Gavin Toye is an artist and friend I met whilst studying at the RCA. He recently had a crit in his studio where he showed a painting stretcher covered with wool. The following text conversation was prompted by that artwork. He told me it is now destroyed for artistic grounds – not ethical grounds, and that he is not a vegetarian or vegan.

Peter Walsh: When I saw the wool piece at your studio crit I brought up the issue of animal ethics but you didn’t want to discuss it at the time. I’d like to ask if you are aware that the production of wool is a very cruel process?

Gavin Toye: No I wasn’t. What happens in the production?

PW: The sheep are kicked and knocked around, they are sheared as quickly as possible resulting in cuts or worse. They are often sheared too soon in the year and are left freezing cold, sometimes freezing to death. Maggots form in the folds of their skin because they have been artificially bred to produce excess wool, many lambs have huge slices of skin cut off their behinds in a cruel process called mulesing.

GT: That sounds awful. Is that the case in all wool production? And is any of that legal? I mean, do different countries have different rules? I probably won’t use wool again in art, but mainly for artistic reasons. But I would like to know if there are ways of getting wool that is produced less cruelly, like a kind of “free range” wool, because those things of which you speak aren’t necessary of the production of wool are they?

PW: It’s the case with the majority of wool, with around 30% or so coming from Australia. There isn’t really totally ethical wool because it always involves the exploitation of animals. I’m glad to hear you probably won’t use wool again in art  – but why not for ethical reasons?

GT: Well I’d certainly like to know about the minority that are less cruel so I could make my own decision. I don’t see that information being available. As for my reasons for decision making in art that’s an interesting one. My criteria isn’t based solely on ethics like yours might be but it could be influenced by things like that. So I’d consider an alternative.

PW: Would you use a product that was cruel but ‘less cruel’ than the ‘most cruel’ in your artwork?

GT: I would prefer to wear wool that I believed to be from sheep that were treated with respect and certainly wouldn’t intentionally wear wool from the sort of production you spoke of before. It comes down to our definition of cruelty. I was going to say that it’s the same in art as in personal life but I’m not sure that’s true now as in art your intentions have to be more explicit and therefore ethics play a stronger role (not that they shouldn’t in personal life but that’s not what we are talking about). So by my own definition I wouldn’t use anything ‘cruel’ in art but by your definition then perhaps I’d prefer to use the lesser cruel option.

PW: Yes, would you say that in art the viewer is looking at your ethics as well as your art? If something is cruel in the making of the work then that is part of the narrative.

GT: The viewer may not be looking at the ethics of a work (or of the artist but that is implicit) if that is not their concern but it is there in the work, yes.

PW: I am interested in your definition of cruelty, but also, is it only actual or direct animal cruelty we should object to in art? We don’t often speak of a racist image or a sexist image as being cruel. Do you think we should also consider the speciesist image in art as objectionable?

GT: How would you define the speciesist image please?

PW: Let’s say an image of the animal that would be likely to normalize and reinforce our beliefs that it is all right to exploit animals.

GT: So you would say that it is objectionable because it might directly or indirectly cause people to go out and exploit animals or do you object to it purely as an image (and what it represents)?

PW: Both, just as we would treat the racist image or the sexist image.

GT: Of course I object to the sentiment (rather than the image per se) behind the normalisation of the exploitation of animals. But that’s normal, I suppose. As for the representation of those things in art I wouldn’t necessarily object. I think that’s a whole different matter and should remain open to debate. But certainly I think that the debate should happen. So here’s a start (for me)! Thanks.