Attitudes toward animals are a delicate and complicated matter.
We can group animals into vertebrates and invertebrates, into the wild and the domestic — or into those we keep as pets, those we eat and those we regard with disgust as vermin.
It’s OK to love them — but only so much.
And there’s the question of what types of animals you can love. You’re allowed to love a dog or a cat. But can you, should you, is it appropriate, to love other kinds of animals? My brother had a hermit crab when he was a boy. I don’t know how he felt about it — but can a healthy, well-rounded person love a hermit crab?
I’m not passing judgment. It strikes me that the shifting, unstable, historical, emotional, playful and earnest feelings we Americans have about animals has a lot to do with other kinds of value, meaning and quality in our lives.
And, so, it is with a real sense of curiosity that I wonder about our varying relationships with animals. Why, for example, it is that we do not even notice road kill, for the most part — let alone stop to mourn it? And what can be said about the fact that the sale of bull semen is a big part of the cattle industry — and the methods used to create supply?
You can get the salacious details in Jane C. Desmond’s fascinating new book Displaying Death and Animating Life: Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life. This is a scholarly work devoted to looking at the variety and tensions surrounding human-animal relations in, as the subtitle puts it, art, science and everyday life. Her focus, in this gripping book, is our contemporary American society (to the extent that there is any such a unified thing).
She investigates, for example, our pet burial practices and the ways in which these are similar to but also so very different from those surrounding human burial. Perhaps precisely because there is, or continues to be, as it happens, something marginal, ridiculous or even outrageous about the very idea of a pet cemetery, these have become, she shows, places for creative and improvisatory engagement with death and mourning. Only a very small fraction of the millions and millions of American pet owners bury their deceased pets in designated pet graveyards. She makes a good case, though, that such burial practices — she also explores the writing of pet obituaries — help us understand shifting conceptions of family and kinship.
Of particular interest to this reader is Desmond’s level-headed treatment of the phenomenon of “art” by animals. Desmond is careful to tease out the many different sorts of factors lurking behind what is no doubt a growing market. She recounts the sale of three paintings — by an ape — that fetched $30,000 at a London auction house in 2005.
Students of animal cognition and human evolution, as well as those interested in raising funds for zoos and other animal-oriented philanthropies, all have a vested interest in the production and study of so-called animal art.
But do animals really make art?
Art, as we know it in the human world, happens against the background of shared culture. We use the term”outsider” art to refer to paintings, buildings, quilts, etc., by people lacking the usual training and career formation of professional artists. But the idea of art that is truly outside culture — as an animal art would have to be — is a nonstarter. It would be like imagining that animals in nature might make touchdowns. You need football — a whole practice — to get touchdowns.
Unless of course, as Desmond considers, there are animals that are not, or not entirely, outside culture because, as in the case of some chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates, they have been raised with humans and so are, in a genuine sense, at home in a bi-species environment.
Desmond notes the political meanings that may be attached to the question of animal art. If an ape is, or even might be, an artist, she considers, this could be taken to have a bearing on what sort of political obligations we have to them. When people purchase a painting by a chimpanzee to put on their wall, they may be motivated, as Desmond puts it, by the ideal (or perhaps the fantasy) of subverting the presumed primacy of the human.
She may be right about this. But I would hope that we don’t make the mistake of holding the moral standing of nonhuman lives hostage to their status as would-be artists and writers. For their sake, I mean.
This is an important and moving book. Reading it is a bit like catching an unexpected glimpse of yourself in a reflection and being worried about what you see. How is it that we remain, as a culture, so largely unreflective about animals and their place in our lives?
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe