Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Artists and Animals : Open Thread

I forget now who said it...possibly even Herb Vogel himself...but someone in the exceedingly heartwarming film Herb and Dorthy noted how there seems to be a special bond between artists or art lovers and animals. In the film, you see the super collectors one moment offering the most inspired of commentary on contemporary art and the next being rendered speechless and /or totally captivated by the simplest of actions of their cats or turtles. And the final segment of the film, in which Mr. Vogel is entirely engrossed in the fish in a tank at the computer store while his wife is busy buying a laptop, seems to underscore how even these tiny finned creatures are infinitely more interesting than wireless modems or word processors or what have you.

In thinking about this, I concluded that there are many possible explanations for this special bond: from how powerfully beauty in nature compels us (and especially those attuned to see beauty) to the wide range of ideals or virtues we project upon animals (and which they wisely and mutely don't dispute). But I think there's something else at play here. In fact, it never fails to amaze me how so many of the most jaded or even misanthropic of artists will become a puddle of baby-talking mush around theirs or other people's pets. Animals are special to artists, even to those who see their own species as obnoxious.

Now perhaps animals are special to a wide range of people, and it's only because I hang out with more artists than the average person that I think this bond is related to being an artist, but then there was Mr. Vogel (I'm fairly sure it was him) confirming my suspicion that it's actually a deeper bond between artist and animals than with other people.

But why?

Do artists see something in animals that other people, not trained to "see" tend to miss? Do animals represent something "purer" or more "true" than other things in artists' worlds? And I don't think it's just an American thing or a Western thing (although we are totally insane when it comes to our pets [exhibit A]). Artists I know from other parts of the world tend to be more inclined to go out of their way to help or protect animals than others in their culture (Adel Abdessemed, perhaps, being the rare exception ;-) ).

Consider this an open thread on the special bond, if indeed there is one, between artists and animals.

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40 Comments:

Blogger zipthwung said...

All animals are created equal, but some pigs are created more equal than others. I don't smell any better than anyone else, but I do believe I am more empathetic than your average bond trader. Go for the jugular, they say, hit em hard, hit em low: go for the knees, to be specific - animals that walk on two legs are an anomaly - the joints are the most vulnerable point - aside from the temple. The law of the jungle says "eat or be eaten" and I bet that's more at the root of it - the snakes vs. the eagles, the sharks vs the eagles, the dogs vs their tails. If you watched the stanley cup game (hockey bro!), where was the justice? Shouldn't one team have let the other win, on account of this economy? The collapse of the auto industry (detroit is a sucking bed sore)

No, I think most collectors have tripple rows of teeth and like to collect sets: cards, claws, claymores and teeth. Red of tooth and claw they are, not like artists, who may only make a painting a year, if that, because they are too busy feeding and clothing their cherished pets, who bring them rats in the night, for they know not what they do.
It's like a jungle out there. So what if a few collectors feed their pets mercury laced swordfish, ignorant to the hazards of long term build up? No, collectors are like bulls in the bull shop. Let em eat mercury. Let em eat, I'll have a candy bar a day like Bukowski, he was so sensitive he had to drink to excess - which is why he didn't have any pets, like his publisher, who I dont know, maybe had a chihuahua. Bring on the truffles.

6/16/2009 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Animals don't become assholes because they're driven to make their mark in the world. It's wonderful to be around that.

6/16/2009 09:07:00 AM  
Blogger pelacus said...

For the record, I'm an artist and I don't like animals. They do figure sometimes in my work, and they fascinate me in their strangeness, their non-humanity, you might say. I think this is contrary to much animal-loving, which I take to be anthropomorphizing at its core, and an expression of a parental instinct. So I am a bad example of the human-animal bond. I do feel that humans are animals, so I don't feel a particular superiority to them, either.

6/16/2009 09:16:00 AM  
Anonymous greg said...

Animals don't require an artist statement.

6/16/2009 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

It's alive!

