One of the classes I teach at Brock is a senior-level special topics class on the representation of non-human animals. One of the many topics we explore in that class is the question of whether or not non-human animals can make art. It is always a lively discussion and one I enjoy very much. I was, therefore, delighted to explore this topic for The Conversation.
What do you think? Does an artist have to be human?
The other day we decided to beat the winter blahs by taking a “staycation” at the Prince of Wales hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake. An afternoon by the pool followed by an evening of dining and cocktails seemed like a good little pick-me-up at this point in the winter.
“Have a closer look,” a woman in the pool called out to me. “What do you think the little child has in her hands?” I knew without looking that young Victoria (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s oldest child) was holding a dead bird in her hands, but I didn’t want to seem like that kind of art historian. To be polite I walked closer to look at that section of the painting and that is when I was startled to discover a rather glaring omission from this reproduction.
In Landseer’s original painting there is a row of dead game birds laid out next to young Victoria and a few more on the floor in front of Prince Albert’s feet. Prince Albert’s clothing (including those oh-so-tight trousers showing off every detail of his kneecap!) tells us that he has just returned from hunting, so the inclusion of this detail makes sense. Further, the juxtaposition of the very dead birds with the animated and life-like dogs is just the kind of thing that Landseer, one of the most celebrated animal painters in the history of art, is known for.
At the Prince of Wales hotel, however, all of the dead birds except for the one that young Victoria holds are missing. I can only assume that this was done to make this modern day replica somehow more palatable to hotel patrons. I’ve looked up other replicas of this Landseer painting available for sale, and in all the ones I can find the dead birds remain part of the composition as the artist intended.
I’m still mulling over why this would be done. This is not an establishment nor a town that is known to be particularly sensitive towards animal issues. Indeed, the use of carriage horses as part of the tourism industry in this town often draws protests from local activists. Further, I would say that Niagara-on-the-Lake ranks pretty low in terms of vegan-friendly dining in the region — indeed, a glance at the menu of the Prince of Wales hotel, the very building where this altered replica of this image hangs, indicates an establishment that prides itself on the various high-end meat dishes it serves (including, rather ironically, a smoked duck breast dish).
I wish I knew more about the decisions that led to this edited version of Landseer’s image hanging in this hotel. It is a fascinating example of visual culture in that it seems to point to present-day anxieties around the representation of animals. As I frequently say to my students, “what is absent from an image is sometimes as significant as what has been included.”
In July 1909 police in London informed the organizers of an anti-vivisection protest that they could not use two of the banners made for this event. In both cases the images on the banners showed a dog being subjected to experimentation. The organizers made sure to point out that these images had been taken directly from publications which promoted animal experimentation. In other words, the organizers of the protest felt that it was important to underscore the fact that these images were not fabricated representations but, rather, were adapted directly from vivisection material. There was “no exaggeration” in these images stressed Louise (“Lizzy”) Lind af Hageby, the organizer of the International Anti-Vivisection and Animal Protection Congress, a multi-day event which included this high-profile public demonstration through the streets of London on Saturday, July 10, 1909.
The police were concerned that the images on these banners could potentially stir up trouble by provoking a “turbulent element” and potentially “lead to riotous proceedings.” Of particular concern was a silk banner that included an image taken from a scientific journal showing a dog who had been subject to experimentation. This image was accompanied by the words “Is it nothing to you all ye that pass by?”
A lively debate about these banners took place in the “Letters to the Editor” columns of the London papers. Dr. Stephen Paget of the Research Defence Society, a pro-vivisection organization, described the use of these images in this way as a “striking exhibition of insult and hatred” on the part of the activists, and argued that anti-vivisection societies must be losing their support amongst the general public if they were attempting to use shock tactics to draw attention to their cause. Lind af Hageby refuted this, noting that these images were not the “invention of anti-vivisectionists.”
In the end, the police’s decision to prohibit these banners was upheld. However, as a protest to this ruling, one of the forbidden banners was draped with another piece of cloth to hide the offending image, and the resulting blank banner was carried defiantly at the end of the procession.
I find this to be such a fascinating example of the role of visual culture in the animal advocacy movement from this time period! Images can, of course, draw attention to important issues, but imagine the power that this blank banner had in this context. The absence of imagery here was likely as powerful as any pictorial banner in the procession – perhaps even more so. As one eye-witness pointed out, if an image is deemed to “be of such revolting character that it cannot be carried through the streets,” then isn’t this a powerful argument against the action being depicted? As I often remind my students, when it comes to visual culture it is important to remember that what is excluded is often as significant as what is included. In this case, the blank banner was a bold statement against both vivisection and censorship, and certainly a clever use of visual culture by Lind af Hageby and her colleagues.
