Artistic expression has been present roughly since the first physically-modern men wandered the earth, and will likely never disappear from human cultural practices. Across all eras and continents, artists have used painting, sculpting and myriad other techniques to produce representations of generic daily life, broad zeitgeists and internal emotions or curiosities. Whether rendered with lifelike accuracy or in an unearthly, surreal composition, one would be hard pressed to encounter a work of art that does not communicate some sort of inherent significance to its viewers. While attempting to construe its understanding of the cosmos through creative means, mankind has often included animals in its iconography.
I think studying human relations with, and attitudes towards, non-human creatures is a worthwhile task that can be completed from any number of angles. It’s a line of questioning that can tell us much about who we are. Yet taking an art historical approach allows for the visual demonstration of the deep infatuation modern peoples’ ancestors harboured for animals, and can define and measure changes in many areas— including man’s valuation of animal life in comparison to his own, and the usefulness assigned to animals for survival, entertainment and companionship.
Join me on a five-part safari through the ages, as I analyse imagery that runs the chronological gamut to reveal humankind’s fluctuating glorification and demonisation of animals, and emphasise just how interconnected the history and bonds between people and other species are.
Chapter Five: Postmodernity
No age has produced more visual representations of animals than the current one. The media sphere today brims over with depictions of non-human species; countless Youtube videos of abhorrently cute kittens who adore playing peek-a-boo or double as keyboard virtuosos, entire cable television channels dedicated to nearly twenty-four hour a day streaming of swamp monster wrangling content, dog whispering, and anti-animal abuse cop shows. Personal blogs and Facebook pages are permeated with constantly-uploaded iPhone snaps of puppies behaving as puppies tend to, pet ownership is impossible to prove lately without a selfie to accompany it, and there’s well-groomed and dopey-looking dogs more famous on Instagram than most B-list celebrities could ever hope to be. Unsurprisingly, many high-profit advertising companies have discovered the power and appeal of enlisting foreign geckos and meerkats and athletic cereal-eating tigers to sell their clients’ products and services en masse.
Such omnipresent, contemporary fixation on the animal kingdom does seem a natural progression, or maybe a hangover, from prevailing obsessions and breakthroughs hailing from Victorian times, vamped up to extreme levels by an unprecedented technology boom. The frenzy I speak of, I wager, also reflects the wider centrality of the image in this age (so take heart, fellow art history and visual culture nerds), and animals do make the most eye-catching subjects with their inherent foreignness from and similarity to humankind.
Victorian findings on evolution have not only affected the pictures we see of animals, but also our relationships with animals and with ourselves. That all life is descended from one extremely vigorous single-cell organism, which has for eons connected the very DNA of every life form to some varying, but absolute degree is now commonly accepted by science and those who don’t believe dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden. It is also maintained that there is no food pyramid-like diagram of worse to better beings, only extinct and extant species. We humans are left to accept the not-totally-graspable reality that we are kin to all other animals without opposable thumbs, sprung from the same primordial quagmire.
Surely many people alive today can’t help but consider themselves more valuable, of a higher calibre than any other creatures without brains big enough for syntax. However, it has been said that people living in this post-two-ungodly-world-wars, chock-full-of-ideological-dilemmas, digital age have become vastly more uncertain of their nature and identity; questioning what man is, what animal is, and what beyond the physical could link or differentiate them if they are or are not one in the same. Postmodernity is a term some scholars take pleasure at furrowing their brows at, so vague, so trite. Others might insist we’re really living in post-postmodernity, baby. I find nothing too outdated or unwieldy about the concept, and like to adopt, for this animal-infused art historical context, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s idea that everything postmodern is “that which denies itself the solace of good forms.”
Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, especially when we face questions of who we are and what we’re meant to be in the face of the natural order of eternity. Unable to guarantee a cleanly-cut or concrete conception of themselves, it is quite possible that many people today, seeking answers, seek to incorporate animals into their own intimate customs and personas, rather than remain haughtily separate.
