Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor of Art History at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and author of The Cry of Nature — Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion; 2013). This is a fascinating read, which, I believe, deserves the attention of advocates and scholars alike who care deeply about animals, and why I wanted to interview him.
1. What inspired you to write The Cry of Nature – Art and the Making of Animal Rights?
I have been a vegetarian for 25 years and a vegan for about five. In addition, about ten years ago, I started to become engaged in the relatively new research field of Animal Studies.
But the real impetus for The Cry of Nature came in 2008. After publishing a short book about the photographs made at Abu Ghraib prison, (The Abu Ghraib Effect, 2007) I realized that the issue of human rights and animal rights are essentially the same! Animals like humans are sensitive and empathetic. Both require love, freedom and companionship to thrive. Yet both have been systematically denied these things by kings, tyrants, presidents and regular people willing to look the other way. In addition, the great artworks we see in museums generally show dead animals or slabs of meat as both natural and beautiful! I wanted to write a book that would make that violence strange again. I also wanted to highlight the work of artists who rejected violence, anthropocentrism and the turning of sentient beings into mere commodities.
2. The book’s subtitle is ‘Art and the Making of Animal Rights.’ How did artists help inaugurate the animal rights movement?
In the 17th C, the painter Rembrandt rejected the Cartesian distinction between body and soul, and between human and animal. He showed the latter – even in death – as possessing of a soul. So did William Hogarth and George Stubbs in the 18th century, and the French Romantic, Theodore Gericault in the 19th. Hogarth in particular was cited by the philosophers of the late 18th Century who started the modern animal rights movement. Without Hogarth, John Oswald and Joseph Ritson – both pioneers of animal rights – would never have written their books. By the way, the title of my book derives from Oswald’s amazing, radical, but little-read 1791 manifesto, The Cry of Nature – or An Appeal to Mercy and to Justice on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals.
3. Which works by Hogarth do you mean?
There is of course, his great portrait of his pug dog, Trump! But more important are the great engravings called The Four Stages of Cruelty. The first two prints are a veritable encyclopedia of animal cruelty and were intended to shock the conscience of viewers. And they did! Of all the works he made, Hogarth was the most proud of these.
4. What is your view of 20th and 21st century artists like Pablo Picasso, Chaim Soutine, Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst, and Sue Coe? How did they depict animals?
Kim, that’s a big question, and readers will have to look at my book for an answer. But I will say that excepting Hirst, they all rejected in one way or another the cruel clichés of speciesism. Coe of course is the greatest moralist-artist active today. She proves that you can be both brilliant at your craft (drawing, painting, printmaking) and a powerful force for social change. She has single-handedly made more vegans than all the animal welfare groups put together!
5. Is the focus of your current research animal rights? If so, what can you say us about it?
Yes, I can’t leave it behind. I am writing about animal agency in the late 18th Century and after. In all previous emancipation struggles, the oppressed group has fought for its own freedom. I have discovered that animals – for example the ones brought to Smithfield Market in London — did that too, and that their oppressors recognized it. I know this sounds a bit crazy, but I am a careful scholar and I have the evidence! Rampant bulls at Smithfield killed in order to obtain their freedom. Sheep cried out in such a plaintive way that they attracted human supporters. I am giving illustrated lectures about these subjects at conferences this year in England and the US, so please come and hear for yourself.
But Kim, as you know so well, scholarship is not enough. I am becoming more and more engaged with activism. For me, the one supports the other, and I am trying to teach my students at Northwestern the same lesson. The best scholar is the engaged scholar.
PS Here’s a video of Stephen giving a talk to the Chicago Humanities Festival which outlines what he explores more fully in his book. I find it to be important and fascinating research and analysis that’s relevant to understanding our complex relationship with other animals.
There were many fine books about animal rights and related matters published in 2013. So many, in fact, that I’ve had to devise two lists: my five favourites and four noble mentions. So, let’s deal with the latter group first. I’m cheating a bit with the noble mentions. I’m reading them or they’re on my to read pile tottering by my side of the bed.
