Vile Bodies

Ronald Binnie, Edinburgh University

Date de publication : 15 février 2014

Table des matières

Texte intégral

A news report on BBC Television in May 2013 described an eyewitness account of an attack by two men on an off-duty soldier in Woolwich, London. The witness described the attackers as “vile animals”. There is barely a day that goes by where there is not some reference in the mass media to one brutal regime or another treating its people ‘like animals’ or to criminal offenders described in similar terms.

This symbolic language is now so deeply embedded in our cultural terminology as a short hand expression for the humiliation, abuse or criminality of our fellow humans that the very word ‘animal’ has come to be a synonym for vicious, felonious, abject and perverse human behaviour. So what does this say in relation to our attitudes to nonhuman species? It seems to me that it demonstrates an implicit acceptance of the tractable place of so-called ‘lower’ species and reinforces the species divide between ‘them and us’. This article is an attempt to analyse critically how these attitudes have come to be so entrenched within human society and more specifically, how even resolutely politically progressive contemporary artworks contributes to this via the problematic use of the nonhuman animal’s body in contemporary western art. Crucial to this are the persisting economic relationships between human and nonhuman, which, I contend underpins any cultural relationship. Many of those artists that seek to critique modes of perceived exploitation have come from a long tradition of liberal humanism stretching back to the Age of Enlightenment. If we are truly to return the ‘gaze’ of the other animal as many modern philosophers have characterised it, artists must find new ways of seeing and create new forms of expression. And it is within the posthumanist discourse that I believe we may find the possibility of progress.

In the acknowledgements that prefaces his book Surface Encounters: Thinking With Animals and Art, Ron Broglio begins by “thanking the animals,” adding that without the “alien agency” (Broglio, 2011) of the nonhuman animal, his book would not be possible. Although this may be disingenuous towards Broglio’s intentions, it seems to me somewhat meretricious to “thank” the nonhuman animals who have had no say in their participation in many of the artworks described therein, let alone those who have had their bodies sliced and diced for Damien Hirst’s vitrines or smeared over the bodies of Carolee Schneeman and her fellow performers in Meat Joy (1964). This may seem on the surface a facetious, perhaps even reactionary comment, but intrinsic to this attitude is the acceptability of the use of the nonhuman body in contemporary art culture. This very cultural embeddedness allows and reinforces the distance between ‘us’ and the ‘other’. It is within this gap of distance where acceptance of the exploitative treatment of the nonhuman animal is sanctioned. This works, I would argue in exactly the same way as the ‘civilizing’ forces of colonialism developed slavery to bolster the economic expansion of empires. It is in this fundamentally economic relationship, I believe that the true expression of our problematic relationship with the nonhuman animal is to be found and one that must be challenged if this relationship is ever to change its character.

Broglio’s use of the term “alien agency” is, I feel still wholly indicative of the persistent gulf between ‘them and us’ that still persists even in much of the Animal Studies branch of Cultural Studies. Even the subtext of the subtitle Thinking with Animals can be read as an implication that the use of the nonhuman as a tool with which to think. This shows I believe just how difficult it is for the human animal to distance itself from centuries of anthropocentric tradition, be it religious, political or economic and the implied superiority over the ‘lesser species’ therein. This gulf exists even in the very word ‘animal' as an all-encompassing oneness for all that exists outside the exclusive but discontinuous category of ‘human’ even if that definition itself in an unstable one. The phrase ‘animal rights’ is predicated on the notion that humans will bestow any form of welfare, agency or rights on ‘other’ species. This locates other species squarely within human systems of morality and ethics. So how can we approach this from another perspective?

Historically, animal rights have developed from liberal humanist doctrines arising from principles and philosophy associated with the Enlightenment period. The idea of animal rights does not differentiate between the many other nonhuman species, simply that they are as one apart from the human. In his foreword to Cary Wolfe’s book Animal Rites, W.J.T. Mitchell examines the idea of how all other species are ‘lumped’ into one big all-purpose mass of ‘animal’ and how “the reduction of the complex plurality of animals as a singular generality underwrites the poverty of a humanism that thinks it has grounded itself in a human essence, a stable species identity to be secured by its contrast with animality” (Mitchell, 2003). It is after all, only a matter of some half a century since many groups of humans were also excluded from the definition of ‘human’ and brutally persecuted for their perceived difference to some illusory, idealized ‘norm’. We need only look to the recent anti-homosexual legislation in Russia to understand how fragile any such development can be. It is thought provoking to counter pose such repellent ideology by asking the inverse question of how long could it be before others, such as the great apes may be admitted to that exclusive, unstable classification?

Whilst the history of our relationships and eco-systemic connectivity to other species may be as old as the human species itself, the reality of what this has come to mean today in terms of ethics, politics and culture has its roots in the economic relationships that underpins the systems promulgating epistemological relationships – relationships that masquerade as ontological certainties. Cary Wolfe identifies one of the intrinsic difficulties in dealing with the ‘problem’ of the animal within the relatively new field of Animal Studies in his pioneering book, What Is Posthumanism?

