Animals, artists, and the question of ethics: A dialogue with Steve Baker.

“There seems to be a lingering expectation that art should provide consolation – the consolation that terrible things are only happening far away, or that artists unreservedly condemn such things.”

What follows here is an interview with Steve Baker about his new book, Artist Animal, in Minnesota’s Posthumanities series (further details about the book at end). Interview first published in Italian in Artribune. Questions by Leonardo Caffo and Vincenzo Santarcangelo.

Sanna Kannisto, Chlorophanes spiza. 2010.

1. First of all, something very banal: why is it interesting for us to analyze the role of animals and their representations in the history of art?

In February 2013 a major exhibition called Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind opens at the British Museum in London. It will show artifacts made between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, and previews suggest that the majority of the objects and images depict animals – horses, bison, reindeer, mammoths, and so on. It includes the extraordinary “Lion man” of Hohlenstein Stadel, which would apparently have taken around four hundred hours to carve from a mammoth tusk. If images of real animals and invented hybrid creatures are regarded as having such prominence in the emergence of the modern imagination, it’s hardly surprising that contemporary artists are still fascinated by the cultural leverage of animal imagery, and by its potential to astonish and unsettle.

2. Would you explain to us, briefly, the fundamental themes of your book Artist Animal?

The book presents artworks from the first decade of the twenty-first century by a small selection of contemporary artists from America, Europe, and Australasia who engage directly with questions of animal life – artists whose concern is with the nature and the quality of actual animal life, or with the human experience of actual animal lives. For the most part their art treats animals as creatures who actively share the more-than-human world with humans, rather than as mere symbols or metaphors for aspects of the so-called human condition. My key concern was to articulate the “voice” of these artists, and to show how they think and how they work. If you’re a philosopher or a sociologist, for example, you may not know much about those things, even if you’ve seen the finished artworks. Most chapters in the book therefore draw on substantial first-hand interviews with the artists in order to present evidence of how contemporary art can make a vital and distinctive contribution to the wider cultural understanding of animal life, and to offer insight into animal imagery that might otherwise sometimes seem willfully controversial or obscure. Many people seem to view contemporary animal art with great mistrust, and my aim has been to explain the necessary connection of creativity and trust in both the making and the understanding of these artworks.

3. Many think that art and ethics have nothing in common. Personally I don’t think so. In your latest book Artist Animal you seem to agree with me, suggesting that ethics and art are far from separate. What correlations are there between animal ethics and representations of animality in art?

I’m troubled by the way that “ethics” is so widely used as a proscriptive and judgmental term. When I interview artists, I never ask them directly about their “ethical” stances, no matter how controversial their work may appear to be. What I try to do instead is to draw out information about what I’d describe as the integrity of their art practice, which is about their working methods and their approach to materials as well as the animal subject-matter of their work. In that sense I’m broadly in sympathy with Iris Murdoch’s approach (in her book The Sovereignty of Good), which “does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.” I like her observation that “aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals. Virtue … in the artist … is a selfless attention to nature.” You ask what correlations there are between animal ethics and animal representations in art. I don’t think there are any fixed or necessary correlations of that sort. Several of the artists I interviewed spoke of needing to rethink their experience and their expectations in each new encounter with a living (or even a dead) animal. That seems to me to be exactly the kind of “attention to nature” that Murdoch had in mind.

4. In your book you quote Carol Gigliotti, a writer and activist who is critical of those who try to defend irresponsible artworks by claiming that art is the last frontier of radical thought. You make the point that art has the same potential as other disciplines but that it “employs different tools for thinking.” We are aware of the condition of nonhuman animals today, exploited and slaughtered for various reasons. To what extent do you think a reflection on art can help with this issue?

I’ve just started reading Cary Wolfe’s new book, Before the Law, in which he makes the succinct observation that “the distinction ‘human/animal’ is a discursive resource, not a zoological designation.” The artists I discuss in Artist Animal offer some telling examples of this. Whether or not they see themselves as animal advocates or activists, their work shows no great interest in maintaining conventional hierarchies or boundaries. Without resorting to rather simplistic ideas of hybridity, they find all manner of ways to suggest or to present the porousness of the human/nonhuman distinction and the pointlessness of drawing that distinction too sharply. This doesn’t have to be done in a heavy-handed way. Angela Singer, an artist who uses recycled taxidermy to make challenging work that nevertheless expresses her commitment to animal rights, puts it this way: “Work that seeks to persuade viewers to take a specific form of action can be quite awful. … Trying too hard to show the issue you’re addressing can lead to dull passionless art of little interest to anyone except those concerned with the same issues. For me the best art is difficult to ‘read’.”

5. What happens when artists and animals meet in the realm of contemporary art? For example, what are, in your opinion, the limits within which an animal can be “used” by an artist?

