One of the things that makes art such a powerful tool for activism is that it can create a space where issues of injustice can be articulated, and solutions for social change can be imagined. A recent installation at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History by California-based artist Rocky Lewycky, a professor at De Anza College, is a poignant reminder of the importance of the arts in this capacity. Lewycky’s installation, provocatively titled Is It Necessary?, challenges viewers not only to reflect on the violence of factory farming, but also to directly participate in the effort to create a better world for animals.
Is It Necessary? is comprised of hundreds of ceramic sculpted animals – pigs, cows, turkeys, fish. The animals are grouped according to species and meticulously lined up in neat, tidy rows which serve as an important visual reminder of the many ways in which humans have insisted on classifying and categorizing other animals as a way of attempting to control and dominate every aspect of their lives. However, this sense of order is abruptly disrupted each day during the installation when Lewycky enters the gallery, selects one ceramic animal, and proceeds to smash it.
The sculpted pieces are white on the exterior and blood red on the interior, so the smashed, jagged shards of the broken animal bodies sharply contrast with the bodies of the animals who have not yet met the same fate. This juxtaposition of color and form introduces a disquieting presence in to the installation – the ever-present threat of violence is made visible.
The relationship between image and text in this installation is significant. For example, the ceramic animals in this installation are arranged on a series of pallets on the gallery floor, and each of the pallets has a single word stenciled along its front. When assembled for the installation, the pallets spell out “Genocide: Is It Necessary?” This provocative question is further emphasized by the inclusion of quotations on the gallery walls, famous words spoken by famous people that challenge dominant assumptions about animals. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s well-known declaration, “My body will not be a tomb for other creatures,” and Moby’s often-quoted question, “Could you look an animal in the eyes and say to it, ‘my appetite is more important than your suffering?,’” appear behind the installation.
There was an important participatory component to this installation, as viewers were invited to “save” the animals by making a donation to the Humane Farming Association. For every donation of $50 or more made during the installation of Is It Necessary?, one ceramic animal was spared – in this piece, the “liberation” of the sculpted animals is linked directly to advocacy efforts to improve the lives of real life animals.
Far too often, art is viewed as elitist or separate from “real world” issues. Lewycky challenged this assumption with this installation – he gave viewers an opportunity to become directly involved in advocacy efforts, and collectively this installation raised about $1,500.
As Lewycky notes, “Within the last three years, transitioning from eating meat to not eating meat has been one of the most essential shifts of my life. Since my artwork is rooted in social activism, making a show that addresses issues of animal welfare was a natural, as well as critical progression.”
Of this installation, Lewycky stated that his main goal was “to draw a convergent connection between the packaged meat they buy and the path the animal took to get inside that burger bun, hotdog, turkey sandwich, or fish filet.” He sees the arts as an important way to help change the world for animals. As he notes, “although my art piece was an immense endeavor, it really doesn’t take much to turn the switch on to be a positive contributor to society. I’m not an activist who is risking my life, so really, is it that hard to put a little effort into creating a more humane world?”