6/16/2009 09:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I don't think it's just artists.

6/16/2009 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Anthropomorphizing is burning ants in the sunspot of a magnifying glass. It's not understanding your pets personality. Almost any animal will be nice to who feeds them, even it they're assholes.

Pets have personalities, and feelings too. If you just pay attention, you will see it's true, they have reasons for what they do.

6/16/2009 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

"(Adel Abdessemed, perhaps, being the rare exception ;-) )."

Don't forget Tom Otterness.

6/16/2009 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Good point George - animals have feelings, the same emotions we have. They're even aware of death, and want to live, not die. Which is why pigs try to escape from slaughterhouses - they even try to escape from the trucks hauling them to the slaughterhouse. And isn't that the motivation behind becoming an artist, too? No wonder we feel so close to them.

6/16/2009 10:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Bizarre, I’m currently doing a series on bullfrogs to boot!

But maybe it is patterns of rhythms and not so much animals as such. As Art often is seen as being the visual expression of the balance and spacing of cultural patterns, so too maybe we recognize that animals still live by “natures” rhythms, those rhythms that we as “civilized” peoples have learned to replace with our technological timings and repetitions. Maybe the attraction is to these “natural” rhythms that the animals still live in harmony with, rather then a species attraction as such.

Maybe artists perceive the expression of these fundamental rhythms as being somehow more Truthful and so are fascinated by them, much as their art seeks to express fundamental truths and patterns within our cultures.

6/16/2009 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

And isn't that the motivation behind becoming an artist, too?

How so, you don't like sausage?

6/16/2009 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger jami said...

it's in their eyes

6/16/2009 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

George asked, "... you don't like sausage?"

Well, I don't like being made into sausage - into a product consumed by others. I'd rather spend my life rolling around in the mud.

6/16/2009 11:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Marissa Neave said...

I think Abdessemed's work actually showed (and evoked, obviously) a deep empathy for the animals depicted and others like them. As violent as the work was, it reminded us that as much as we 'love' animals, we also brutalize them for our culinary pleasure. The work also proved that we really, really prefer to not bear witness to this aspect of our treatment of animals.

6/16/2009 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

When my kid was young, she had pets.

She had a goldfish, well actually an aquarium with fishes. From this she learned two important things. First, sometimes bigger fish eat littler fish (making them disappear) Second, when fish die they float, so you flush them down the toilet and feed the alligators that live in the sewer (hey, it's NYC)

Then she had a hamster, the hamster had a name "Ollie Bolley" (the fishes didn't have names they were too hard to tell apart and you couldn't hold them without creating life support problems)

Now Ollie had all the kid-hamster stuff, including a cute cage with plastic tubes running everywhere, a modern maze but with no real way out. Maybe this was a child's metaphor for the rat race, at least for the hamster race.

Additionally, Olley had this plastic ball, it came apart so you could lock him in (it had breathing holes so don't worry) Once in the ball, Ollie could run around the loft to his hearts content and we'd know where to find him at dinnertime.

One day Ollie escaped. So we put food out for him every night and the food disappeared so we knew he was still around. A week or so later, we found Ollie comfortably settled behind a stack of artworks. He had made a little nest out and stocked it with enough food for a month. Back in the cage he went.

A couple of months later Ollie made another escape, we never saw him again, maybe the cats got him.

Yes, somewhere along the line here we upgraded, and got her a kitten. There's always some story about learning responsibility and all that, but kittens are cute and dad always ends up feeding the cat.

It's a long story but a bit later she got a kitten and a puppy, almost at the same time, but the kitten was a bit older. The puppy was one of those hyper little terrier types that can run about 40 miles an hour, inside without crashing into anything. The kitten grew up to be a big orange cat, as big as the dog. Sometimes the dog would chase the cat all over the house, it looked like a real war with the dog terrorizing the cat. What really happened was that the cat snuck on the snoozing dog and pounced upon her, starting it all. When it was all over, they would curl up together on the bed and nap.

