The Animal Aesthete: The Ethics of Interspecies Encounters in Contemporary Art

By Zacharay Tutlane

The great eyes look into mine.  When I move my arm before his face, they still look on, as though they see something beyond me from which they cannot look away.
-J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

In the early 20th century, schizophrenic kitsch artist Louis Wain made his living by drawing and painting anthropomorphized cats on greeting cards and calendars.  His felines favored stereotypically bourgeois diversions- playing golf or tennis, taking a swim, hosting a tea party.  In the 1930’s, after being committed, the style of his work begins to exhibit a marked shift in direction. For decades, psychologists have used his late work as a visual representation of the “descent into madness.” This treatment has been advanced by pointing to a departure from verisimilitude – the colors become more intense, the constructions more geometric.

One immediately notices that Wain’s anthropomorphic tendencies have altogether ceased in these paintings. The cat is a cat, presumably doing cat things and having cat thoughts. If we shift our focus to the representation of the “face” of the cats, however, we notice that once his anthropomorphism is abandoned, the paintings take on a decidedly confrontational aspect, which becomes increasingly threatening, culminating in a demonic apparition in which the only recognizable features are the cat’s eyes, staring menacingly out from the canvas directly at the viewer.  Do these paintings simply function as an illustrated chronicle of a solitary individual’s mental collapse?  Or do this “madman’s” pictures reveal something fundamental about human relationships to other species? How are we to account, in these face-to-face encounters with the Other-as-animal, for the uncanny (unheimliche) effect produced, even on the non-schizophrenic?

In contemporary visual art the representation of animals is ubiquitous.  In the work of artists such as William Wegman, the visual encounter with the animal represented creates an ethically charged intersubjective space in which ontological tensions arise.  This often involves the meeting of the animal gaze; a face-to-face encounter with the Other which gives rise to a complex exchange, dramatizing and calling into question the relationship of the spectator not only to the texts and their semiotic content, but to him/herself as subject and his/her place in relation to the animal and its world.

As advances in Biology, Anthropology, and Philosophy force us to reconsider our place in the cybernetic triangle, we find ourselves rapidly abandoning previously held hierarchical models in situating the human in relation to other species: “Once we were the exclusive proprietors of mind, sentience, soul; now we are not sure” (Gordon, 12). In fact, the recent studies of Dutch Primatologist Frans De Waal suggest that chimpanzees may in fact naturally develop a sense of what we would refer to as “morality” or “compassion.” (Harris et al.)  If De Waal is correct his findings problematize hypotheses advanced as far back as Rousseau. If confronting an animal (even through a mediated text such as photography or painting) requires us to place ourselves in relation to it, that place is rapidly shifting; where we choose to take our “stand in relation” becomes a slippery surface on which it has become more difficult than ever to find secure footing. A decentering takes place, and previously held certainties become undermined. We may need to recalibrate.

The category of “animal” has functioned to provide man with a boundary: What is a human? A human is (an animal that is) not an animal.  The category “humanity” is therefore a priori reliant on “animal” as its complement (Derrida’s concept of “supplement” functions here as well). The question becomes: Where do we draw the line (between human and animal)? Is it possible to draw one? Further, is it necessary?  Here then is the space that yawns up at us in interspecies encounters, Derrida’s “abyss”: the uncomfortable proximity of the completely alien.

William Wegman

William Wegman works in a variety of media. Best known for works involving weimaraners, his dogs are often represented in his photography sporting human clothing or engaged in “human activities”.  Wegman’s The Dog Walker presents the viewer with a rich semiotic tableau.  Two Weimaraners are shown against a white background, gazing out at the spectator. One Weimaraner is anthropomorphized – he/she is in a “standing” position, wearing a long raincoat and holding a leash, which is connected to the neck of the accompanying dog. Using theoretical constructs, I want to suggest at least four distinct levels of engagement available to the spectator.

I. The Human-Semiotic Reading

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The primary level of engagement finds the spectator responding solely to the human semiotic gestures encoded in the work.  We recognize the Other (the Weimaraners in this case) as one (or more than one) symbol or signifier among many. Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding (1434), for instance, serves as an example of a work wherein the animal (in this case a small dog) functions as pure signifier. Though the animal as “animal” (that is, the concept of animal – this dog as all dogs, this cat as all cats) may be involved in such discourse, the animal-as-subject is not acknowledged, much less engaged.