‘Becoming animal’ and ‘the animal gaze’, ‘looking at animals’ are all phrases now familiar to the relatively new branch of Cultural Studies known as Animal Studies. Posthumanism, however would suggest that we have no need to ‘become’ or ‘act’ like animals, as we are already animals - merely one species amongst many others. Concepts such as Marx’s idea of ‘species-being’ and more recent notions of bio power have fed the humanist project and in turn, cemented ideas of the privileged position of the human primate. The website for the British Animal Studies Networks states that it hopes to include those “who are beginning to recognise the significance of studying the role, place and perception of animals; people from non-academic institutions – animal welfare charities, museums, NGOs; and artists who are representing and thinking about animals in their work” (BASN, 2011).

Cary Wolfe, queries the role of Animal Studies “in the context of growing attention to the bio-political and to questions of bio-power” (Wolfe, 2010). He suggests that the issue of bio-power will come to radically challenge our view of the animality of the human species. Wolfe identifies the “fundamental anthropological dogma associated with humanism” (ibid) as the doctrine by which the human seeks to facilitate the “escaping or repressing…of its animal origins in nature” (ibid).

It is worthwhile to keep this doctrine in mind when considering his observation on art that “form does not involve the material of perceptual substrate of the artwork” (ibid). Can this perception be unpicked to look at the material subject-object of the nonhuman animal body either living or dead as it is presented – and distinct from the ways images of the nonhuman has been represented – in contemporary art? This can be can be investigated through the work of many contemporary artists such as Angela Singer, Mark Dion, Rachel Mayeri, Damien Hirst, Andrea Roe and many others, who continue to use the physical presence of the nonhuman body in the gallery as a integral part of the substrate that composes their work. If the form, as Wolfe suggests, is in some way distinct from this “perceptual substrate”, then why is the artists’ continued use of physical, literal nonhuman animal material – the body – so essential to their communication of the perceptual?

Steve Baker’s description of “the abrasively visible” physical presence of the nonhuman animal body, (Baker, 2008) and his specific use of the term “abrasive”, perhaps hints at attempts to subvert or shock with these unexpected encounters between human and nonhuman within the context of the art space. This very unexpectedness underlines the divisions that remain so very much a part of our relationships with other animals and exemplify the ‘thrill’ of those close encounters with animals to be found in the museum, zoo or safari park. The roots of this division are extrapolated in Wolfe’s reading of Systems Theory (Wolfe, 2010).

Here the fundamental postulate of Systems Theory – its replacement of the familiar ontological dichotomies of humanism (culture/nature, mind/body, spirit/matter, reason/feeling and so on) with the functional distinction system/environment – is indispensable in allowing us to better understand how systems respond to modernity’s central challenge of “functional differentiation”. There is another schism, which I believe is crucial to understanding these postmodern cultural relationships, specifically the increasing division between wild and domesticated that has serious implications for our treatment of and attitudes to the various positions of the nonhuman animals in human culture arising from the separation between nature and culture. This is delineated by questions surrounding the place of the companion animal that has so ‘dogged’ so to speak, both artists and commentators, characterised in the homily of the ‘wolf by the fireplace’.

In Picturing the Beast Animals, Identity and Representation Steve Baker delineates this idea through an examination of John Berger’s 1980 text, Why Look at Animals? as the difference between the ‘real’ and ‘reduced’ animal, where “the modern urban pet is not a real animal” (Baker, 2008). Baker expands this difference to one in which the, “authentic reality of the good meat-eating peasant is set against capitalism’s claustrophobic interior where the overt exploitation of animals goes hand in hand with the narcissistic pet-owning animal-lover” (ibid). Throughout his writing and particularly in his later work The Postmodern Animal, Steve Baker looks in depth at the position of the nonhuman in contemporary art. His introduction of the term “botched taxidermy” neatly conflates both the literal bodily degradation of the nonhuman animal and the political variability of its ‘abrasive’ presence in the contemporary art gallery.

In a posthumous collection of his writing published in 1994, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture, postmodernist art critic Craig Owens defines the relationship between nature and culture thus, “In postmodernist art, nature is treated as wholly domesticated by culture: the ‘natural’ can be approached only through its cultural representation. While this does indeed suggest a shift from nature to culture, what it in fact demonstrates is the impossibility of accepting their opposition” (Owens, 1994). According to Owens, there is also a further danger when artists begin to appropriate the troubles of others, both human (and by extension) nonhuman, as the subject of their art. They run the risk of "the indignity of speaking for others" as Owens quotes from a conversation between Deleuze and Foucault.