6/16/2009 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Constance Humphries said...

They don't talk. They have no pretense. They do whatever suits them. I like all those things.

6/16/2009 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Sharon Van Lieu said...

My husband sat on the ground just a few feet from this young hawk to get this picture. I watched from a short distance, holding my breath.

http://www.vanlieuphotography.com/pages/juvenile_hawk.html

We felt like this was our hawk and watched him as he grew. His posing for this portrait was a powerfully intimate moment for us. We felt honored, chosen by this beautiful bird.

I usually shoot landscapes and my husband shoots architecture and aviation, but the time spent with this hawk and the resulting photograph has to be our favorite. The connection with a living creature is so powerful.

Sharon

6/16/2009 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Dalen said...

When dealing with people, there's often a layer of bullsh*t or some ulterior motive involved (on either side, even if it's only wanting the other person to like you). The fact that we need to learn the art of small talk in order to function socially...really, how much time have I wasted talking about the weather, and it wasn't even about the weather...

Animals are honest, straightforward in their interactions with the world. And isn't that what artists are essentially trying to do, shake off the b.s. and expose the truth of things?

6/16/2009 01:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

I am also an artist that gets stupefied with joy and turns to complete mush in the presence of small furry animals. My friends find it very entertaining, as I look more like a stereotypical lumberjack mountain man and absentmindedly play with my knife while talking to people, yet I look at CuteOverload.com almost daily. My students started thinking they could get better grades by bringing in cute pictures of puppies and kittens (it doesn't work).

For me, personally, animals are a way of letting go. I, like a lot of people, artists and non-artists alike, often find the world of people a very difficult and senseless place to be. I am driven to make art as a means of making sense and finding meaning in that experence. Animals provide a great respite from all that. If not for my two cats (both named after artists) I would find it much more difficult to get through some days. A lot of the artists I know who are animal lovers, an animal lovers I know who are not artists, share a certain sensitivity. Call it being attuned to beauty, or truth, or just feelings. The simple joy of a kitten is a great pleasure to people so attuned.

6/16/2009 01:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

What Dalen said re lack of bullsh@t. Although, a tiny quibble: sometimes an animal does have an ulterior motive but it's usually something very basic like "feed me!"

What about artists who love teh lolcats? Am I the onlee wun?

6/16/2009 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Dalen said...

Point taken, Oriane...

6/16/2009 04:20:00 PM  
Anonymous C said...

I enjoy the company of my dog. She is devoted, spontaneous, attentive, instinctual, energetic, without ulterior motives, no BS- a pure spirit and being. As an artist- as a person- I'd like to be that way as much as possible- it makes me a better artist. Her example is good for me.

6/16/2009 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is dumb

6/16/2009 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

A 04:52:00 PM,

Dumb but not stupid.

And it's only dumb if you didn't pay attention, there's a response for everyone.

The zeitgeist has been cranky the last few days and maybe a little levity is what is called for.

Whatzamatter? Dog humping your leg again?

6/16/2009 05:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

are Chelsea galleries 'dog friendly?'

6/16/2009 09:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have 5 cats but they actually drive me away from art more than anything. They're like saying "you and your stupid art ideas, come back to bed". All the time.

I speak the cat language very well, much better than any human ones.

Cedric C

6/16/2009 11:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Luis Coig Reyes said...