Opportunities to take on the guise of and understand commonalities with animals are indeed eagerly, creatively and expensively embraced. One need only view the montage below of footage from the 2016 Japan Meeting of Furries to arrive at that conclusion…
I’d like to focus on the creative bit, though. Damien Hirst’s infamous work of 1991, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, once shown at the Saatchi Gallery, immediately comes to mind out of the confusion. Hirst literally submerged his practice in the one eventuality no living thing is exempt from— death. By dissecting the tissues of a tiger shark and suspending the cadaver solo in a tank of formaldehyde, Hirst confronted his viewers with an image of themselves, what they were and what they will become. Alone, but part of everything; alive but hardly realising it, caged in by their own perceptions. Hirst seems to suggest that despite mankind’s lofty acquired knowledge, ambitions and ability to plan for the future, it is forever frozen inside un-alterable life cycles, left like the rest of the animals with no cognisance of the big sleep, with nothing but the present moment to call its own.
Inert, a sculpture made from the pelt of a wolf and felt in 2009 by Nicholas Galanin, has an air of shared impending mortality, too. Yet the piece most powerfully forces viewers to acknowledge ongoing conflictual attitudes towards animals. The piece is part majestic and endangered forebear of all canines, worthy of admiration and human protection in the wilderness; part fluffy, languid, and luxurious fur rug, worthy of warming the hearths of old money ski chalets. One hundred percent objet d’art. Regarding the piece involves coming to one’s own conclusion on the identities of other animals, and how they automatically are, and how they ought to be, appraised in the here and now.
Another artwork, perhaps the most poignant, is Be Your Dog, made in 1997 by Jordan Baseman, an artist who taught himself the art of taxidermy in order to make a number of judgment-twisting works from the skins of domestic animals discovered as roadkill outside his East London studio which he refers to as “empty trophies.” Be Your Dog is essentially a headdress crafted from a scalped pair of Alsatian’s ears. Perkily erect cartilage and soft tawny colouration intact, the sculpture leaves no doubt that it was once attached to the rest of someone else’s trusty pet dog. It has only been exhibited once, mounted approximately at head height on the wall of an Austrian gallery. Though never intended to be worn, Baseman found to his delight that visitors happily backed against the wall, aligning themselves just right to be photographed appearing to wear the ears, thinking themselves into a new, more exhilarating state of being, just as the title suggests. Baseman has said of his work, “it’s about frustrated desire, more than anything else, because there is a strong desire to wear it. It might sicken you, but you do feel compelled to put the damn thing on.”
No digital photograph, cold media file or abstract squiggle on canvas considered to be good art can quite communicate the same sentiments about human-animal relationships quite like preserved flesh can. Be Your Dog, Inert, and Hirst’s dead aquatic friend are strange pieces, just as much contemporary artistic expression might be considered strange, just as contemporary times are fundamentally strange. They are portrayals of animals in the rawest sense, yet communicate metaphysical questions about the essence, the incarnation, the very reason for the human race.
It is undeniable that modern people are closely-knit and overwhelmingly curious about other species. Some of us dress up and masquerade about in elaborate costumes, others surf the web for ferret videos, and others endeavour to use their creativity to sate their unsatisfied cravings to better know their proper role in creation and the multiple facets of their inner-selves. Despite great pushes for animal welfare, attempts at eradicating puppy mills and promoting adoption, and even the kind-of granting of human rights to chimpanzees in more recent times, I feel that we humans, despite ever-burgeoning inquisitiveness and soul searching, are still most comfortable inhabiting the epicentre of the universe, and will likely never willingly remove ourselves from it. Perhaps, as the many lenses of art can so grandly magnify, there’s too much history built up to ever allow for the complete reversal of attitudes towards other species. Or, perhaps, as our ancestors before us and before them, we so love to look at ourselves that we will be forever seeking familiar faces in the animal world, which makes such a wildly fetching mirror to get engulfed in.
Sources: Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000
Cary Wolfe, Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal, University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 1979