Directly expressing the outrage of the condition of others can be met with a charge of misappropriation or even exploitation for artistic purposes, so new strategies are required to convey these messages in less exploitative ways. Philosopher and so-called ‘father’ of animal rights, Peter Singer unambiguously addresses the role of contemporary art and artists in an interview, Beyond Animal Liberation in Antennae, the Journal of nature in Visual Culture, issue 19, winter 2011. On the issue of the use of nonhumans, despite the perhaps rather indeterminate caveat of “harmful ways”, Singer emphasizes the notion that to many artists they remain simply a resource, objects to be used,

When live animals are used in harmful ways, there is always the risk that the artist simply reinforces our prejudices by using sentient beings as objects for art in ways that ignore their interests. That is why I prefer the use of methods of enlightening the public that do not involve harm to animals.

Of more concern perhaps, is that Singer remains unconvinced of the influence that contemporary art can have in shaping or shifting popular consciousness, or of even an ability to communicate political ideas,

I am not aware of any contemporary work of art that has really done very much to change our attitudes to animals. The really effective examples are now very old – what has there been that can compare with William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty? Perhaps films like Bambi, Babe and now Rise of the Planet of the Apes have taken over the role of art in influencing the broader public about the way we treat animals.

This seems on the surface at least, a particularly reactionary attitude to contemporary art and it’s role in today’s society but is perhaps simply indicative of Singer’s lack of experience and knowledge of artists such as Sue Coe or Yvette Watt, whose work is deeply concerned with issues around animal rights.  It does infer, however one might baulk at the major popular cultural impact of Babe, and by the law of diminishing returns presumably Babe 2; Pig In the City, that there is still a problem with the perceived ‘improving’ influence art can have with “the broader public” and by extension, their access and attitudes to it. This comes into sharp relief when directly compared to an impression of what the potential power and reach of popular culture is. If we are dependent on ‘disneyfied’ to use Steve Baker’s idiom, anthropomorphic kitsch or dystopian science fiction fantasies to inform our progressive attitudes to nonhumans, we’ve got troubles.

In the same issue of Antennae, Steve Baker challenges Singer’s doubts, accusing him of an attitude to art that it somehow matters less than philosophy and that he is dismissive of “the art world” as being “guilty of gross self-indulgence.” However, the high profile role of capital in western contemporary art makes Singer’s statements harder to rebuff. Some also challenge Singer’s fundamentally utilitarian approach. Julian H. Franklin in Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy, critiques the notion of a ‘preferential utilitarianism’ as one that is intrinsically prejudicial,


Singer is bound to admit that the cost in suffering inflicted on a small number of humanely housed animals by carefully designed experiments and clearly needed tests would be legitimate if the pain were indeed offset by reasonably expected benefits to other individuals, animal as well as human, for the knowledge thus required (Franklin, 2005).

Singer’s mistrust of the role of art does remain worryingly symptomatic of a more general, public unease and suspicion of ‘modern art’. His expression of the useful role played by such anthropomorphic kitsch as Babe or the retribution fantasies of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (not withstanding the undeniable role that popular culture can play in the dissemination of political ideas and ideologies), is a depressing manifestation of the failure of contemporary art to communicate a progressive ideology of human/nonhuman relations.

One only has to recall the stark reality when a nonhuman animal does ‘rise’ up against the cruelty of its custodians to contrast the extent of such fantasies. Take for example Topsy, an elephant who ‘belonged’ to the Forepaugh Circus and spent the last years of her life at Coney Island’s Luna Park. Because she had killed three men in as many years, including one particularly abusive trainer who attempted to feed her a lit cigarette, Topsy was deemed a threat to people by her owners and killed by electrocution on January 4, 1903, at the age of twenty eight. Inventor Thomas Edison oversaw and conducted the electrocution, and he captured the event for posterity on film.

There continues to be an inherent difficulty in merely using those utilitarian calculations to ‘measure’ how art works are ethically arbitrated. How can the benefits of an artwork be measured? Will they always be of some indefinable cultural worth to the human species? Tom Regan, in The Case for Animal Rights, argues for the establishment of a moral status for the nonhuman animal. Going further than simply the employment of utilitarian calculations intended to weigh the potential for harm against benefit, Regan argues for an inherent moral value and as such is an advocate for rights to be ascribed to species other than human. However, Regan confines this ascription to “normal mammalians aged one or more” (Regan, 1973). This seems not only an overt expression of speciesism in practice applying as it does to only mammals but use of the word “normal’ is disconcerting. However imperfect or inadequate, this conception does at least begin to define the nonhuman in its own terms, and affirm that it possesses its own ‘value’ outwith any potential benefits to other species and explicitly human benefit.

