Creature (Dis)comforts – Taking Animals Seriously
Creature (Dis)Comforts was the first thematic workshop held as part of ArtCan's Ideas Stream. Participants gathered at The Banff Centre in May 2014 to explore the representation of animals in Canadian Art.
What Would Canadian Art History Look Like If We Took The “Question of the Animal” Seriously?
Department of Visual Arts
To look at the images that make up the standard histories of Canadian art/visual culture, one might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that this is a field of inquiry in which critical thinking about nonhuman animals is prominent. Nonhuman animals figure heavily in our collective histories and in the visual representations of those histories, but, more often than not, the lives and histories of those animals are not given serious consideration. Rather, they frequently appear as decorative or symbolic elements. As Sean Kheraj describes, when it comes to human cultural histories, nonhuman animals are frequently “found on the margins of the frame.”1 Kheraj’s observation here is significant for two reasons. First of all, it underscores the fact that human and nonhuman animals have intertwined histories. Even though we don’t often remember them, they are there, lurking around the margins of the cultural frames we use to tell our stories. Secondly, Kheraj points to the dominant practice of relegating nonhuman animals to the very edges of cultural history if we even remember to consider them at all.
Think about the standard sets of slides that are used in Canadian art/history classes – Paul Kane’s Assiniboine Hunting Buffalo (c.1851-56), Maurice Cullen’s painting of The Ice Harvest (c1913), John Fraser’s, A Shot in the Dawn, Lake Scugog (1873), Homer Watson’s The Stone Road (1881), Paul Peel’s The Venetian Bather (1889), William Berczy’s portrait of the Woolsey Family (1809), Horatio Walker’s Sheep Shearing (1903), Mary Pratt’s Cod Fillets in Cardboard Cartons (1975), and Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic (first exhibited in 1987; exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada in 1991) are among the images that immediately come to my mind. These are images that I vividly recall from my undergraduate courses in Canadian art history, and they are slides that I use in my classes today. There are, of course, many others that can be added to this list of canonical Euro-Canadian art taught in colleges and universities in this country, but the point is that much of what constitutes Canadian Art History includes representations of nonhuman animals. And yet, it is rare in these contexts to give these animals much more than a passing thought. Perhaps it is precisely because nonhuman animals are so much a part of Canadian art history and visual culture that we rarely stop to think any deeper about them – we are so used to seeing them that they barely register.
I want to challenge scholars of Canadian art history to think about what it might look like and what it might mean if we turn our critical, scholarly attention to the animals represented in these images. Specifically, I want to think about taking them seriously as animals, as representations of once living, breathing, sentient beings whose lives were very much intertwined with human society, but who also were independent, individual beings with life histories of their own. This typically has not been done in Canadian art history, or, for that matter, in other analyses of art history and visual culture.2
In his well-known text A Concise History of Canadian Painting, Dennis Reid describes Watson’s The Stone Road as having “tremendous strength” and suggests that “the curve of the road introduces just enough tension to keep the picture taut—frozen, as in a dream, with every iron-hard detail assuming great significance.”3 What is absent from this discussion, of course, is close critical attention to the animals (human and nonhuman) who travel down the road referred to in the title. What can be said, for example, about the labour of nonhuman animals in 19th century settler-colonial societies such as the one depicted here?4
Reid describes Berczy’s representation of The Woolsey Family as having a “complex interrelationship of the figures,” but describes them only in terms of their formal qualities not their interspecies interactions. What can be said of the canine member of the family at this point in Canadian history? Discussions about Peel’s The Venetian Bather inevitably focus on the likely reactions viewers in Toronto had to the female nude body, but typically the only mention of the kitten in the bottom left of the composition is that it is painted in a less finished manner than the human body. In these both of these last two examples, much is left unsaid about the representation of nonhuman animals in the domestic space of the house — pet-keeping of this nature was a relatively new cultural phenomenon when these paintings were completed and exhibited.5 What more could be added to this analysis?
Of Mary Pratt’s paintings, Reid writes that they “are little celebrations of the very stuff of life.”6 While this is undoubtedly true in terms of the domesticity represented in the preparation and consumption of foodstuffs that Pratt renders in exquisite detail, we also need to understand that these are, in many ways, celebrations of death, especially for the animal bodies that figure so prominently in them. There are many other examples that could be brought in here, but the point is that in the standard rhetoric of Canadian art history there is plenty of room for another layer of analysis, one that takes “the question of the animal” seriously.7
How do we include meaningful, serious dialogue about the animals represented in these kinds of images? Undoubtedly there are some challenges, first and foremost being that we are accessing them through a very particular lens - that of the artist. We are looking at human representations of a nonhuman animal. We do not have direct access to these animals because of the distance of history and the specific filters the artist has applied to his or her representation of them.
