Americans do weird things with animals.
Perhaps our imperious stance toward other species and the rest of the living world grows out of the same sensibility embodied in the 19th-century ideology of Manifest Destiny, invoked to justify unbounded American expansionism.
Today, with our having achieved geopolitical dominance, the ethos persists in our drive to conquer nature. More habitats must be bulldozed, more wetlands repurposed, more wilderness plundered in the name of American progress.
We have a dysfunctional and sometimes paranoid compulsion to disarm the threat we see emanating from nature as other. Consciously or subconsciously, our cultural exploitation of animals often facilitates this agenda of disempowering the nonhuman realm. We seem to embrace Freud's expression that a civilized society is one in which "wild and dangerous animals have been exterminated."
When we encounter other animals, we often selfishly abuse and manipulate them. When a person and an animal meet, the animal generally ends up somehow the worse for it. We simply do not understand them, and we are poorer for that.
Our cultural interactions and visual representations are ecologically significant. The way we relate to animals in culture affects how we relate to them in nature. The imaginative exploitation of animals foreshadows more-literal and destructive incursions into their world.
People's weird constructions of other animals are ways of figuratively exterminating them: defusing their wildness and "danger," transforming their powers into harmless, clownish impotence. Eduardo Kac, for instance, created what he calls a GFP Bunny (transgenically modifying a rabbit with green fluorescent protein produced by jellyfish) that glows in the dark. Such ecological irreverence typifies the conceit that we can do what we want with animals, because ... we can do what we want with animals.
What might the world look like if we could transcend the demeaning, received ideas about other animals and try seeing them in ethically and ecologically reasonable ways? "What is at stake ultimately," Erica Fudge writes in Animal (Reaktion, 2002), "is our own ability to think beyond ourselves."
My premise is that it is morally, intellectually, and ecologically preferable not to do weird things with animals. By "weird," I mean silly, irrational, counterproductive, and retrograde, in contrast to the relationship that people could have with animals,, which would be more fulfilling and better suited to our role as one species among many in a complex ecosystem.
Weirdly, the Brooklyn artist Pinar Yolacan has produced a series of photographs of women wearing blouses made out of dead chickens. For the series, "Perishables," Yolacan sewed these blouses out of raw intestines, skin, and other assorted pieces of the birds.
People do wear dead animals in socially and fashionably acceptable ways—leather, fur, down—so why not chicken? These images are meant to disgust us on some level—but why? Certainly the ways in which people use animals are arbitrarily culturally conditioned, and Yolacan might have thought it would be interesting to make viewers reflect on why people regard certain exploitative uses as beautiful and valuable while we respond viscerally to others as disgusting. Perhaps we are meant to wonder what it would feel like, and smell like, to be these women wearing these chickens.
Maybe Yolacan is inviting us to think about our sensory relationship to animals. Their smells float through our world in ways that may be culturally eloquent—perfumes made out of secretions harvested from deer (musk) and whales (ambergris); charred flesh wafting through a restaurant, if that's your fancy—or may be putrid. Presumably "Perishables" means to evoke the putrid end of the scale, yet the women who are the human subjects of these photographs actually do look dignified and seem as if they fit at least somewhat in these skins. There is even a certain beauty about the forms, the clothes, which are not unlike some styles of haute couture.
What boundaries, then, mediate what we do with animals?
I think the answer is, few to none. Yolacan's photos pretty clearly cross the line, but that line is already far afield. There are few rules about what we cannot do with animals, and that facilitates and legitimates weirdness. Any extant guidelines are cultural conventions, and artists like Yolacan show these to be malleable, dispensable in the cause of art (as they are dispensable also in the causes of commerce or human convenience).
Yolacan's photography strikes me as weird in a self-conscious, showy way. Other weird things that people do with chickens—bizarrely sadistic factory-farm practices like debeaking, for example, as Peter Singer describes in Animal Liberation—are more covert, things we would not want to think about while nibbling on wings. But they are fundamentally of a kind with Yolacan's public artistic tableau. They all contribute to the human-centered chauvinism (or "speciesism," as animal-rights advocates describe it) that keeps animals subordinate.