The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights by Stephen F. Eisenman (Reaktion Books)
The impact of art on animal rights fascinates me. Just started this book and can’t wait to read his study of my favourite living artist Sue Coe.
Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict by David Nibert (Columbia University Press)
This progressive perspective is refreshing in the era of blandness. It will be like a breath of fresh air albeit a strong wind that will knock my thinking sideways—no bad thing.
Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat edited by Kara Davis, Wendy Lee, with a Foreword by Carol J. Adams (Lantern Books)
Carol J. Adams and her books have earned themselves a place in my life in which they have significantly shaped my thinking. Discovering her impact on the lives of others will be interesting.
Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus by Susan Nance (Johns Hopkins University Press)
One unfinished project is to write a contemplation about the life of Topsy, the elephant electrocuted to death in Coney Island, NY in 1903. Susan Nance’s book is part of my research.
Onto my top five animal rights books of 2013.
Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police by Paul Lewis and Rob Evans (Faber & Faber)
During the 1980s when I organised the campaigns of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and U.K. animal rights movement came into its own with many actions of different kinds, I suspected there were undercover police, agents provocateurs, and corporate spies in our midst but never had the evidence to prove it. At the end of one national demonstration I organised which attracted thousands of protestors, I went to the local police station to check on some activists who had been arrested, and witnessed demonstrators emerge as on-duty police officers as they walked past me standing at the counter, started chatting with their colleagues in uniform, and take off badges from their coats and drop placards onto the floor. Researched and written by two Guardian journalists, Undercover documents Britain’s secret police forces and how they infiltrate and influence not only legitimate social movements like ours but also act morally reprehensibly by initiating long-standing, intimate relationship with activists, including fathering children. Every activist has to read this book and understand that much worse goes on around and among us.
Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering by Mark Hawthorne (Changemakers Books)
Mark Hawthorne is a writer of integrity. If he says it, you can trust it. This is why Bleating Hearts is so important and deserves a place on every animal activist’s bookshelf. It’s encyclopaedic in its summary description of all the different ways in which we treat animals. An important resource.
A Theory of Justice for Animals: Animal Rights in a Nonideal World by Robert Garner (Oxford University Press)
Living in an imperfect world, how do we go from moral rights to legal rights for animals? This is the question that Robert Garner, professor of politics at the University of Leicester, seeks to answer. Not everyone will agree with his conclusions and that, I think, doesn’t matter, as we have to have this debate. For example, he writes: “[i]t is my contention that moral obligations regarded as being outside of the sphere of justice collapse, in practice, into the realm of charity and voluntarism precisely because there is a much weaker link with legal compulsion.” (8) (emphasis in original)
This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology by Will Anderson (Earth Books)
The big picture view of animal rights and veganism and their relationship to environmental protection are the issues explored by Will Anderson, a long-standing social justice campaigner. There is so much to learn from this well-researched book. One of its special attributes that I appreciate is that it presents the problem as well as the solution.
Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Speculation by Martin Rowe (Lantern Books)
Martin Rowe, who is my editor at Lantern Books, is such a thoughtful and provocative writer that I would want to read anything he writes. I read The Polar Bear in the Zoo as an ebook but its richness deserves another read in the flesh, as it were, as a paperback. Prompted by the evocative photography of Jo-Anne McArthur and one in particular of a polar bear in a zoo, Martin Rowe embarks on a journey of contemplation and questioning as to what it means to care and act for animals as well as the relationship between us. “Do we open our eyes and stare or do we look away?” he asks.
Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It by Norm Phelps (Lantern Books — ebook only)
This book deserves a wider readership than I fear it has received so far. With precision and insight, Norm Phelps takes a cold hard look at the animal rights movement and our strategies and tactics. His analysis is always insightful and, when necessary, challenging. This is one of those rare books about animal rights strategy that reaches beyond cliches and stereotypes. It breathes wisdom into the discussion that preoccupies activists of all sorts. He concludes with a seven point program to change the game of animal rights advocacy. “And because neither animal rights nor human rights can be achieved alone,” he writes, “we need to set about building a universal rights movement that will win both together.”