As problematical as the formulation of animal rights may be, it is essential that, as Derrida puts it ”voices are raised – minority, weak, marginal voices, little assured of their discourse, of their right to discourse and of the enactment of their discourse within the law as a declaration of rights – in order to protest” (Derrida, 2008). Wolfe points out the knotty anxiety of “the ethical difference between abusing a scallop and abusing a dog – differences that seem, to many people to be the point, even if they are certainly not ethically the only point” (Wolfe, 2003). He goes on to suggest “considerations of biodiversity” (ibid) may be significant, which raises an interesting argument for an ethical significance not based solely on the capacity of suffering and one that is wholly perceived through human criterions such as hearing and feeling sympathy for the yelps of the abused dog for example, but also other species’ existences, positions and roles within the complex systems of biodiversity and ecological fragility on which our own existence may ultimately depend. It is perhaps harder to recognize the ‘suffering’ of other animals when they are more distanced from human cultures (unlike companion species) and when their ‘voices’ cannot, to human ears, make reconcilable protestations at their treatment. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of humanism and more specifically that form of humanism characterized by liberalism, is its penchant for that form of pluralism in which the sphere of ethical consideration is broadened and extended to previously marginalized, excluded groups, but without in the least destabilizing or throwing into radical question the schema of those who undertake such pluralisation. In effect, even this pluralistic relationship between the human/nonhuman does not begin to challenge conventional relationships of power between species.

The nonhuman animal remains a commodity for consumption irrespective of its pluralist situation or any newfound ethical status conferred in some human societies on a selection of some other species fortunate enough to have evolved vertebrae. This essentially ‘welfarist’ approach, critiqued by Bob Torres and others, allows for what he calls a “gentler exploitation” (Torres, 2008). Torres in particular points to the glaring inconsistencies that arise from such an approach that allows an organization such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who supposedly stand for ‘animal rights’, to offer awards to the developers of more humane methods of slaughtering food animals. The ‘other’ remains strictly that. The distance remains.

In his 1993 book, Mimesis and Alterity : A Particular History of the Senses, anthropologist Michael Taussig considers the process of humans from one culture taking on another's nature and culture (the process of mimesis) whilst at the same time distancing them from it (the process of alterity). He describes how an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia, the Kuna, had adopted the use of various representational figures and images evocative of the Caucasian people they had encountered in the past. Taussig criticizes anthropology for evaluating yet another culture for having been so impressed by the exotic and superior technology of the foreigners, they raised them to the status of gods. To Taussig, who defends the independence of a lived human culture from such anthropological reductionism, this is entirely suspect.

A similar and typically anthropomorphic reductionism is often applied to other species as they are assimilated into human cultures. The application of the concept of mimesis to contemporary art could be interpreted as attempts at a one-sided representation of the ‘other’. In effect this engagement with notions of ‘becoming animal’, whilst attempting to bridge the distance, merely reinforces that lateritic distance. A manufactured distance between the nonhuman animal and its own ‘botched’ body can also be recognized in Steve Baker’s notion of ‘botched taxidermy’ in The Postmodern Animal, which remains an invaluable work that undemonstratively scrutinizes the situation of the nonhuman animal in contemporary art practice and some of the motivations of artists working with these ideas. I believe however, that this concept of ‘botching’ can be extended to the skewed and isolated presence of the nonhuman not just in the art gallery and any other spaces where contemporary art is found, but more generally in other ‘human spaces’, cut off from its ‘real’ context and repositioned within the myriad of superstructures in human society; museums, circuses, zoos, art galleries and even as part of the family unit within the human ‘home’. Effectively they are transformed into objects inseparable from human material culture of which they are and yet are not part. In this analysis, art is not unique or in any way separate from other products of human cultural activity.

In The Politics of Aesthetics, French philosopher Jaques Rancière identifies the concept of an "ethical regime of art," (Rancière, 2000), wherein artistic images are evaluated in terms of their usefulness to society in general. Rancière associates this "regime" with the ancient, classical Platonic notion that identifies artwork as a labour of craft. Under this regime, he suggests that, "the mimetician provides a public stage for the ‘private’ principle of work" (ibid), and essentially the work of artists cannot be granted disproportionate commendation simply because the labourer performing the ‘artistic’ job of imitating reality is operating according to the same criteria as the making of any manufactured artefact. Crucially in this politically ‘aristocratic’ way of thinking, common labourers have a lesser voice within the rigid socio-economic organisation of western capitalist society. Even lower down on this sliding scale of primacy of course is the nonhuman animal. The use of the nonhuman as ‘art object’, or at least as raw material in its production, binds it into this relationship of ‘mimetic making’ as symbolic of the ‘other’ or of the human’s perception of its own disputed animality. It is the manifestation of another symptom of its lowly status as an object of material use. In effect, the body of the nonhuman is transformed into a form of ‘Cartesian shell’, hollowed out (quite literally in the processes of taxidermy employed by many artists and museums for purposes of display) and detached from its own animal, nonhuman identity and refilled with human circumstantial symbolism. The nonhuman bodies become repositioned as objects within human culture, irrespective of their own original integrity outside specifically human cultural contexts.

He grew vexed and, asked if poverty and hardship with freedom were not preferable to our treatment in slavery. “Linda,” he continued, “we are dogs here, footballs, cattle, every thing that’s mean”.

The above quote derives from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), by Harriet Jacobs. It comes at the moment when the writer’s brother, Benjamin has decided to escape to an uncertain future in the north but one with the promise of freedom. Benjamin’s comparison with dogs and cattle is telling – categorized as less than human, slaves are simply property, nothing more. There are two crucial ideas here in examining the relationships between human and nonhuman animals, those of the latter as resource and as property.

In Making A Killing, Bob Torres and David Nibert’s scrutiny of the economic role of the nonhuman adopts a Marxist approach to consider the situation of nonhuman animals in food production, scientific research or as ‘companion animal’. This tactic can also, I would argue be similarly applied to the relationship of art and capitalism and the particular connection between that of capital and contemporary art as one which emphasises the role of the nonhuman as a resource to be exploited even if that use is to make a perceived critique of that very connection. It does not change the fundamental relationship of the human/nonhuman as one that makes use of the other.

Artists have long been fascinated with the form, function and position of the non-human animal and have employed a diversity of methodologies to focus on their ‘otherness’, to explore concepts of human ‘animality’ and even construct parallels with the marginalization of minority groups of humans. I believe this use, even as a strategy to critique the situation of the nonhuman animal can fortify their position as raw material within economic systems of exploitation that exploit the nonhuman for food, for experimentation, for entertainment and for art.

Since the development of humanism, which emphasised the value and agency of the human species, clear parameters have been drawn between emotion and rationality, mind and body, nature and culture and the human and nonhuman. There is I believe, a necessity to unpick these stratified boundaries within the context of posthumanist theory and to develop new strategies and methodologies for art and curatorial practice that repositions the nonhuman animal within contemporary art practice and theory. The myriad ways that contemporary artists have manipulated the bodies of nonhuman animals in their many practices need to be looked at in the wider context of developments such as the ethical notion of speciesism and the development of the animal rights movement itself during the latter part of the 20th century. In a fascinating recent experiment reported in the Guardian newspaper on 24th May 2013, Dr Joseph Zammit-Lucia described how he exposed human audiences, in different environments, to portrait photography of other non-human species,

One of the things I do is engage in various forms of art practice. Animal Portraits represent some of my work. Working with a team from Michigan State University, we analysed the impact of these portraits on viewers, first in a museum setting and later in a classroom setting. No words, no explicit messages, no attempts to "educate" them in what they should think. Just exposing them to the imagery and letting them think for themselves.

The results were dramatic. Around 90% of the visitors changed their cultural perceptions of animals and spontaneously made statements about the need for more sustainable lifestyles that can help conserve these animals. This happened without a single word being uttered or printed about conservation or sustainability. Viewers were subjected to an emotional experience, allowed to internalize it for themselves and see where that took them. It is an approach that's fundamentally different from the idea of educating by bombarding people with facts and telling them exactly what to think using rational arguments.


Joseph Zammit-Lucia, from the series Strength, photography, (2007),

In much of the culture that informs contemporary Western art however, there perhaps still remain lingering spectres of the zoo or the circus with the artist as a postmodern surrogate of the zookeeper or ringmaster. The gallery becomes a neo-menagerie where the human audience discovers old relationships masquerading as new ways of looking at nonhuman subjects. In We Have Never Been Modern, French sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour states that the mechanisms of modernity are such that they “create two entirely distinct ontological zones, that of human beings on the one hand, that of nonhumans on the other” (Latour, 1993). What are the origins and implications of this schism, and particularly for artists exploring these “ontological zones”? Even the reforming aspects of humanism that have led to the development of animal welfare legislation and calls for animal rights have done little to bridge these zones.

Emerging during the mid-1980s, primarily through the work of Latour, along with Michel Callon and John Law, actor network theory (ANT), also known as enrolment theory or the sociology of translation, is frequently associated with the equitable treatment of both human and non-human ‘actors’ within relational networks. It assumes that all constituents within a particular network can and should be described in the same terms. It assumes that nothing lies outside the network of relationality, and as noted above, suggests that there is no difference in the ability of technology, humans, animals, or other non-humans to act. The foundation for this is that differences between them are generated in the relational aspects of networks and are not to be presumed. This perspective could prove invaluable in any intention to investigate the gaps or spaces in the relational aspects characterised by the formation of a ‘them’ and ‘us’, between the human and the nonhuman ‘other’ as it is represented in contemporary art. This does need to be explored within the wider structure of core relational networks such as prevailing economic systems and how that reinforces other aspects of human/nonhuman relations such as food production for instance. Could this outlook be usefully developed to analyse what precisely are the relational roles of the respective ‘actors’ in networks established by contemporary art as a collective activity and in particular focus on the notion of equitable treatment?

There are many artists that engage directly with ‘other’ animals such as Kira O’Reilly, Joseph Beuys, Rachel Mayeri, Oleg Kulek or Nicolas Primat who work in direct contact with nonhuman species. In some cases, the human artist interacts with the nonhuman subject in its own environment, such as Mayeri’s film from the series Primate Cinema, Baboons as Friends, (2007). This works utilizes methodologies similar to ethological studies employed by biologists. Alternatively, the artist has brought the nonhuman animal into a human environment such as Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). This was Beuys’ most famous ‘Action’ where he spent three days with a live coyote. After flying to New York, Beuys was swathed in a felt blanket, and then driven to the gallery, never actually physically touching American soil. He wanted to see nothing of America except the ‘animal’. The work’s title is of course ironic. Beuys opposed the Vietnam War and his work was a direct challenge to the perceived hegemony of American culture. Can these instances be seen as sincere examples of genuine inter-species collaboration however, or simply another expression of human culture fixated around the interests of the human artist and uses the presence of the ‘other’, nonhuman animal as a living symbol?


Joseph Beuyss, I Like America and America Likes Me, ‘action’ performance, (1970), [internet], available at:

Historically, the increased mechanization of industry throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has developed intensive modes of manufacture such as factory farming and mass-produced imagery and the nonhuman has become increasingly commoditized within these capitalist means of production. There needs to be a comparative analysis of whether the commodity of the farmed, hunted or found nonhuman animal body has become reiterated as raw material for many contemporary artists. Certainly in the case of work such as Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, (1991) this would appear to be the case. Hirst ‘commissioned’ the killing of two tiger sharks in the production of this work, an animal already slaughtered in its millions for the production of shark’s fin soup. Is there any material difference between the killings of an animal for the manufacture of an artwork or a food that is nutritionally valueless, but is nonetheless regarded as a luxury item that is an indication of high status? Similarly, there is no intrinsic financial value in Hirst’s work itself, rather value has been attributed by an art market obsessed with potential capital investment and the status that comes with owning objects of perceived high value. Hirst remarked of his own work “the huge volume of liquid is enough. You don’t really need the shark at all” he wrote in his 2006 book I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now. When the original animal began to decay due to inadequate preservation techniques – quite literally botched taxidermy – Hirst insisted that a second shark be killed despite the work’s buyer insisting that the fibreglass replacement added to its ambiguity. “I’d like to be able to order one over the phone, that would be perfect”, crowed Hirst, chiming perfectly with the values of a culture of commercial mass production. This seems little short of a neo-liberal takeaway service.


Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, (1990),

In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin observed how “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (Benjamin, 1935). Methods of reproducing images have led to a proliferation of art dissemination, so how has this mass production affected the use of the nonhuman in art? Has it become an anthropomorphic channel for a lost wilderness or a pre-packaged commodity for cultural consumption? A widening distance between the raising and killing of the food animal has become ever more acute, whilst many ‘pets’ in the west (and increasingly now the east) have become ever more pampered. Technologies of mass production have facilitated new opportunities and ways of seeing and experiencing art. Ironically, the application of that technology to the situation of the nonhuman in food production and scientific experimentation has led to a wilful conspiracy not to see. Nonhuman animals have been disconnected from their historical proximity to humans and relocated into the factory, the laboratory, the zoo, the museum and the art gallery. As Linda McCartney once remarked, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls the whole world would be vegetarian”, (Linda’s Kitchen, 1995) a quote which itself inspired Brian Clarke’s 1998 exhibition of stained glass, The Glass Wall in New York.

Benjamin’s observations on the processes of industrialization chimes with French philosopher Jaques Derrida’s assertion it has become all too apparent that during the past two hundred years “traditional methods of treatment have been turned upside down by the joint development of zoological, ethological, biological and genetic forms of knowledge” (Derrida, 2008). This has been facilitated by means of mechanization and regimentalization to a degree simply inconceivable in the past by means of genetic experimentation, the industrialization of the production of animal meat, artificial insemination on a massive scale, more and more audacious manipulations of the genome and so on. This effectively reduces the nonhuman animal to a component in the process to satisfy a demand for meat through artificially overactive reproductive methods, such as hormones, genetic crossbreeding, cloning, etc. Not only for meat however, but for all sorts of other end products and all in the service of a one species and the putative well being of man. I would add one more to the list of ‘end products’, that of works of art. Does the “putative well-being of man” in terms of cultural or political enlightenment (sic) mean that contemporary artists may seek to excuse the methods that locate them within the wider systems in which art production is located? Even of those artists that do seek to critique modes of perceived exploitation, many are inseparable from the long tradition of liberal humanism that still very much situates the human as the moral benefactor of other species.