I wonder, as I look through Yolacan's lens at a woman and a chicken, a woman in a chicken: Where's the chicken? Yes, the animal is there, but there's no there there. The only chickenness in these images is negative: the absence of a chicken, the mockery of a chicken, the destruction of a chicken, the perverse human transformation of a chicken.
I am not suggesting that it is the burden of every artwork to interrogate the chickenness of the chicken, but I am ecologically offended by the pervasive failure of human culture—and Yolacan's work exemplifies this failure—to acknowledge seriously the integrity, the consciousness, the real presence, of other animals in our world. In interviews, Yolacan represents "Perishables" as sarcastically chic and playfully inventive, sidestepping the ethical questions that these disturbing photographs evoke.
Cassius Coolidge's famous painting of dogs playing poker, "A Friend in Need" (circa 1903 and still going strong), typifies the retrograde consciousness that a more enlightened cultural public will, perhaps, someday transcend.
Coolidge's weird image has been reproduced endlessly in cigar ads, on calendars, on throw rugs, and in velvet. Dogs cannot sit on chairs around a card table in the way that Coolidge depicts; they would not want to. But Coolidge has made them.
The punch line of this painting, and the ethical harm of it, is the disjunction between what is depicted and our realization that dogs do not smoke cigars or gamble. Dumb dogs. But we have made them do so. Clever us. It reminds me of the Web site that suggests that if a cat could talk, what she would say is, "I can has cheezburger?" (LOL!) Coolidge reifies the fantasy that ours is the best of all possible worlds, and that other species could do no better than to emulate humans, however ridiculous they might seem in so doing, and however foreign our humanity may be to their animality.
I would be less offended by Coolidge if he, or other artists, also created art that involved human animals in the guise and context of nonhuman animals (and did so without casting aspersion on the "swinish," "beastly" humans so represented)—that is, if there were a reciprocity that bespoke a sincere desire to broach the species barrier and see how the other half lives. But that wouldn't sell many cigars.
Siegfried & Roy (born German but naturalized Americans) do weird things with animals. They are animal "trainers," showmen, illusionists, who ran a show on the Las Vegas Strip for three decades featuring a kitschy melange of flamboyance, magic, and animals. The keynote animals in their act are "royal" white tigers. According to the act's Web site, there were only 200 of them extant in the world in 1998, and "58 are Siegfried & Roy's White Tigers of Nevada."
White tigers are rare—they are, in a sense, freaks. It is counterprotective for a tiger to be white, both in the jungle and in a culture that fetishizes the fashion of exotic whiteness. The tigers have been poached for their pelts and body parts, which command exorbitant prices on the black market. (The black market for white tigers: Think about the interesting semiotics lurking there.)
The nomenclature, White Tigers of Nevada, suggests proprietary control (all of Nevada owns them), a fantastic geographical reconfiguration. They are not "of Nevada" ... except that they are now. Siegfried & Roy have made them "of Nevada," and where else but on the strip would White Tigers of Nevada belong?
In October 2003, a White Tiger of Nevada named Montecore lunged at Roy during a show, dragging him offstage. The tiger closed his jaws on Roy's neck, restricting the oxygen flow to his brain and leading to a near-fatal stroke. (Montecore was not killed, as would normally happen when an animal mauls a person. Roy himself commanded that the animal's life be spared, in a display of magnanimous love for the tiger despite his beastly behavior.) During the attack, most of the audience thought that this was all part of the performance—part of the illusion.
A mauling, or at least the possibility of a mauling, is in the subtext of every carnival show. That is what people pay to see: a non-mauling, on most nights, though they know, deep down, that there might be, or even should be, a mauling. So the people in the audience finally got what they expected, what they knew and perhaps on some level even hoped would happen someday, but at the same time, spectators responded as if this were simply part of the act.