Sociologist Roger Yates, who I’m proud to say is a respected animal rights colleague I’ve known since the 1980s, recently recorded an interview with me for his podcast, On Human-Nonhuman Relations. Here’s Roger’s introduction
My special guest for podcast 31 is long-time animal advocate, Kim Stallwood, who has been vegan since 1976 – his journey to veganism began with a summer job in a chicken slaughterhouse. Kim Stallwood and I first met in the early 1980s when he was a central figure of the radicalisation of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV). Kim quickly transformed the BUAV’s magazine from its rather weak and washy format, “Animal Welfare” to “The Liberator,” regularly reporting on the activities of the Animal Liberation Front and the various Animal Liberation Leagues. In the podcast, Kim provides a brief summary of the origins of political campaigning in Britain, greatly influenced by Lord Houghton, and expounds his view that political campaigning in the 21st century is increasingly important if the animal movement is to achieve it’s goals. I have never been keen on political campaigning, preferring vegan education initiative in civil society and on the cultural level. As you’ll hear, our conversation gets a little heated at times – but respectfully so! Kim Stallwood is appearing at the 2013 Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg, and he has outlined his case for political engagement in a 2012 Critical Perspectives on Animal In Society conference.
Roger and I share many views but we don’t agree on everything. Our differences become apparent as our conversation develops. Even though we do disagree on some, we discuss our differences with passion and humour.
Listen here to the podcast, Growling with Kim Stallwood.
What do these three things have in common?
They all relate to new projects I’m currently working on and want to bring you up to date with.
First, my colleague at the Animals and Society Institute, Bee Friedlander, challenges us in the ASI Diary to find the “S” in the Animal Movement which exists in other social movements in the USA: Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. In doing so, she explores the common ground among social movements, including animal rights. Bee refers to my paper, “Animal Rights: Moral Crusade or Social Movement?,” which emphasises, as she puts it, going “from philosophical to political, from theory to practice, as the underpinning of the movement.”
Second, in my new paper, “The Politics of Animal Rights Advocacy,” I investigate further the challenges the animal rights movement faces in embedding the values of animal ethics in mainstream politics. The paper is available to read in the journal, Relations–Beyond Anthropocentrism (Vol 1, No 1).
Finally, I am honored to have been invited by the Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests, to present a paper at the First International Elephant Congress in Delhi in November. The focus of my paper will be about Topsy, the elephant Thomas Edison electrocuted in 1903.
Writing this on September 11, I cannot but help think of it as a sad day. Not only for everyone who was affected by the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, but also for the people in South America, when a military coup in Chile in 1973, deposed the democratically elected government. As difficult as it can be, life marches on relentlessly. We have to keep up and with its consequences. There is no option available here.
Even today, as I worked from home this morning, I followed the live developments of the Toro de la Vega in Tordesillas, which is in the province of Valladolid in central northern Spain.
The Toro de la Vega consisted of killing Volante, a five-year-old bull weighing 622 kilos, by spearing him to death with lances. The Toro is known in Spanish culture as a ‘tournament.’ But it’s impossible for me to think of it as that. It is violence toward animals.
Terrorism, regardless of the victim’s species, has no place in the world, if we want to think of ourselves as civilised.
Being in the fortunate position of working full-time for animal rights as long as I have, all too often every day is a sad day. Of course, I know I am not alone in feeling this. It’s true for everyone whose hearts and minds are open to animal cruelty and exploitation. Somehow, we cope with all the sadness, which is often softened by the joy we experience sharing our lives and homes with other animals. I like to think of these rescued animals as refugees. Citizens who are lost in a profound way who we must take in. Even if it means frequent cleaning of the litter box and walks when we’d rather have an early night.
