The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights
I got a note from the nice people at Sehepunkte about the review of Stephen Eisenman’s The Cry of Nature I wrote (which is posted on Sehepunkte’s website):
“Sofern Sie über eine eigene Präsentation im Internet verfügen, würden wir uns freuen, wenn Sie dort Ihre Rezension und unser Journal verlinken würden. Hierfür können Sie gerne auch eines unserer Logos … verwenden…”
…so of course, OK! I really like Sehepunkte and am working on some more stuff for them too.
So here the logo: 🙂
Now a few months after reading it, I should report that this book has had a nice slow burn and even though this is a very positive review I think I would rate it even more highly now, particularly as a teaching text as it covers a broad subject area still with clarity and depth in each chapter. I was able to use Eisenman’s section on the hunting practice of indigenous peoples, for example, as a point of reference in a recent seminar I gave for the Bioethics Centre at the university and in reference to a discussion about the dolphin massacre in Taiji, Japan. (To support my argument against hunting and hunters I mean: Don’t get me wrong; there’s no place for humans who hunt in any universe, and people trying to be “open minded” about hunting are without fail patronizing, paternalistic, and dead inside.)
Anyway, this is an excellent book and here is the review:
(Stephen F. Eisenman: The Cry of Nature. Art and the Making of Animal Rights, London: Reaktion Books 2013, ISBN 978-1-78023-195-2).
Art historical texts, and especially single-authored volumes, should be judged in great measure by how well they fulfill their expressed ambitions. By this rule The Cry of Nature. Art and the Making of Animal Rights, whose central objective is to provide an intellectual and informational resource for readers interested in the intersection of the animal studies and the making of art, and a platform for scholars to reflect on provocative subjects suggested by the twining of these two themes, must be deemed a success.
Each of its chapters contributes to author Stephen F. Eisenman’s goal of addressing and evaluating important issues pertaining to the contemporary discussion of animal rights and the movement’s connection to art and ideas originating in the 18th century as well as, to some extent, before. Organized into five chapters and a strong introduction and conclusion, plus a recommended reading list of some of the foundational volumes of the relatively new discipline of animal studies, the book surveys not only images but historicizing texts and makes a strong claim that something like an animal rights movement has existed since antiquity, springing into cohesion in the 1700s, with artists making and using images as persuasion and propaganda.
The pleasure derived from reading this book lies partially in the richness of Eisenman’s detailed, personal, and confident descriptions of the lives and emotions of real animals, making his prose eminently accessible. Readers will be compelled by the forcefulness of local histories about, for example, a majestic African elephant photographed in a moment of perfect stillness at a watering hole in 2007 who is killed by poachers in 2009, and delighted by anecdotes about Echo, the author’s dog, who learns to stage pratfalls and tumbles in order to make Eisenman laugh. These stories are integrated meticulously within more formal discussions of images – some well-studied, including Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair (1853) and Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s A Hare and a Leg of Lamb (1742), some less famous – such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s 1975 painting Eagle Dreaming – which are produced about, and in mindfulness of, the animal.
The book begins with a background chapter defining “What is an Animal?” in terms of societal mores and biological evidence about the commonalities and differences amid living creatures, centering on the ability of animals to communicate, to experience emotions, and to feel pain. This chapter includes pleasantly unexpected exemplars, such as Simon Tookoome’s 1979 linocut I Am Always Thinking of Animals, as it stakes out the moral and practical discussions around how we define language and consciousness.
The chapters “Animals into Meat” and “Counter Revolution” dwell on images of the corpses of animals, shown as food, prey, and sacrificial stand-in for the human figure and body. While the recurring motif of the flayed ox in paintings by Gustave Caillebotte and Rembrandt may arouse as much distancing disgust as identification, Eisenman’s delicate examination of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s The Ray (1728) makes persuasive on the page that these artists intended to convey their beliefs in the existence of the souls and consciousness of animals, and commensurately, the dismal mortality of humans, on their canvases. Continue reading