It is hardly surprising that this has created a good degree of controversy amongst animal rights supporters in particular PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Herbert has attempted to defend his position on the grounds that you can’t judge a work until it is performed or indeed a meal until it is cooked.
I think we can. Herbert’s performance is based on the a few concepts -documentary, shock, and attracting media attention. Many artists use this technique and many are successful. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin are past masters of this. Herbert seems to be intent on jumping on the same bandwagon to try and justify this latest endeavour. When challenged, his retrospective motives seem honourable – he claims that factory farming is unpleasant and damaging to the environment and that the over consumption of meat is questionable. However, I am not convinced that this is what motivated this latest work and even if it did I am not sure he adds anything new to the debate.
This work at the Royal Opera House is not aimed at the ignorant and uneducated. Any human being with half a brain knows that pigs and many other farm animals suffer the ultimate price to feed us and are often kept in unbearably cruel conditions. This has been documented many times by groups concerned about animal welfare. So nothing new here intellectually. Countless movies have shown the horrors and sounds of the slaughter house. Many of us regularly eat bacon pork chops and sausages, so we are all aware that pigs are used to create these dishes. Do we need someone to cook it on a stage to remind us of this? Most of us wear leather on our feet, carry bags and wallets made of a variety of animal skins. But few of us deliberately take the bones of a creature we know and make them into a musical instrument. No doubt some of our ancestors did but we have better and more sophisticated instruments nowadays.
I have two main worries. The first is just because we can do something should and then call it art? Should I record the barks and whines of a lost dog at Battersea Dogs’ home and then record the moment it is dispensed with when no-one comes to claim it and make it into a musical toy? Should I cut up a dead relative and make them into a musical instrument even if they agree to it in a living will?
The second question is whether the Arts Council should subsidise this. The Royal Opera House is the largest recipient of Arts Council funding in England, getting over £26 million regular funding – plus other grants – every year in my view at the expense of many other artforms especially minority musics like jazz. Who paid the guy who made the bone musical instrument , how much did the shoemaker get pad and how much the onstage chef, never mind Herbert’s own fee for this “show”. Who paid the farmer who raised the pig? My guess is it was at least in part paid for by you and me the taxpayer. One thing is for sure the pig didn’t get any money. He didn’t even get a free ticket to the show. Indeed the pig is the principal sponsor. Like a suicide martyr the poor old pig paid the ultimate price for what I believe are half-baked ideas, which Herbert hopes will bring him more glory.
Herbert says: “For me, the music is the afterlife; the fact that we’re still talking about it,” says Herbert. “That pig would just have ended up as a meal but I believe that this album has imbued it with a much more physical and tangible end.” If he does future performances will he justify the cooking of more pigs on stage in the same way or are these just going to end up as a “meal”. Who is Herbert to decide on this? To me this points to an overinflated sense of self-importance on his part.
Let’s hope at least the Opera House take pork off their menu. At least then the sacrifice of this one pig might have been worthwhile.
The CD of “One Pig” is released by Accidental Records on October 11th.