Brooklyn Artist Tom Otterness Killed a Dog, Filmed the Act

Three of this week's newsmakers have names that start with O: Obama, Osama ...Otterness. The first two you know all about by now. So who's...

Julia Szabo  |  May 3rd 2011


Three of this week’s newsmakers have names that start with O: Obama, Osama …Otterness. The first two you know all about by now. So who’s the third one?

He’s Tom Otterness, a Brooklyn resident who makes his living as anartist. His specialty is creating installationsthat group togethercartoonish figures, cast in bronze. The sculptures resemble humans and miscellaneous animals. I have worked as an art journalist and critic over the years, and Iconfess I never liked Otterness’s work; it always struck me as cutesy without being charming (like, say, thedelightful sculpture ofTakashi Murakami).

Here’s how Otterness himself describes his visual language:[It’s] “a simple language; it’s a cartoon language; it’s smiley, button faces. [With my work], people aren’t thrown off by a language they don’t understand. It’s not a visual language you need a BFA to get.”

Translation:Otterness deliberately dumbshis work down, because evidently he thinks his audience – the public -is dumb.

And sadly, many people have fallen for his cynical approach to public art -even here in my home town of New York, an imperialcity renowned forbrainy residents who are as street-smart as they are school-savvy.Inexplicably, Otterness’s work enjoys pride of place in many high-profile New York City venues. Uptown, downtown, above- and underground, everywhere you turn, it seems, there’s an Otterness monument: Times Square … the A/C/E subway station (ahighly-trafficked transit hub) … the New York Botanical Garden … Battery Park City.

I’m glad I never had to write about him before. I don’t believe “art for dummies” deserves to be promoted. But today I must, because it comes to light that Otterness did something heinous in 1977. He was 25 years old at the time – young, but old enough to know better.

Here’s what Otterness did: He adopted a small, black-and-white dog from the city animal shelter – what would then have been the ASPCA (Animal Care & Control of New York City is now responsible for admitting and adopting out strays and unwanted animals; the ASPCA is now aprivate shelter).Otterness took the dog outside, chained the animal to a fence, and shot it dead with a gun.

Adding insult to injury, Otternesswas a multitasker:In addition to wielding a weapon, he was also operating a camera. Heshot the whole thing and made an “art film” out of it. A looped video piece, its title is “Shot Dog Film.”If anyone else did this, it would be called a snuff film. If a high-profile artist does it, it’s so-called “art,” a youthfulcreative indiscretion? Sadly, art or not, thanks to the Supreme Court of the United States, snuff films depicting the killing of animalsconstitute freedom of speech, and they areprotected by the constitution.

So, whydoes this ghost of animal cruelty pastrear its ugly headtoday? Isn’t it old news?

Yes and no. Otterness was recently commissioned by an anonymous donor – to the tune of $750,000 – to sculpt two sculptures for the Battery Park City branch of the New York Public Library, one of this city’s noblest and most beloved institutions. Many believeOtternessdoesn’t deserveall the glory and ubiquity his work currently enjoys – especially since the sculptures planned for the Library depict animals (lions, to be precise), and Otterness committed a felony against an animal. I guess he thinks animals are just … dumb.

Otterness must think those of us who love dogs are dumb too. Check out his monument to the human-canine bond by the Starbucks at Monument Circle in Indianopolis. Wouldn’t you know it’s called “Boy and Dog” (photo above). It doesn’t get much more cynical than that.

In 2008, Otterness apologized for his animal abuse telling the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”

That apology sounds about as hollow as the one issued by Michael Vick.

In a 2004 article, art critic Gary Indiana explained that Otterness did this “for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film.” I agree.

I wish the anonymous donor funding the Otterness library monument would step up and be ahero bydiverting that $750,000to a more worthy cause. May I recommend the city animal shelter, which is struggling under the burden of caring for thousands upon thousands of abandoned pets? That would be a wonderfully fitting and symbolic memorial tribute to the poor, innocentanimal whose senseless, violentdeath is depicted in”Shot Dog Film.”

I also wish the venerable American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) – American’s oldest humane organization -could treat this as a cold case, charging Otterness with the heaviest penalty of animal cruelty. Or at the very least, issue a strong statement of condemnation. But the ASPCA has been strangely silent on this topic. My calls to the ASPCA have not yet beenanswered.

Imagine the betrayal felt by that dog when the person he thought would care for and protect him insteadpointed a gun at him and fired. Then tell me what you think in the comments.

Photo by: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid