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Flock Only: Keri Cronin on “Picturing Animals” and Art as Advocacy

By Keri Cronin — November 15, 2013
Keri Cronin with Chickpea at Cedar Row Farm Sanctuary

Keri Cronin with Chickpea at Cedar Row Farm Sanctuary

Dear Flock,

Keri Cronin here, the columnist for Picturing Animals.

I want to tell you a bit about the class I am teaching this semester, a special seminar I have developed called “Picturing Animals.” This is a class in which we explore not only the ways in which animals have been represented in art and visual culture over time, but also the ways in which those representations relate to the ways in which animals are treated. The stories we tell and the pictures we paint go a long way towards shaping ideas about animals — and those ideas, in turn, have a strong impact upon things like legislation and cultural customs. In other words, the arts matter quite a bit when it comes to the ways in which animals are treated in our society.

In this class, we look at the long history of activists using imagery to try and make the world a better place for all species. For example, we study images like William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty, or the ways in which Frances Power Cobbe used images taken directly from physiologists’ manuals in her 19th century anti-vivisection protests. We also look at the continued importance of imagery in animal rights today, and were delighted to welcome Jo-Anne McArthur as a special guest to our class this semester. McArthur, founder of We Animals and the human star of The Ghosts in Our Machine, talked with the students about what drew her in to photography in the first place, and about the ways in which a photograph can be a powerful tool for change.

But we don’t just look at examples of overt activism in this course. We also spend time studying the representation of animals in other contexts — in film, for example, or in tourism, or science. These representations were not necessarily intended to change the world for animals, but in many ways they ended up doing just that, although not always in what we animal rights activists might consider to be positive way. As we dig into these case studies in this class, we discover over and over again that the ways in which a certain kind of animal is depicted is related to the ways in which that type of animal is treated and valued. For example, we discussed not only at the symbolic role of Orangey the cat in the classic 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also how both pet stores and animal adoption centers were reportedly inundated with people wanting to bring an orange cat in to their homes after seeing this film. We also looked at photographic postcards sold as souvenirs in National Parks in the early decades of the 20th century. More often than not, these postcards featured images of “charismatic megafauna” like bears. Many of these representations show scenes that we might cringe at today — scenes of people feeding candy bars to bear cubs, for example. Even after legislation came in to effect that prohibited this kind of practice, postcards showing scenes of people feeding the bears continued to be sold. The continued consumption and circulation of these kinds of images made it really difficult to stop this practice, a practice which often ended in tragedy, for both humans and bears.

As these examples demonstrate, the way in which animals are represented has important consequences and is something that those of us who care about animals need to pay attention to. Some ways to do this:

  • If you are an artist, consider how and why you are representing other species. What choices are you making? Why?
  • When you watch a film or TV show, think critically about the ways in which animals are portrayed. We are often quite concerned about ensuring that animals are treated well on the film sets, an important concern to be sure, but how often do we extend that same level of concern to the ways in which a show normalizes or questions the ways in which certain kinds of animals are treated in our society in a more general sense?
  • Keep an eye out for representations of animals in your day-to-day life. Pay attention to this for a day or so and you’ll be surprised at just how pervasive animal representations are in our world. What kind of messages do these images send? How does the cartoon chicken on a fast food menu normalize the ways in which chickens are treated in North America? What kinds of messages does the plush teddy bear in the toy store suggest about encounters between humans and “wild” animals?

Visual representations of animals are everywhere and they have important consequences for actual living, breathing animals. I’m not suggesting that we stop going to the movies or refuse to buy animal-themed toys. Far from it! I do, however, think that we need to be much more attuned to the ways in which these representations can color dominant ways of thinking about and treating animals. As one of my students this term mentioned, “Once we start to see these patterns, the power dynamics between species starts to become more obvious.”

If you would like to know more about the course I am teaching this term, I invite you to visit the course website.


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