The question of animals truly important, but it's really one of the most neglected topics in our current cultural conversation. Don't forget that we are animals ourselves, with hair and blood, who need to eat plants and other animals and then defecate. We are born of our mothers and then feed from their breasts like any other mammal. But as far as the other animals, well, they have been prominent in art since the first paintings were made in the caves of Spain and France. They were respected and considered sacred for most of human history. They had a distinguished place in our myths and stories. Nowadays we walk the Earth in great conceit, thinking we are some supreme expression of evolution, thinking we have a right to all the land, all the resources, everything. Many people don't feel any sense of loss when we drive yet another creature to extinction. We've lost our sense of wonder at the natural world and, as a consequence, we've lost our respect for it. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that we've lost our minds, we've gone crazy. We are destroying our own natural environment and we don't know how to stop. We seem to be intent on damaging the natural systems enough to cause our own extinction. Or maybe we'll survive in a world without whales, tigers, aardvarks, lemurs, mantis shrimp... in a world with only pigeons, mice, roaches and a few other tough city dwellers. The way I see it, our crazy love for cats and dogs speaks of an unconscious yearning to reconnect with the larger ecosystem, to find a balanced place in the order of things. We are not looking for something true or pure in them, we're looking for our lost minds.

6/17/2009 12:15:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

I'd like to agree with your initial point, Edward, but I'm actually under the impression that most artists think little of/about animals.

I'm an artist with wondrous admiration for biodiversity and the curious results of evolution. I think many (if not most) artists could say the same. In that sense, we - artists at large, that is - are invested in the greater animal kingdom. But, while I agree that many artists adore animals (we coo appropriately over footage of penguins or polar bear cubs, for example, and we hiss at scenes of oil-soaked cormorants), I'm not convinced that we really want to learn about these other species. This extends beyond facts - after all, not everyone needs or wants to know what a given species feeds on or what its Latin name is - but also to observation.

Herb Vogel sounds exceptional. I don't know many NYC artists that would choose to invest themselves in aquarium goings on when they could be ogling iPhones. And how many NYC artists know that the same species of cormorant from those depressing oil-spill videos is a common resident in the waters all around our city? Or why do so many of my artist friends laugh at the idea that I differentiate between the city's gull species, yet they don't find it amusing when someone distinguishes makes of Chevy?

This surprises me, as I assume that artists are careful observers by their nature and, moreover, by vocational honing of that skill. Yet it seems to me that most artists extend their curiosity about and fondness for animals no further than the cute, upraised eyes of a dog or the playful antics of a cat on a sunny morning.

One of the most common sorrows that shared with my parents during my first years in NYC is that so few people here shared my interest in ecology and natural history. Those few that I found who did tended to delve into natural history superficially, even if their interest in it was real. Photographs of Pale Male on wing over Central Park were appealed to these types, but photos of him tearing apart a rat did not.

For most contemporary artists, animals are merely pets or convenient symbols. Pets, like lovers, can shine a light on life and symbols are significant, but they are not complexities of flesh and blood; they are not "live animal" reflections of our own experience.

Of course, having a more developed or complex relationship with animals doesn't mean that you'll make good art. Many wildlife artists are, in my opinion, making mundane pictures, but they know more about and care more for an array of species than does any NYC artist I've met. But maybe that's just it? Maybe it's the city mouse and the country mouse divide again. Maybe I just need to find those artists successful enough to bridge it?

6/17/2009 12:21:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Oh, and, Tom Hering, LOTS of animals "become assholes because they're driven to make their mark in the world." It's the nature of the beast, as it were. I like to look over that dark truth myself, to take the live-and-let-live approach, but Nature is as liable to be red in tooth and claw as it is to offer a tranquil moment or exchange. Its ambivalence is sublime.

6/17/2009 12:26:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

Maybe the artist"s habit of sustained 'looking' heightens up the awareness of awe & beauty that is to be found in living creatures, even the most repugnant. Where I live there is sometimes a profusion of dog ticks which are revolting to look at. The female's
body bloats up blood-swollen into a grey sack whilst head/pincers and legs are pathetic appendages sticking out. For all that one is obliged to acknowledge the efficiency of the design & its function & even the grey in the body can take on a dirty beauty in the light.

6/17/2009 03:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

yeah, authenticity.

Even while postering when being territorial they seem to embody the authentic.

kind of what many people aspire to.

6/17/2009 06:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abused children are more likely than non-abused children to use their pets as transitional objects in times of loneliness or stress, and to see pets as their sole love object.

