The current controversy over the Guggenheim Museum’s decision to remove three provocative works involving animals from the exhibition “Art and China after 1989” brings back memories of an early conceptual-art piece featured on the 98 Bowery website. Entitled “Insure the Life of an Ant,” the work by Michael Malloy was shown at OK Harris gallery in 1972, and largely escaped criticism in an age before the Internet and impassioned animal-rights activists.
Malloy’s participatory piece is about human choice, and gives little thought to the rights of ants, a species generally below advocates’ concerns. Gallery-goers paid ten cents to enter a private space reminiscent of a voting booth. Here they confronted a plastic box containing a live ant, and had to decide whether to save the ant or to push a button that would kill it with the freezing agent Freon.
Noted art critic Gregory Battcock praised Malloy’s work in Arts magazine as being emblematic of a new strain of behavioral art. To use a charged phrase, the piece is pro-choice, allowing viewers to reach their own conclusions about the sanctity of an ant’s life. Things have changed over the last 45 years. Perhaps nobody should be surprised that, in today’s contentious environment, the Guggenheim has decided that even a trigger warning would not be enough to protect its cherished building, viewers, and guards.