This reading of The Dog Walker remains within a closed semiotic system. The spectator avoids being “called into question.” We have yet to escape Buber’s “I-It” level of discourse. If there is any reflection on the part of the spectator, it is strictly at the human socio-cultural level. The animal functions as a canvas or white screen that serves to isolate, highlight, or place in relief specific cultural foibles or tropes. The only relationship at stake here is that of humans and their language.  The gaze of the animal is not met.

II. The Specular Reading

Animals are nothing but the portrayal of our virtues and vices made manifest to our eyes, the visible reflections of our souls. God displays them to us to give us food for thought.
- Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, part I, 66

Wegman’s piece would likely end up in the realm of the comic or one-dimensional were it not for the gaze of the animal.  It singles us out and draws us in. In meeting the gaze, we are “put on the spot” as it were; recognizing the Other-as-subject, we are confronted with a new set of problems. No longer can we look at Wegmen’s dogs as a “feature” of the photograph – functioning solely at the semiotic level. One way to deal with this is to respond to the extra-diegetic gaze as inviting a reversal of perception. We become the spectacle, the animal the speculum. Hiding in fear from the decentering that has occurred and is always already occurring is not an option in this space. We are exposed, held accountable. But accountable for what? Perhaps our social pretenses. Perhaps our inheritance of brutal “multispecies histories” (Haraway, 23). Perhaps for our adventitious heirarchization, or the specious doctrine of human exceptionalism, propagated for centuries, that persists to this day. In the face of Wegman’s dogs we are called to a hyperawareness of ourselves and our place in relation to them; naked, “caught” in the gaze of an existence that refuses to be conceptualized.  Here is Levinas’ “neighbor,” in full disruptive regalia.

The Dog Walker is a piece of work that lends itself to this specular reading. We have the clothed, standing leash-holder and the naked, sitting leashed. Both face the spectator. Notably, the signifiers that function to differentiate the leash-holder from the leashed appear as arbitrary, absurd, humorous even.  What is separating master from slave? A standing position, a raincoat, and a leash.  The signifiers that confer this all-important distinction are exposed as hollow, artificial. The piece becomes satire; a comment on human pretension, of the sociological, sartorial, and ontological variety.

But doesn’t this mirroring reflect an overwhelmingly anthropocentric point of view?  Animals are not simply there to act as a convenient (or inconvenient) Other to be used as a foil for human navel-gazing. Even after granting the animals a measure of subjectivity, ultimately they become functionaries for human solipsism; mere lenses to reflect or refract images of ourselves. But what about the animal itself? The unheimliche effect? In Wain’s paintings the “threat” comes from outside, from an unknowable Other. We have yet to deal directly with this “uninterpretable, unreadable, undecidable” gaze. Making a mirror of it is one way to sidestep it. But if we are to seriously explore it?

III. Through the Eyes of the Other

How can we gain access to a landscape that is no longer the one we see, but on the contrarythe one in which we are seen?
-Deleuze, Proust and Signs, 8

To attempt to come to terms with the point of view of the Other requires a purposive border-crossing.  The aim is to tear human perception from its home; to open up new worlds, to “look out” from animality. But how? Giorgio Agamben holds that, “The first task of the researcher observing the animal is to recognize the carriers of significance which constitute its environment” (41). What is required is a move from the human semiotic culture to that of the animal. We must be willing to take a “stroll into other worlds.”  This is the challenge that we read in the eyes of Wegman’s Weimaraners, that Derrida describes in gaze of his cat. The seer of other worlds.

Joseph Beuys’ 1965 performance piece How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare suggests an attempt at such a crossing of boundaries. His head covered in honey and leaves, Beuys cradled a dead rabbit in his arms and whispered to it. According to Nato Thompson, “The fact that the hare was dead is all the more important because for Beuys the hare was a symbol of productivity and border crossing. The distinctions between death/life, human/animal were, to Beuys, barriers to pass through.  This meant adopting and creating new forms of language and being” (10). For Beuys to make this attempt suggests both a recognition of radical Otherness and a desire to open the self to it, even if only to then “explain” what would likely be Beuys’ own perceptions.

Returning to Wegman’s Weimaraners, I want to suggest that their gaze can be construed in a variety of ways once we get past both the human-semiotic and specular readings.  Derrida might read it as inscrutable, “abyssal and secret.” Louis Wain may perceive an overwhelming, unknowable threat. Donna Haraway sees an invitation.

An invitation to what, exactly?  After all, is it not a fundamentally imperialist gesture, as Haraway suggests, to claim to see from the point-of-view of an Other, to make the subaltern speak? Besides, isn’t this quite an impossible feat?