That first question is the subject of the whole book. But to answer your second question, there are no limits to what can be done to an animal by an artist, whether through thoughtlessness or, occasionally, through cruelty. In terms of where artists choose to set their limits, there are some genuinely complex cases where the artist is clearly working with seriousness, awareness, and a sense of integrity, but where I’m personally uncomfortable with some of their decisions and actions. My approach has generally been to report in detail on these works and on the artist’s account of them, and to leave my readers to draw their own conclusions. There is no single “correct” limit. Even among the artists I discuss who share a direct commitment to animal rights, there are strikingly different views about whether, for example, the inclusion of animal bodies or animal materials in an artwork should be regarded as grossly disrespectful or as the very basis of the work’s compelling power.

Angela Singer, Dripsy Dropsy. 2006.

 6. Don’t Trust Me (2008), a work by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed, has recently been at the center of violent polemics, both when it was exposed at the San Francisco Art Institute (the museum staff received death threats), and in 2009 when the Foundation Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin dedicated a personal exhibition to the artist. The work consists of six videos projected in continuous loop of a brutal practice that is still common in Mexican slaughterhouses: a pig, a horse, a goat, a lamb, a roe deer, and a sheep are dragged out of the slaughterhouse and killed with a hammer blow on the head that leaves them between life and death for long and painful seconds of agony. Animal rights associations protest every time against the exhibition of such works. What do you think of such events? And, in the end, which side are you on?

Rather like an anthropologist, I think that what I can most usefully do is to report on what I find, and to try not to distort it or to pass judgment on it. I don’t see it as my job to “take sides,” or simply to condemn particular works of art. For a writer, that’s too easy, and too self-congratulatory. Don’t Trust Me is mentioned in my book, but only in the context of an American legal case where it was cited as an important example of contemporary artists not being obliged to explain or to justify the provocative imagery they present to the public. Is it not legitimate for an artist (whether or not we’re talking specifically about Abdessemed) to make a work that simply presents the stark evidence that these things are still happening? There seems to be a lingering expectation that art should provide consolation – the consolation that terrible things are only happening far away, or that artists unreservedly condemn such things. For reasons that should not be too difficult to understand, contemporary art that engages with questions of animal life is not primarily concerned with making people feel good about themselves.

Mary Britton Clouse, Cecilia. 2008.

7. One final question. Here we truly ask you to dare with your answer: can art, in the function and parameters you describe, contribute to saving “animals” also by helping humans think of their own “animality”?

If, as I suggested earlier, artists can present distinctive and unexpected ways to configure the relation of humans and other animals, that can certainly contribute in its own modest way to broader cultural challenges to anthropocentrism. But this will be a long, slow process. And the effects of art are not easily quantifiable: Félix Guattari aptly describes the work of art as “an activity of unframing, of rupturing sense.”

But contemporary artworks that move in this direction are not quite the same as the “strategic images for animal rights” that I explored twenty years ago in the final chapter of my first book, Picturing the Beast (a chapter recently translated into Italian in the journal Liberazioni). Those were campaigning images that were sufficiently imaginative to resist easy recuperation into popular culture’s clichéd and deeply anthropocentric view of animals. Contemporary art in this area is engaged in a slower and perhaps more difficult game. Describing art that she admires, the artist and activist Sue Coe has stated that “the most political art is the art of ambiguity.” And to me, one of the most fascinating things to emerge from my interviews with the artists discussed in Artist Animal was the widely-shared recognition of the importance of not quite knowing what they were doing at some crucial stage in the production of their work. There was a vital space for confusion, messiness, ambiguity and “not-knowing” in their purposeful engagement with nonhuman life. This stands in striking contrast to the view expressed recently by one philosopher that it is the responsibility of moral philosophy to offer a “consistent” and “coherent” perspective on animal issues.

To borrow Foucault’s words from a slightly different context, what these artists offer instead are images, experiences and structures “within which we both recognize and lose ourselves.” So to return to your question, yes, I think works of art can contribute to human recognition of the continuities and inclusiveness of animal life. But there are no guarantees that such recognition will lead in any direct way to a different or better treatment of nonhuman animals. At its best, what art does offer is a stubborn refusal to be indifferent to animals and to their place in contemporary life.


Steve Baker is emeritus professor of art history at the University of Central Lancashire. He is author of Artist Animal, The Postmodern Animal, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation, and, with the Animal Studies Group, Killing Animals.

“(Artist Animal) is a tremendous contribution to both contemporary art criticism and the emerging field of animal studies. I can think of no scholar better poised to offer innovative insight into how artists think about and work with animals than Steve Baker. With sensitivity and a rigorous ethnographer’s eye, Baker investigates the complex attitudes and approaches artists employ when engaging the animal subject. What makes this beautiful book so successful is Baker’s deep understanding of the nuance, intricacy, and contradictions in how artists work today.” —Mark Dion

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