Speaking of which, Shelly continues to settle in well. Her time spent in my office working with me is increasing. But she gets easily bored there, as my attention is focused on my work. Even though she can sleep for as long as she likes. And there’s always someone around who is happy to make a fuss of her. So, now, I spend some days, like today, working at home on the dining room table.
Now that we’re in September I have begun to focus more on planning my trip to the USA for the month of November. My itinerary includes New York, Washington, DC, and Ann Arbor, MI. I will be working closely with my colleagues, Ken Shapiro and Bee Friedlander, at the Animals and Society Institute. Also, I will be speaking at a conference at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT celebrating the life and work of ecofeminist philosopher Marti Kheel. In Troy, MI, I will be speaking as part of the ASI/Michigan Humane Society Speaker Series on ‘What Does It Mean to Care Deeply About Animals?’ The next day I’m also speaking at the Michigan Partnership for Animal Welfare on ‘USA/UK: Who is Making Progress and Why.’
Last week, I gave a paper, ‘Animal Rights: Moral Crusade or Social Movement?’, at the Universsity of Manchester which hosts MANCEPT, the annual forum in political theory and philosophy.
I also heard back from the folks at Lantern who read the manuscript of my first book. They made insightful comments and we’re presently working on making further improvements to the text. John Sorenson at Brock University also made positive comments about the chapter I submitted to the anthology he’s editing on critical animal studies.
So, perhaps, I shouldn’t feel so sad after all because, slowly but surely, all of us who working for animal liberation are making progress.
Well, it’s a long, long time
From May to December.
But the days grow short,
When you reach September.
And the autumn weather
Turns the leaves to gray
And I haven’t got time
For the waiting game.
Extract from September Song. Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. Music by Kurt Weill.
Sue Coe is, quite simply, my favourite living artist.
For me, her work sits proudly along a continuum which includes George Grosz, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz, on the one hand, and El Greco, Thomas Bewick and Goya, on the other. Her creativity rightfully stands on its own merit and how she skilfully uses it to explore social injustice, including their interrelationships.
Her latest book, Cruel, examines our instrumental use of animals for food. A great introduction to Sue and her work is to watch this video of a talk she gave recently. This is what The New York Times had to say about her recent related exhibit and The Wall Street Journal.
On this day in 1941, Virginia Woolf took her life. She took a short walk from her home, Monk’s House at Rodmell in Sussex, to commit suicide.
She walked into the River Ouse, after filling her coat pockets with stones.
More than perhaps any other literary figure I can think of, Virginia Woolf has a profound effect on me. And it’s hard to say why exactly. Other than to say vaguely she is a writer who inspires.
Reading her novels, short stories, letters and diaries as well as her nonfiction, essays and articles, provide a constant source of inspiration, fascination and delight. Some of the biographies and literary criticism that I have read about her also offer similar experiences.
Beware, however, as her life has generated an industry of activity, some of which is quite middling in quality.
I do not profess to be an expert. And nor do I strive to be one. Nevertheless, Virginia’s writing, whatever form it takes, stands apart from almost all others. With one or two notable exceptions, this point is repeatedly made to me whenever I read anyone else other than her.
I read her mostly at night, particularly when I cannot sleep. Virginia has become my companion in the hours between — dare I say? — night and day. I pick at random one of her books off the shelf, lay on the sofa, open it up at any page and begin to read. I am never disappointed.
This is why it is important for me to remember her on this day.
The Critical Perspectives on Animals in Society Conference took place on Saturday, March 10 at the University of Exeter. It was organised by a group of scholars based at various universities throughout Britain. About 150 students, teachers, animal advocates and authors were in attendance. Presentations included speakers not only based in the United Kingdom but also the European Union.
My presentation, ‘Animal Rights: Moral Crusade or Political Movement?‘, is available to read here.
Long-standing animal advocate and author, Richard D. Ryder, gave the keynote presentation. He focused on key issues to successful campaigns, drawing from examples of successful initiatives from his many decades of activities. Other presentations explored such issues as animal law, the badger ‘cull’, representation of animals in the Bible and Marxism and a social theory of animal liberation.
