Xanthippa drew my attention this morning to an exhibition that took place in Managua, Nicaragua, in October last year. The artist, Guillermo Vargas Harbacuc, exhibited one of the city’s starving dogs, tied up. The event was not reported at the time, and nobody now seems sure what happened, but it has caused world-wide-web outrage with on-line petitions and blogs devoted to the horror.

Is it art to exhibit a starving dog, possibly even (if the rumours are true, which seems unlikely) to allow the dog to starve to death in public?

I wondered what the web-world would have thought if the artist had only exhibited a portrait of a starving dog painted from real life. I imagine the degree of offence would have been much reduced, despite the fact that the dog still had to exist in its starving state in order to be painted, and despite the fact that it had been left to starve afterwards, and despite the fact that the dog’s “starvingness” would have been “used” in exactly the same way as with the real exhibit.

There’s a review in the Guardian’s G2 today of an exhibition by a near-nonagenarian Carinthian artist, Maria Lassnig. This is how the reviewer describes part of her exhibition:

Du oder ich

“I told Lassnig I found a strange, exhilarating mix of tenderness and violence in her art. Careful with her words, she said: “I am interested in painting the finer feelings,” which took me aback. But then she asked, “Have you seen in there?”, pointing through a doorway. In there are several paintings of a fat, naked, middle-aged man. In one he’s kneeling over what appears to be an inflatable toy. No, Lassnig tells me, not a toy, a girl, and the painting is about child molestation. The girl is pink, formless somehow, and she has no mouth – no voice, in other words; one dumb little button eye looks skyward while the man peers down at her. In another painting, the fat guy supports the horizontal body of an adolescent waif on the palms of his hands. They are the hands of a butcher, toying with a slab of steak. The girl’s high-heeled shoes are drawn with a light, dainty touch. The expression on his face is neutral, as though he were far away. Hers is, too. Presumably he’s locked in his fantasy world, she in wishing it were over, wishing she were dead.”

Now, I don’t hear the reviewer questioning whether this is art. Nor am I, for one moment, suggesting that it would be art to have real people engaged in the horrible acts she describes. But why is it art for someone to represent what we all know happens in reality, when that art is less shocking than reality itself …

In the same G2 edition was this short piece:

“My donkey, Little Vijay, is a light brown gelding with large brown eyes and a white muzzle. He was adopted for me a year ago and I’m told that he’s very gentle and likes carrots.

What’s not to love about donkeys? I’m obviously not alone. New Philanthropy Capital, a philanthrophy watchdog, has pointed out that the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, where Little Vijay lives with 400 other donkeys, received £20m in 2006 – more than donations given to prominent charities supporting women who have been victims of violence. Refuge, the Women’s Aid Foundation and Eaves Housing for Women have a combined annual income of £17m.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – the British public’s love of animal charities is nothing new. According to the Charities Aid Foundation figures, the NSPCC receives just £2m more in donations than the RSPCA. The Dogs Trust receives around £34m in donations every year and Cats Protection around £27m. But how did donkeys get to be such good fundraisers?

The Devon sanctuary, which provides homes for 2,000 rescued donkeys and funds projects abroad, has become a tourist attraction in its own right, pulling in more than 160,000 visitors a year. This means the charity can get by on a small advertising budget.

Its spokeswoman, Dawn Vincent, puts its success down to the personal touch. “You can visit the sanctuary and you can see exactly where your money is being spent,” she says. “Once people become supporters, we keep them up to date. We acknowledge every donation, no matter how small, with a thank-you letter.” Around 70% of the charity’s donations come in wills and donors’ names are inscribed on plaques dotted around the sanctuary.

Does it trouble her that people give more money to donkeys than to charities that support women who have experienced violence? “We would never tell people to give money to us instead of other causes. It’s individual choice. Our aim is to ensure the welfare of donkeys.”

So how is Little Vijay? “He’s very well,” says Vincent. “His coat has been clipped so he won’t get too hot in the sun. He’s all ready for summer.””

Which makes me wonder whether Guillermo Vargas’s statement wasn’t an important statement after all. We are more concerned about ill-treated donkeys than we are to prevent violence to women.

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