Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, Eating Animals - his third, the first non-fiction - delves into factory farming, small animal farm alternatives, and, most notably, the process and culture of choosing – or non-choosing – whether or not to eat animals (whether they be land, air or sea).
After thoroughly ingesting Eating Animals’ well-measured call for thoughtfulness and personal action, I gullibly presumed that a landmark tome had arrived, and that its impact and values would begin reverberating widely-- that it would be the Our Bodies, Our Selves for vegetarianism, The Jungle for the 21st century. Our zeitgeist is not without other attention-grabbing, parallel investigations, what with Oscar nominee Food, Inc., and Oscar winner The Cove. And for this, some of us will drift from tempered optimism to cringe-worthy, between-the-eyes pinches: “too much information at once…you’re freaking people out!...”.
It may still be too early to gauge the book’s impact (it was released late last fall), but based on personal experience, early hope is unwarranted: I’ve spoken with reasonable, not-at-all-carnivore-heavy friends who have read it and were essentially non-plussed. A woman who’s been ‘trying to go vegetarian’ on and off since she was a teenager thought nothing new had been brought to the table - if you will - on the subject that hadn’t been covered over the last 15 years. Others saw the book lacking in its addressing the sources of our dairy surplus, and thus sabotaging much of Foer’s thunder as far as the bigger picture.
And most aren’t even willing to get that familiar: blogs and tweets and message boards are filled with pre-emptive strikes against Foer for his pretentiousness, his city slickery and his naiveté- the vast majority from folks who haven’t even cracked the book. Meanwhile, city hipsters mine animal-centric cuisines unfettered; pigs (aka pork) are having something of a renaissance in the kitchen, and there’s a niche movement in urban rabbit culinary school. In the present arc of our evolution, it appears that one of our strongest adaptations is our instinct for defense. It’s very easy, it turns out, to be profoundly moved by a book, or a film, only to shift back to the status quo a half hour later.
While the direct approach may work for some, over the long run stealth seems to be the wiser option, because the fact of the matter is, you can’t preach to people until they’re ready to be preached to. Until then, there’s the subconscious, which is where art can be useful: it has great capacity in its ability to be both passive and active at once.
Surprisingly few artists’ work has addressed animal welfare. There’s a plethora, meanwhile, who have been meat-centric-- from Hermann Nitsch, to Jana Sterbak, to Victoria Reynolds, to name just a few among countless others. For the most part this kind of work fetishizes the meat, as separate or devoid from the animal it comes from. In the case of Nitsch and others who use meat in performance, their use of carcasses in baroque rituals and occasional crucifixions have, over the years, gone from something more profound to something more sensational. And let’s not forget Damien Hirst, who put animal carcasses on the map like no one else. They were all about death and mortality/immortality; animals-as-food somehow was a thoroughly foreign, if not absent concept in the presence of the glass-and-formaldehyde vitrines (whatever you say about Hirst, you probably wouldn’t suggest that compassion is high up on his checklist). Of course it makes perfect sense that artists would work with fresh meat (and blood and guts, in Nitsch’s case) in various permutations as part of the onward march of modernism, but perhaps more so for a quick-and-easy visceral charge. Carcasses just have that way about them.
When it comes to addressing animals’ issues and their welfare, the first (if not only) artist whose work comes to mind is Sue Coe, whose social-activist images go back to the mid-‘80s. Coe’s work is unrelentingly direct and often heartbreaking. You have to give her a ton of credit for sticking to her guns and remaining committed to her cause(s), but the numbers of viewers who have become converts through her work must be miniscule: though a painting of lambs in a slaughter house isn’t likely to be as jarring – and therefore more digestible - as a photo of one, it still puts people on the defensive, and that’s where the wall closes up; for some, it’s the cringe factor: don’t preach to me.
There are just a couple of artists on my radar whose work has tactfully integrated animal-eating consciousness over a significant stretch of work: Jean Lowe and Lewis Stein.
Lowe’s work has covered various social and political issues over the years, whether consumption, narcissism or sprawl, each with an inner and outer humor that never points. “I'm interested in work that creates conversation as opposed to work that pummels the viewer,” she says. “Even if the viewer really needs a good pummeling! It seems to me that when you're addressing an issue that people don't necessarily want to think about, you need to be stealthy.”