Interestingly in The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), the much anticipated 2008 translation of the complete text of Jacques Derrida's ten-hour address to the 1997 Crisy conference entitled The Autobiographical Animal, Derrida makes reference to the “terrifying and intolerable pictures a realist painter could give to the industrial, mechanical, chemical, hormonal and genetic violence to which man has been submitting animal life” (Derrida, 2008). He goes on to add however that relentless exposure to such imagery “would be too easy and endless”. This is in itself suggests an intriguing quandary to those artists who wish to explore these issues in their work and the differing approaches to them. Does one take the, in some senses “easy” road of shock tactics or try to find subtler ways of communication with the audience. The didactic aspect of art’s purpose has long been of much debate to artists and art writers alike. American philosopher Martha Nussbaum retrofits the Aristotelian idea of ‘man’ as a “political animal” as being one aspect of human ‘animality’ that is not in competition with any other aspects, arguing that “human kind is indeed characterized, usually, by a kind of rationality but rationality is not idealized and set in opposition to animality” (Nussbaum, 2006).

One of the ways in which nonhumans materialize in human culture is by means of one form of fictional narrative, the It Narrative, also known as Object Narrative. It Narratives are prose fictions that take as their central characters nonhuman animals or inanimate objects. Whilst some are told from the perspective of the objects themselves, others use them as a pivot around which other characters’ stories are spun. Though similar tales form the basis of many modern, anthropomorphic children’s stories, the earliest eighteenth century examples addressed an adult audience, originating as a serious literary device that permitted writers to present objective observation or criticism of humans and their society without presenting a main human protagonist's moralistic position. Exploring the circulation of objects in an increasingly commercial society, such narratives provide an insight into important social and cultural trends. Central to the genre are questions about how humans differ from animals or objects, a critically important issue for western societies dealing with the fallout from the colonial history of imperial exploitation and the slave trade. It also has perhaps something to add to the debate of our changing definition of what it means to be human. These narratives are also of relevance to many of our contemporary concerns about cyborgs, artificial intelligence, animal rights, sustainability and the manipulation of human and nonhuman genomes.

The fictive model of the It Narrative, it seems to me has a striking confluence with the analysis of the ‘cultural history of things’ applied to the products of human culture expounded in Igor Kopytoff’s The Cultural Biography of Things that examines the “moral economy that stands behind the objective economy of visible transactions” (Kopytoff, 1986). However nonhuman animals are not merely products of human culture even when some scientists may claim that they are. The narrative of the nonhuman as it interfaces with elements of human culture - be it science, art, economics or politics, has historically been a trajectory of use and abuse. The application of ethical thinking and practice is one way of ensuring that this interface is something other than exploitative and exclusively one way. Peter Singer defines the role of ethics as a practical one, “the whole point of ethical judgment is to guide practice” (Singer, 1993). Dolly the sheep, for example was not created by human science but was a manipulation of existing sheep cells. She had her own integrity irrespective of any impact on or value to human culture. Her own biographical It Narrative traversed from so-called scientific sensation of Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute to taxidermy display in the National Museum of Scotland. In many respects this provides an archetypal example of the nonhuman as an object of material culture and how this particular nonhuman individual has made the transition across strata of human culture from science into popular culture and finally to an object of display.


Ronald Binnie, Dolly Stuffed! photography, (2008), taken at National Museum of Scotland

These kinds of “animal biographies” identified by Samuel Alberti in The Afterlives of Animals, (edited by Alberti, 2011), continue the lives of the nonhumans long after their deaths and into the cultural spaces of the human, such as cabinets of curiosity, collections, museums and increasingly the art space. This has currency with the social or cultural biographies of things that Kopytoff identifies. What may be largely missing from these historical narratives or trajectories is a developed ethical position and to ignore the ethical aspect is to ignore a fundamental underpinning of the relationship of these assimilated bodies into ‘our’ (human) culture. Whilst new museology may be attempting to address the colonial heritage of museum exhibition and moving public collections towards addressing issues such as biodiversity and environmentalism, they remain other. They persist as collections of public or private possessions to be displayed as simultaneously educative and entertaining, irrespective of contemporary political tropes distinguished only by the prefix of ‘new’.

One of the conundrums inherent in contemporary scientific research practice is that as more inquiry is done on animals and the more we learn of their capacity for sentience and suffering, the more ethically problematic that research becomes. Since the 1970’s, and the development of the animal rights movement, awareness and public consciousness has grown concerning the violence involved in the use of other species. As museums and zoos have moved towards more progressive policies, many artists have joined them. Even those artists motivated by progressive thought and practice however, continue the practice of objectification. Artists such as Angela Singer, Sarina Brewer and Andrea Roe utilise salvaged nonhuman bodies such as road kill and discarded or donated taxidermy that come without much of the associated ethically questionable baggage. Angela Singer is exploring the specific idea of “an empty or subverted trophy” as Steve Baker defines it in The Postmodern Animal. In this way she is tackling and critiquing the very origins of these specimens. Singer states, “the very idea of a trophy animal is sickening to me”. Using recycled taxidermy, Singer aims to “make the trophy more controversial, give it greater presence and make it not so easy to ignore”. Further, she attempts to make reparation for the death of the animal by researching the history of the discarded hunting trophies and reconstructing the end of that animal’s life. The dead animal lives on in an after-life of material culture. However, even if they are ethically sourced, these artists still feel they have the ‘right’ to use the physical body of the animal as a material in the production artwork.