As to its impossibility, I would argue that in making the attempt we are at least taking steps towards a fuller, more mutual understanding, even if the result is utter bewilderment in the face of radical alterity.  Charges of imperialism are admittedly tougher to shake. But what are the alternatives?

IV.Becoming-With

…a whole new way of being in the world.
- Haraway, 24

The invitation which Derrida left unanswered is present in the eyes of Wegman’s Weimaraners.  The invitation, according to Haraway, is an invitation “to look”. What are Wegman’s dogs thinking, feeling? To look is not simply to speculate or attempt to recreate or relate to the animal’s world. Still less is it to use the animal as a mirror to look at ourselves, or to comment on our insular human world. To look is to inquire. Instead of anticipating answers one must pose questions. Instead of explaining pictures to a dead hare one might develop a relationship with a live hare. How does it see pictures?

As companion species we become-with; we mutually influence each other, each encounter an invitation to the opening of new worlds.  What results is, “a semiotic dancing in which all the partners have face, but no one relies on names”(Haraway, 26).

In interviews Wegman has described his artistic process (when he is incorporating his dogs) as “collaboration” (Simon, et. al., 14). He mentions that, on occasion, a dog may make a “suggestion” which changes the outcome of the piece. Though clearly The Dog Walker admits of little constructive criticism from the canines, the spirit of mutual influence he suggests is in fact in line with much of Haraway’s thought.  While The Dog Walker may not function as a clarion call for a new reality of “naturecultural dancing,” this piece, and by extension much of Wegman’s corpus, raises fascinating and incisive questions about our place in the world, and the ways in which we define our relationships.

As lofty as Haraway’s visions may seem – and clearly they remain outside the pale of mainstream human-animal relations, at least for the time being – in various organizations and numerous segments of the population one can find individuals more than ready to accept the invitation, return the look, risk the intersecting gaze. In knots of ecological relations throughout our communities we can find examples of reciprocal multi-species living.

In the mean time, is there a way out of the anthropocentric feedback loop?  After all, Wain’s cats sold well when they were shooting hoops, not when they began to channel Signac’s Portrait of Felix Feneon. In the realm of art in particular, the preference for the recognizable, the known, has been well documented.  But humanity in general? Are we anywhere close to surrendering such cherished distinctions as the one between human and animal? Will there ever be a moment wherein the gaze of the animal Other will be seen by all, or even most, as an opportunity for a “stroll into unfamiliar worlds,” for a creation of “positive knowledges”? Until such a time we must content ourselves with the artists and theorists we do have, whose work challenges our presuppositions and opens us up to new ways of being in the world. ❉

The chronology of Wain’s later work has been disputed by biographer Rodney Dale.  Dale argues in Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats (William Kimber, 1968)that there is no proof that the five paintings usually cited as a visual manifestation of his mental deterioration were completed in the order in which they have been historically presented.  For my purposes I am less concerned with the chronology of the works than with their confrontational qualities; though I would suggest that perhaps the strict linearity of their production is not its most important aspect.

When examining the ways in which Wain’s late work has been used-generally as a pedagogic supplement to “show” or “provide a window into” the schizophrenic mind-it becomes difficult to ignore the hints of voyeurism present in even the most reputable texts. If we are not careful we end up in a decidedly smug realm between spectacle and self-legitimation (“We are sane. Here are the paintings of a man who is not.”). Copies of Wain’s paintings are attached.

“So long as he (man) does not resist the internal impulse of compassion, he will never hurt any other man… it is clear that (animals), being destitute of intelligence and liberty, they cannot recognise that law…” (Rousseau, 2) The argument is that morality does not extend to animals, associated as it is with reason. But we should still be nice to them, since they are “sentient.” Descartes’ animal-as-machine isn’t even granted that much.

The widespread use of the dog as a symbol of fidelity in northern renaissance painting has been well documented. In the Van Eyck piece, the dog is granted no more subjectivity than the candles, curtains, or chandelier, each of which boast a comparable semiotic charge.

In The Order of Things Michel Foucault presents a complex and exhaustive analysis of the web of intersecting gazes in Velasquez’s Las Meninas (1656).  According to Foucault, Velasquez creates a mise en abyme wherein “no gaze is stable…subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles to infinity” (Foucault, 5).  The representation of the painter staring out from the canvas in Velasquez’s piece lends it a further destabilizing effect (You (the spectator) are not simply a subject, you are the subject of this painting) that is not explicitly present in The Dog Walker.

There are echoes of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic here; particularly in the categorical refusal to recognize the necessary interdependency of the constructs of “human” and “animal”; categories which are themselves resonant with connotations of power, as is made explicit in Wegman’s piece.