Lowe did a series of papier mache decorative plates in 2002 that featured farm scenes in some, and in others the eyes of animals that we eat peaking out from the center of them. It’s hard to imagine a more spot-on gesture-- they balance humor and tongue-in-cheek guilt-tripping in equal measure so as to cavort with the carnivores while winking at the vegetarians. If only the USDA packaged their graded meats with similar images, of eyes of the corresponding animal. Though commercial production of the plates isn’t in the works, Lowe isn’t closed to the idea, should any producers bear offers: “I think they'd be great produced in ceramic and in a more commercially available form. As I did the series back then, though, it was more about exploring the content than elaborate technique and production. I like papier mache because it's immediate--it's an easy framework to drape an idea over.”
Stein’s ongoing output of cow portraits was arrived at through two primary serendipitous events: at the wise old age of 26, Stein caught a local TV segment on ‘Live Poultry Markets’ and finally made the connection between supermarket, Styrofoam-tray chickens and the roosters and hens in his backyard at the time (where he was living while attending U.C. Berkeley). Foer meanwhile, in Eating Animals, writes about the birth of his own chicken consciousness when his vegetarian babysitter helped him make the connection).
The revelation, late as it was, led him to go “cold turkey.” The other experience was “a walking holiday" in rural southern
Almost all of the photos in the series were taken on small dairy farms – most in
Lowe hasn’t been making animal-oriented work of late, other than an occasional book cover, and that may be for the best; so many issues, so little time. It would be unsavory for her audience to anticipate a lifetime output of animal consciousness-raising, and for her not only self-sabotaging but a tedious prospect. Still, it’s nice if she can mix it in every now and again, however subliminally.
Humor and decompartmentalization of “the tidy way we box up our thoughts” are among her ongoing tactics. And it’s more of a chipping-away effect that she accepts as her overall M.O. “I'm okay with being part of a larger whole,” she says. “I don't expect my work to change anyone's behavior all on its own. I'm a believer in the power of a collection of small acts.”
Stein has been more intuitive with his approach: “I knew virtually nothing about cows before I began this series and it took a lot of trial and error before I became more sensitive to them,” he says. “It is 100% certain that cows have feelings and sensitivities and they are different from cow to cow.” He takes his time setting up his shots (only once did he need to ask permission for a shoot), and tries to develop a relationship with most of the animals he photographs. This meant that many of his earlier efforts couldn’t be used. But things improved after he became attuned to their psychology. When I asked him to elaborate, he said he couldn’t “really say too much about this. I'll just mention that the way a cow makes friends is by licking. If you are going to work closely with, cows its best to develop a liking for big, sloppy wet kisses.”
Are the lines of consciousness drawn between bleeding hearts, and everyone else? Maybe that’s just a starting point. Gradually, and very, very slowly, people change, they evolve. But we’re still very much in the midst of working things out, and probably will continue to do so for a while, as our options permit. Foer, early in the book, considers our own ‘animal nature,’ and writes of an internal struggle: “There is a war,” he writes, “not only between us and them, but between us and us.” He then quotes Jacques Derrida (a vegetarian? Who knew?): the war, Derrida reflects, is "an unequal struggle, a war (whose inequality could one day be reversed), being waged between, on the one hand, those who violate not only animal life but even and also this sentiment of compassion, and, on the other hand, those who appeal for an irrefutable testimony to this pity."
War is waged over the matter of pity. This war is probably ageless
but…it is passing through a critical phase. We are passing through that
phase, and it passed through us. To think the war we find ourselves
waging is not only a duty, a responsibility, an obligation, it is also a
necessity, a constraint that, like it or not, directly or indirectly,
no one can escape….The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it.
(Images: Jean Lowe, Big Black Cow Plate, 2002 ,enamel and resin on paper mache ,Photo credit Roy Porello, Photo courtesy Quint Contemporary Art; Baroque Chicken Plate, 2002 ,enamel and resin on paper mache, Photo credit Roy Porello , Photo courtesy Quint Contemporary Art; Lewis Stein , Untitled, 40" x 40" (100 x 100 cm) , 2007 ,C-print, Courtesy of the artist; Jean Lowe, What Would Satan Eat? , 2009; Enamel on papier-mâché, Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York; Lewis Stein , Untitled, 2009; 40" x 40" (100 x 100 cm), C-print, Courtesy of the artist; Lewis Stein , Untitled, 2007; 40" x 40" (100 x 100 cm), C-print, Courtesy of the artist; Jean Lowe, The Battered Women’s Cookbook, 2006 , Enamel on papier-mâché , Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York; Lewis Stein , Untitled, 2007, 40" x 40" (100 x 100 cm), C-print; Courtesy of the artist)