Recently Hilda Kean, an Oxford-based historian, published a thought-provoking article entitled “Challenges for Historians Writing Animal-Human History: What Is Really Enough?” The question posed in Kean’s subtitle—“What Is Really Enough?”̶—addresses one of the challenges facing scholars working on historical animal topics, namely the problem of how to meaningfully acknowledge and engage with the history of nonhuman animals.8 For a number of reasons this has been a challenging methodological issue—as far as we know, animals do not record their own history and, further, there is a tendency for written records and archival sources to be relatively slim on details when it comes to the lives of nonhuman animals. How, then, can we even consider addressing the histories of other species?
It is a given that human and nonhuman animals have entangled histories, however, as another eminent scholar in the field of animal studies, Erica Fudge, has noted, “to say that things are so is not really enough.”9 Rather than simply “revealing” or “shedding light” on human-animal relationships in the past, scholars like Kean and Fudge argue the need for more “historiographically imaginative approaches” if we are serious about including nonhuman animals in historical accounts in any meaningful way.10
As Kean notes, “most working in the field of Animal Studies would not dispute that...animals have past lives.” However, her key point is that “whether past lives become ‘historical’ lives depends not on the subjects themselves...but on those writing about them who then chooses to construct a history....The issue then is not about the agency of the subjects of history as such…but the choices, agency, if you will, of those seeking to transform such actions into history.”11
Kean and Fudge are talking about the academic discipline of history, but we could say the same thing about art history and the history of visual culture. As we look back in time we are, in many ways, at the mercy of those who chose to represent animals in particular ways, and when we look at representations of animals from previous eras, we need to be mindful of the circumstances of those choices as well as the dominant cultural ideologies that would have shaped them. Kean has persuasively argued that “the emphasis here is upon ensuring that particular events of an earlier time are not forgotten but made relevant in a particular contemporary moment.”12 She goes on to note that “acknowledging the animal presence can disrupt and challenge conventional ways of seeing.”13 It is these two points—bringing the past in to the present and finding new strategies for "acknowledging the animal presence" in historical accounts—that I think will be especially significant for art historians and historians of visual culture who wish to seriously engage with the “question of the animal.”
How can we make sense of these historical “animal ecologies” in our current context, and what relevance do they have for audiences today? The relationships that exist between animal bodies, environmental, and political histories frequently shape understandings of place, for example, and yet all too often these frameworks are myopically anthropocentric in focus. What are the implications of putting the nonhuman animal back in to the picture in this way?
My research and teaching is situated at the intersection of the history of visual culture and critical animal studies, which means that I am concerned with the ways in which images shape, reinforce, and, at times, challenge ideas about our dominant relationships with nonhuman animals. In terms of Canadian art history/visual culture, I am convinced that there is significant room to bring a Critical Animal Studies framework to existing academic, creative, and pedagogical practices. As Christine Sowiak has argued, “if a nation comes to be defined, at least in part, by its history, then the role of a nation’s art history is not to provide a limited narrative common to all but rather to chronicle the courses and counter-courses of a nation’s stories.”14 Canada’s stories are very much dependent upon encounters with nonhuman species, and Canadian art history/visual culture needs to take these in to account. Putting nonhuman animals back in the picture is one form of “counter-course” that demands critical attention.
At the heart of this rests thoughtful and critical consideration of speciesism, a term coined by Richard Ryder and popularized by Peter Singer in his groundbreaking book, Animal Liberation. Singer describes speciesism as “…a prejudice or bias in favour of the interested of members of one’s own species and against those of members of another species.”15 More recently, art historian Stephen F. Eisenman has defined speciesism as “…the assumption that humans have the right and even the obligation to exercise dominion over non-human animals.”16 Is the process of representation inherently speciesist? (e.g. is it a form of dominion?) Or, can visual representations allow for anti-speciesist ways of thinking about our relationships with animals? Can we think about art history and the history of visual culture in a way that considers the perspective of other species? What does it mean to insert concerns for speciesism in to the narratives of Canadian art history and visual culture? At the very least it means taking animals seriously as animals and not just symbols for human concepts, not just as “decorative additions” to a scene.