This illustrates our conflicted behavior as a cultural audience, our head-in-the-sand, willful self-deception with regard to animals and what we do with them. We are flirting with danger, thrilled by the spectacle of human mastery (Siegfried & Roy's slogan is "Masters of the Impossible"). When the animal attack comes, the audience does not acknowledge that one might reasonably have expected such a revolt.
The comedian Chris Rock offered this commentary on the encounter: "Everybody's mad at the tiger. 'Oh, the tiger went crazy.' No, he didn't. That tiger went tiger. You know when that tiger was crazy? When he was riding on a little bike with a Hitler helmet on. That's when the tiger was thinking, 'I can't wait to bite somebody.'"
Right. The tiger may have hated being a White Tiger of Nevada and performing twice a night at the Mirage Casino, and maybe this was how he manifested his feelings. (Roy suggested that Montecore bit him because the tiger was trying to rescue him from a perceived threat during the show—dragging him to safety—but I think there's an element of rationalization and denial in that scenario.) It might seem inhuman (a word that probably needs to be revisited as we re-evaluate the nature of humanism) to say this, but I believe it is fitting to cheer the tiger who becomes a tiger, the animal who fights back against his cultural oppressors, as Montecore did.
A year after the attack, Maria Shriver interviewed Roy on a television newsmagazine show that offered "an intimate look into his harrowing experience ... chronicling Roy's journey, including never-before-seen footage and new details about his against-all-odds recovery." Roy's narrative is, loosely, in the mode of the great-white-hunter tales of African adventure. The wily, persevering hero is threatened but not overcome by the wild animals' brute force.
In the 1930s, Frank Buck was the most prominent adventurer in this genre. But today the narrative setting has shifted to Las Vegas instead of the "dark continent," into a flashy indoor arena instead of the jungle, and the tigers are white instead of the usual camouflage variegation. It is all very precious and tame instead of wild and woodsy, and displacing macho, khaki-attired he-man Frank Buck, the heroes wear sequins.
This is the setting for the contemporary version of the conflict between man and nature. Having driven the real animals in the real jungle to the brink of extinction, we breed them and hoard them in Nevada and then play out our perverse contests with them in these extravagantly tacky, culturally mongrelized Las Vegas sets. The icon of Las Vegas is its pastiche of skyline, bricolage gone berserk, with the Brooklyn Bridge replica next to the Eiffel Tower replica next to the Empire State Building replica—all of which serves to reinforce the kind of cultural dislocation that results in White Tigers of Nevada.
As people misconstrue animals with increasing audacity, we should not be surprised when these animals strike back. I collect news stories in a file I call "revenge of the animals": "Man accidentally stabbed to death by cockfighting bird"; "Horses Kill 1 and Injure 23 at Iowa Parade"; "Bull Leaps Into Crowd at Spanish Ring"; "Zoo chimp plots stone throwing attacks: New study found his cleverly orchestrated attacks were premeditated."
A few acts of animal vengeance garner significant media attention, and are at least momentarily troubling to the public, though they rarely generate any fundamental reconsiderations of how we conceptualize these animals. Think of the orca who lethally attacked his trainer at Sea World in 2010, the Siberian tiger who escaped her cage and killed a spectator at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007, the "pet" chimpanzee in Connecticut who tore a woman's face off in 2009.
We are overrun with animals weirdly framed by our odd cultural proclivities—dancing bears, trained seals, dogs and cats who perform "stupid pet tricks"—overwriting any reflective empathy we might conceive for normal animals, real animals. Little space remains in our minds to consider any animals besides these weird ones foregrounded in our cultural frames.
They feature in "crush videos" and animal porn. An elephant hovers weirdly in a commercial for a respiratory drug; an alligator advertises a salve for scaly (human) skin. The animal kingdom, as we see it, is populated by elephants featured in a fashion-magazine spread dressed in Chanel suits and high heels (as seen in W magazine, January 2005); and kidnapped giraffes locked in cages to teach the importance of valuing those habitats from which they have been removed (as seen in zoos). We invoke their past glory when we name sports teams and cars after them. But the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears, the VW Rabbits and the Chevy Impalas, are only disembodied reminders of the forces and freedoms that animals can no longer enjoy.