The organisers are to be congratulated on a very successful and informative conference.
Animal advocates know the spectacle of exhibiting animals in a zoo or in any other form of display is an affront to the animals’ welfare and their intrinsic value as individual sentient beings with moral and legal rights. Zoos, aquariums, roadside attractions, etc., are examples of institutionalised speciesism in which we (the human animal) exert power and control over all other species. Speciesism is often explained as being on a continuum of prejudice along with sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc.
The Invention of the Savage exhibit at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris demonstrates this continuum of prejudice and where it intersects on racial and colonial lines; however, it fails, notwithstanding much reference to the ‘other,’ to recognise the speciesist exploitation of animals alongside the various individuals and groups of people who were also put on display in one way or another.
This is a great shame because, otherwise, it is an incredibly powerful and moving exhibition which explains well how we construct racism and institutionalise in our culture. I reproduce here the museum’s brief description of the path taken by a visitor through the exhibit.
The first Act (‘Discovering the Other’) features the 15th and 18th Century arrival of exotic people in Europe, and their consideration as ‘strange foreigners’, categorized in four archetypes throughout the exhibition: the savage, the artist, the freak and the exotic ambassador.
The second act (‘Freaks & Exotics’) shows how early 19th Century brings the emergence of a new genre: ethnic shows. They first develop in theater cafés before spreading to larger and larger venues and being included in exhibitions and circuses. This process of staging the difference blurs the difference between the deformed and the foreign: physical, psychological and geographical abnormalities are first staged, and then become the focus of performances.
The third act (‘Spectacle of Difference’) reveals that between 1870 and World War Two, many venues start specializing in ethnic performance as the Crystal Palace, Barnum and Bailey in Madison Square, the Paris Folies Bergères or the famous Panoptikum in Berlin. It is the time of the professionalization of the activity, and exotic performance morphs into mass entertainment. Visitors are introduced to “actors of savageness” who become true genre professionals: Aboriginals, ‘lip-plate women’, Amazons, snake charmers, Japanese tightrope walkers or oriental belly dancers, but also the first black clown in France called “Chocolat” and drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec and legendary Buffalo Bill, whose show revolves on the native American Indian archetype, which forever brands the Far West imagery. Unbeknownst to them, audiences encounter made-up ‘savages’. Generally paid, the exhibited actively participate in building the imagery.
The fourth act (‘Staging’) shows how reconstructed ethnic villages, zoos, colonial and international fairs, science and spectacle merge in multiple places. Exotic peoples and physical strangeness are brought together on stage as if they both equally represented the realm of abnormality. Excess, grandeur and ephemeral reconstructions characterize this section of the exhibition with posters and painted dioramas, film ,screenings, photographs, automates and postcards. The practice starts in public gardens, following the one in Paris which, in 1877, is the first in Europe to exhibit tribes and groups. Such exhibitions lead to the invention of travelling Villages, like Carl Hagenbeck’s. Major tours start in 1874, and in 1878 until the 30s, international and colonial fairs include an exotic dimension to their programs.
Reference to animals occur periodically throughout the exhibit but speciesism is not addressed as such nor is the ethical question raised about exhibiting animals. However, there are some powerful examples of animals alongside exhibited ‘savages’ where, for example, Africans were brought with elephants and displayed together in zoos.
It was exciting to see in the exhibit Paul Friedrich Meyerheim’s painting, ‘In the Menagerie,’ included as it demonstrates well how an animal keeper displays an African man carrying a crocodile on his shoulders with an elephant standing behind them.
The most important understanding I came away with from the ‘Invention of the Savage’ was how, in the course of a few hundred years, individual non-white people were considered at Royal Courts to be ‘pets’ and ‘novelty’ people. This led to groups, indeed families, of natives put on public display and white people paid an admission to see them at international exhibitions and in zoos. This transition from individuals to groups contributed toward embedding into Western culture an imperialist and white supremacist worldview. A socially constructed problem of the making during last few hundred years which we continue to struggle with today.