NPR logo The Complicated Relationship Between Animals And Art


The Complicated Relationship Between Animals And Art

British artist Damien Hirst beside the 1991 piece "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine, in the UK at the Tate Modern gallery in London. Matt Dunham/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Matt Dunham/AP

At this year's conference of the College Art Association (CAA), I organized a session titled "The Art of Animal Activism" with Keri Cronin, an associate professor of art history at Brock University in Canada.

The annual CAA conference is a professional meeting of artists, art historians and museum curators. This year it was held in February in Washington, DC.

Our session explored art, since the 19th century, that has taken nonhuman animals seriously as subjects with sentience and agency — not just as decorative ornaments or symbols. I was pleased, and somewhat surprised, that the session was so well-received.

This great reception was due to some fascinating presentations that exemplify the "animal turn" — the growing academic interest in animals and human relations with animals — in recent scholarship.

Anthony Grudin, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Vermont, for example, discussed the many nonhuman animals depicted and loved by Andy Warhol, the great American pop artist. Another presentation by Arnaud Gerspacher, a graduate student at CUNY, examined the Belgian Expressionist painter James Ensor, who offered a stinging critique of vivisection — in both art and words — during in the 1930s. And Stephen Eisenman, a prominent art historian and activist at Northwestern University, provocatively described our relation to other animals in terms of "class struggle."

Prints by the late artist Andy Warhol decorate a classroom at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Mark Duncan/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Mark Duncan/AP

Prints by the late artist Andy Warhol decorate a classroom at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Mark Duncan/AP

Although the humanities have witnessed an important "animal turn" in recent years, this CAA session was still unusual, even a bit weird, because the arts in general remain overwhelmingly anthropocentric in orientation. Entrenched assumptions persist about art as an intellectual activity that supposedly distinguishes humans from other beings in decisive, qualitative ways.

A classic statement of such beliefs came from Erwin Panofsky, a famous 20th century art historian, who declared "the history of art" to be an emphatically "humanistic discipline" because "Man is indeed the only animal to leave records behind him, for he is the only animal whose products 'recall to mind' an idea distinct from their material existence."

Since Panofsky wrote those words in 1940, a lot of scientific research on animal cognition, emotion and ethology has called into question the idea of a stark, qualitative distinction between humans and other beings. In 2012, an international group of scientists led by Stephen Hawking issued the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals, proclaiming that "humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness." Of course, Charles Darwin had already asserted this basic point 150 years ago, but some scientists and many scholars in the humanities are only now beginning to catch up with him.

There have been a few positive signs of change in the world of contemporary art. In 2011, for example, CAA issued new standards and guidelines on the use of animal subjects in art, asserting that: "No work of art should, in the course of its creation, cause physical or psychological pain, suffering or distress to an animal." This announcement came on the heels of numerous controversies surrounding instances of artistic cruelty, such as Damien Hirst's notorious installation The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of the Living, featuring a tiger shark killed off the Australian coast by hunters commissioned by the artist and then pickled in a formaldehyde-filled vitrine.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the academic humanities (outside contemporary art and art history), conferences and curricula on animal studies have been flourishing for more than a decade, galvanized by a rapidly growing body of critical work led by scholar-philosophers such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Carol Adams, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Cary Wolfe and many others. These academic developments have taken place amid widespread popular fascination with animal videos, outrage about the death of Cecil the Lion, and activist backlash against the egregious abuses of animals in factory farming, entertainment and laboratory experimentation.

CAA conference attendees expressed remarkable enthusiasm and curiosity, even inquiring how they might take up animal studies in their respective areas of art history — with a view to creating a more expansive and sensitive field. No cages were opened, but my colleagues and I palpably sensed an opening of human minds to a less anthropocentric vision of the history of art.

Alan C. Braddock is an associate professor of art history and American studies at William & Mary, where he focuses on the history of American art, ecology and animal studies. He is currently working on a book titled Ecocritical Art History: Theory and Practice to be published in 2017.