*I discuss this event as well as the use of visual culture in other animal advocacy campaigns from this time period in my new book, Art for Animals.
Around 1870 Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, witnessed an act of compassion that deeply touched her. She had been on a train journey, and near Fitchburg her train pulled up alongside another train at a station stop. As she waited for her train to continue, Alcott passed the time by looking out her window at the sights — a beautiful waterfall caught her attention, but she also noticed that in the train next to hers were several cattle and sheep crammed in to rail cars.
It was a hot, sunny day and Alcott recognized that the animals must have been scared, uncomfortable, and thirsty. As she noted, “how they must have suffered in sight of water, with the cool dash of the fall tantalizing them, and not a drop to wet their poor parched mouths.” She was troubled by the very visible distress of the animals in the next train and was pondering how she might best help them when she noticed two young girls come up beside the train. The girls had been out picking berries and, upon noticing the animals in distress, one of the girls dumped out her berry pail, ran to the water’s edge and filled her bucket with water. She returned to the train and offered the water to the sheep “who stretched their hot tongues gratefully to meet it.” She repeated this numerous times while her companion picked grass and clover to feed to the animals. Alcott was touched by this kindness and wrote that she wished she “could have told those tender-hearted children how beautiful their compassion made that hot, noisy place.”
This story was repeated in a number of 19th century animal advocacy and humane education publications, often with the above image accompanying it. The actions of these two young girls became a lesson in kindness and compassion.
Over 140 years later a similar story is being told. Members of Toronto Pig Save, a grassroots organization that aims to bear witness to the suffering of animals who are raised and killed for food, have made headlines for giving water to pigs arriving at slaughterhouses on transport trucks. Their actions mimic those of the young girls that Alcott wrote about in 1870. This past summer, a heated exchange between one of the activists, Anita Krajnc, and the driver of one of the trucks has led to a criminal charge of mischief for Krajnc.
It is utterly absurd that we live in a world where kindness and compassion is criminalized. What, I wonder, would Louisa May Alcott have to say about this ridiculous charge?
A huge congratulations to all involved in the making of this film, especially the Director/Writer/Producer, Liz Marshall, and the human star of the film, Jo-Anne McArthur. Countless hours went in to this project, and I hope that you are able to sit back and savour the celebrations tonight. I would give anything to be able to be at the premiere celebrating along with you!
This film will have a tremendous impact on all those who see it, and it is such an important reminder of the power of art to change the world. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see it, watch your local listings. Word is there will be more screenings in more locations coming soon. In the meantime, check out the trailer.
I am really honoured to have been invited by Dr. Sally Hickson to speak at the University of Guelph later this month as part of their art history speaker series. The event takes place on Tuesday, November 19th at 5:30. More details below.
If you are in the Guelph area, please drop by and say hi!
I will be speaking about the role of visual culture in humane education, with a specific focus on the late 19th- and early 20th- century. In addition to my talk there will be other activities taking place, including temporary exhibits, and crafts. I also hear there will be some yummy vegan snacks at this event.
If you are anywhere near LA I hope you are able to join us for a fun day at this amazing venue!
I am delighted to be part of the new online magazine published by Our Hen House. For years I have been a huge fan of the incredibly important work that Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan have done through this site, so it is a tremendous honour to be a columnist for their new magazine.
My column is called “Picturing Animals,” and focuses on the ways in which art and visual culture can be an important part of animal advocacy efforts. In this column I will be writing about how activists use imagery today, but will also be considering examples of art and visual culture used by activists in previous eras as I think it is important to draw connections between the history of animal advocacy and what is being done today.
I am very excited about the opportunity to write this column–I had been wanting to do more writing that blends activism and academic work, so this is a perfect fit. I’m also really happy to be part of the Our Hen House team. Jasmin and Mariann bring an “indefatigably positive” spirit to the work they do, and I find this tremendously encouraging. Activism can be a tough, lonely, and discouraging road (heck, so can academia!), and it is so easy to get burnt out. However, without fail, every single time I listen to an Our Hen House podcast or hear these two talented women speak I feel inspired to do more, to work harder to help make a difference for animals.
The NMAS is a wonderful museum dedicated to preserving the history of human-animal relationships, a history that has until very recently been woefully neglected by curators, historians, and academics. This is an important history, and the work that the NMAS is doing is so valuable. If you have any artefacts relating to the history of human-animal relationships or advocacy campaigns from previous eras that you would like to donate to the museum, they would love to hear from you!