not what I had in mind when I took the photos, I suppose that it's somewhat unavoidable.  (On balance: this seems to be a minority of viewers, and it's likely that such folks are not the types who would enjoy my photography anyway, with our without the vegan context.)  Of course, at the end of the day I think that once an artist's work is out in the world viewers are entitled to interpret it as they see fit; the intentions of the artist may be of some interest but they do not override all other interpretations.