Angela Singer, Hedge Row, taxidermy and mixed media, (2010),

So ultimately how might contemporary art be connected, in a meaningful way, to the questions posed by how we relate to others species and in doing so act on issues such as biodiversity? Today, in the twenty first century biodiversity itself is endangered. We are living through, in this current Holocene era, another major period of mass extinction. It is also clear that whilst human activity is responsible for much of this process, making the current epoch different from those that preceded it, some power does rest in human hands to influence or address the situation and the transformative possibilities of contemporary art have a potentially important part to play.

In conclusion, I believe that although art has the ability to act as such a positive transformative agent, artists must first take responsibility and face accountability for the work they produce. The inflicting of more abuse, injury or death even as a critique of abuse, injury or death remains, I believe deeply problematic both aesthetically and ethically and effectively perpetuates the human cycle of the use and abuse of nonhuman animals. Even, I would argue the very use of the nonhuman animal body as raw material for artworks perpetuates an assumption that other species are there for ‘us’ to use as we see fit. Linda Williams Associate Professor in Art, Environment and Cultural Studies and leader of the Art and Sustainability Research Cluster at RMIT University, Melbourne has talked of the “collapse of aesthetic distance” between the artists and the world. Some artists have indeed begun to look at the wider picture of how we fit with other species and how our treatment of them and the environment has an impact on ourselves.

Distinguished American feminist theorist, Donna Haraway has consistently challenged our thinking about interspecies relations throughout her lectures and writing in, for example The Companion Manifesto (2003) and Where Species Meet (2007). In Birth of the Kennel, a lecture given in August 2000, her consideration of the canine companion species suggests, half humorously that "reversing the order of invention, humans didn’t invent dogs, dogs invented themselves and adopted humans as part of their reproductive strategy." Later in the same lecture, Haraway shows a cartoon slide of several wolves in a forest, one of who is wearing tracking equipment and comments “the telemetrically-equipped wolf is being introduced to the wild pack by her mentor, the mentor is saying we found her wandering at the edge of the forest. She was raised by scientists" (Haraway, 2000). Like the bodies of the nonhuman art subject/object, these wolves are captured in the ominous, waning window of twilight 'entre chien et loup' that is human culture. The wolf at the fireside displaced and misplaced.

American eco-feminist and historian, Carolyn Merchant calls for what she calls a “reconstructive knowledge” founded on ”principles of interaction (not dominance), change and process (rather than unchanging universal principles), complexity (rather than simple assumptions)” (Merchant, 1993). This seems to argue for an approach that is not based simply on notions of epistemological assumptions of human ‘superiority’ and for a more equitable approach to those relationships. In the current field of Animal Studies and indeed in wider human cultures of philosophy, natural history and even the animal rights movement, there still persist cultures of comparative negotiation as to the value of some nonhuman species as opposed to a recognition of the integrity of nonhuman species as a wholly systemic thought and action. Transhumanist and posthumanist thinking has begun to recontextualise the human species and challenge anthropocentric paradigms. Ethical thought and action are fundamental parts of this process. It seems that perhaps many are finally coming to terms with the sudden and shocking realisation that we have after all no need to ‘become’ animal - we were in fact animals all along.

Alberti, S. (2002), Placing Nature: Natural History Collections and their Owners in 19th Century Provincial England, [internet] British Journal for the History of Science Volume 35, Number 3, available at:

Baker, S. The Postmodern Animal, Reaktion Books, (2000)

Baker, S. Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation, Manchester University Press, (1993)

Baker, S. Something’s Gone Wrong Again, Antennae 4, (2007), [internet], available at;

Benjamin, W. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, (1935), republished by Penguin Great Ideas, (1988)

Broglio, R. Surface Encounters: Thinking With Animals and Art, University of Minnesota Press, (2011)

Derrida, J. The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), Critical Inquiry, 28, Fordham University Press, (2008)

Hirst, D. I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Booth-Clibborn Editions, (2006)

Jacobs, H. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Dover, (2001), unabridged republication of the work originally published Boston, (1861)

Kopytoff, I. The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process, published in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives, Appadurai, A. editor, Cambridge University Press, (1986)

Merchant, C. Radical Ecologies, (1993), Routledge, New York

Torres, R. Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights,

AK Press, (2008)

Wolfe, C. Animal Rites, University of Chicago Press, (2003)

Wolfe, C. What Is Posthumanism? University of Minnesota Press, (2010)

Ronald Binnie, PhD Candidate in Visual Culture, Lecturer Art & Environment,

Edinburgh College of Art, Edinburgh University

Pour citer cet article

Binnie Ronald. Vile Bodies. [plastik] [en ligne], • NUMÉRO #04 Art et biodiversité : un art durable ?, 15 février 2014. Disponible sur Internet : ISSN ISSN 2101-0323.