Many artists I know have had difficult lives, and are extraordinarily attached to their pets. There may be a connection?....

6/17/2009 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger donna said...

I'm anxious to see that movie for a number of reasons, but mostly because Herb and Dorothy are such remarkable people- a larger question might be, why don't more people appreciate art and want to have it around them regardless of their financial circumstances? The Vogels collected art from emerging artists- they sought it out, thought about it, developed their "eye" ("eyes") for it. Why don't more people do that?

I'm super-sensitive to animals right now having lost my beloved dog in January. I miss her terribly. But I don't think artists are any more inclined to be animal lovers than the rest of the population. Kind people tend to hang with kind people, Ed- so your friends are appreciative of other living beings, and they just happen to be artists as well.

6/17/2009 09:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

Luis -

Good point. I think we are so far away from "nature" now that we can only relate to it in small doses. We wouldn't be able to deal with being plopped down in in a jungle full of wild animals (if there such a place still exists) but domesticated cats and dogs are de-natured enough for us to interact with and by doing so we feel like we are still close to nature. And it helps that they are cute and furry and become dependent on us.

6/17/2009 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Hungry Hyaena, there's a difference between the nasty realities of Nature and humans who become assholes as they make their mark in the world. Either fact can be used as a metaphor for the other, but they're not the same thing.

6/17/2009 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Luis Coig Reyes said...

Oriane, if our cats and dogs are denatured (which is a whole subject of debate in itself), they can hardly be the vehicle to get back to nature. Let's include every other creature that humans keep, from camels to fish. Now we're getting closer. Let's go to the zoo, poor things, but they help us remember something, don't they? Now let's take a walk in the woods and see if we spot a deer or a hawk. Are you coming? Alright, now let's go back home, with our renewed inspiration, what do we do? We keep on consuming natural resources like mad hyenas from hell that won't be satiated. (Although it seems like at least the one above has it right). We are thick, my friend, thick. Furry, soft cats are a pleasure, I have one myself, but until we learn to love the tarantula, the viper and mantis-shrimp, we are still in danger. Right? Look at Tony above, in love with ticks! What a far-seeing mind! I love him. Not that I'd let ticks suck my blood, of course, but they are awesome.

6/17/2009 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

significant relationships between humans and animals, yes. specifically artists and animals...ludicrous. artists are just humans, we're not special. we make stuff for money just like everyone else.

6/18/2009 12:32:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Artists are special, by definition.

6/19/2009 12:03:00 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

I love all animals, and am an artist, so my existence verifies your argument. I can even vouch that my boyfriend pets my head while I eat breakfast, saying, "very good, you are eating." Really, it is as if he worries that i would not do it if i were on my own. And that could be very true. I suppose artists feel close to animals because they actually are similar, going about doing what they like doing for the sheer joy of it, but also for the treats, and feeling abandoned when alone. Our hearts go to all of them with affection.

6/20/2009 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

It sounds like your boy friend is an artist Rebecca, or a financial type. Are you the humanity in the equation? Or does your boyfriend volunteer to read to blind people?

I subscribe to the idea that everything is nature, and that techne is the source of sin, but also mitigates chaos. In that sense nature can be mediated.

Mitigation through mediation is interesting - that you can blind yourself to injustice to escape discomfort, or keep social barriers up in order to preserve the harvest from starving acquaintances. This is the way of the world.

Artists are like clowns (Joseph Campbell bro!) who, at the beginning or the intermission, dole out the policing forces of satirical dramas.

How isolating to be a clown cop? No one likes cops. As a drug enforcement agent, I have a hard time busting anyone. I have to go to my superiors and say, hey, these are just little fish, give me a little more time and I'll hand you some big fish. No one likes a pat on the head, but if I can take one pat in the service of saving lives and minds, then I'll do it. Repeating until I peter out.

6/22/2009 12:17:00 AM  

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