Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 22, 2017
Stephen F. Eisenman The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights London: Reaktion Books, 2013. 312 pp.; 98 b/w ills. Paper $29.00 (9780780231952)

Stephen F. Eisenman’s vivid, compact study of artistic visions of animals in the modern era integrates historical, philosophical, and ethological research with an incisive political critique of capitalist exploitation of labor and life. Learned and wide-reaching, the book is written in a clear, jargon-free style that could make it accessible to general readers concerned about the relations between human and nonhuman animals in our world today as well as to specialists of Western art and cultural history. Focusing principally upon the era of the animal rights movement in Europe and the United States—the later eighteenth century to the present—Eisenman nevertheless devotes over one third of his text to the prehistory of this movement, demonstrating the ancient roots of the truism that humans are “naturally” superior to the other animals (Aristotle’s scala naturae) along with opposing classical views that recognized the intrinsic worth of nonhuman animal life (Porphyry’s radical vegetarianism). His book progresses chronologically, addressing sixteenth- through early eighteenth-century art and literature in a chapter bluntly entitled “Animals Into Meat” before entering into “The Cry of Nature” that begins his head-on interrogation of the role played by visual expression in the “making of animal rights.” Taking into account both unique works of art by canonical painters and multiply produced graphic imagery such as book illustration, Eisenman argues that artists actively contributed to the ongoing dialogue on their cultures’ fraught treatment and understanding of nonhuman animals, and sometimes even helped to clarify nebulous social views through incisive pictorial language. Only rarely, as in his assessment of George Stubbs’s oft-replicated Horse Attacked by a Lion (1769), does he slip into assuming that a picture must necessarily evince the direct feelings of the artist, without considering the role played by consumer demand or the artist’s own interest in profiting from a notable audience success.

“The Cry of Nature,” Eisenman’s main concern both from a historical and an ethical standpoint, derives from the British writer John Oswald’s impassioned The Cry of Nature; Or, An Appeal to Mercy and to Justice, on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals of 1791. Radical for his time and even for our own, Oswald differed from other advocates of animal welfare in arguing that human society needs to listen to its nonhuman counterpart, in effect overturning the implicit human-animal hierarchy of the scala naturae and recognizing the autonomy of the nonhuman animal. The frontispiece to Oswald’s book (attributed to James Gillray) appropriately appears as the first illustration in Eisenman’s text: a doe, aghast, lowers her head toward her lifeless fawn who has been slain by “the butcher’s knife,” while a multi-breasted human personification of Nature weeps in sympathetic response. Eisenman discovers such a visceral, “unmediated” response to human cruelty reverberating through modernity: the terrified, bolting horses in Théodore Géricault’s scenes of stables, races and fairs; the real cries emanating from the industrial slaughterhouses that darkened the architectural landscape of city perimeters, gruesomely recounted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906); the screaming horse at the center of Guernica (1937); Francis Bacon’s humanoid victims encased within great slabs of butchered meat; and Sue Coe’s anguished chicken screaming directly out at the viewer from the confines of a contemporary factory farm. Taking a cue from twentieth-century social and political theorists of human hubris such as Theodor Adorno and Jean-Paul Sartre, Eisenman identifies human violence against animals as a form of “class struggle” (65) that underlies all attempts to monetize sentient beings and derive profit from their lives and labor. He thus gives the lie to critics of animal rights who claim that activism on behalf of nonhuman animals undermines intervention into human degradation and struggle.

In Eisenman’s reading the “cry of nature” allows animals full agency as autonomous beings, and thus differs fundamentally from the paternalistic efforts on the part of such organizations of Victorian vintage as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The society’s aim, at least at first, was to mitigate the suffering of animals while continuing to exploit them in the interest of human privilege and profit. In the realm of art Eisenman locates the greatest contrast to the unmediated animal cry in what he calls the “pathos formula,” whereby animals appear to surrender willingly to their death, which is pictured as a vision of aesthetic beauty, often with allegorical overtones. While the origins of voluntary death can be found in the countless animal sacrifices that parade through Greek and Roman relief sculpture, Eisenman focuses his critique of the “pathos formula” upon still lifes of dead animals, notably those of Jean Siméon Chardin, whose rich coloration and evocation of eternal sleep might appear to affirm rather than protest the human deathblow.

Missing from Eisenman’s assessment of Chardin’s paintings, however, is a consideration of the “beautiful death” in Christian art from the Middle Ages through the early modern era, whereby human martyrs served as the subject for paintings whose aesthetic content resonated with spiritual appeal. In an era when sensationalist and materialist philosophy was coming to replace Aristotelian and Galenic theories of nature and psychology, could not a “beautiful death” shift from the human to the animal body while still retaining traces of its vitalizing power? Elsewhere in his book Eisenman recognizes both the spiritualist basis of depictions of prey animals on the part of hunter-gatherers as well as the Biblical and Talmudic basis of kosher butchering practice that inflected the artistry of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Soutine. Although he goes so far as to recognize Rembrandt’s invocation of Christ’s suffering on the Cross in the artist’s Flayed Ox (1655), Eisenman countenances no vital, inner essence of the animal in Western art beyond the anguished cry. Even Michel de Montaigne, by Eisenman’s reckoning, is a passionate advocate for the autonomy of the animal, but no more; as sometimes happens when Montaigne’s skepticism is viewed from a modern perspective, the essayist’s use of animal wisdom and consciousness as a means of regenerating Catholic humility on the part of his human peers is omitted from Eisenman’s account.

But The Cry of Nature is, above all, a cry in the wilderness of soulless modernity, and the latter sections of Eisenman’s book, in which he addresses the contradictions of human-animal relations that continue to plague society today, is unmatched in its eloquence and disturbing insights. Eisenman is particularly skillful in pairing writers with visual artists, as in his consideration of Oswald in relation to Géricault, or in his fascinating use of Charles Darwin’s theories of continuity between human and nonhuman animals to assess the degrees of autonomy various nineteenth-century artists imparted to their animal subjects. Charles Dickens and his illustrator George Cruikshank emerge as the most progressive in this Darwinian sense: Oliver Twist’s (1838) murderous Sikes and his watchful dog Bullseye are shown to be equally vivid characters, the one embodying the worst that humanity has to offer and the other a full—indeed, fuller—range of behavior and emotions. The following chapter on the early twentieth century features an extended analysis of Soutine’s painterly butchered meat in light of Singer’s writings on the kosher slaughtering of animals. Soutine, who himself wrote of being haunted by his own stifled cry at the sight of a butcher killing a bird, was, Eisenman argues, giving visual shape to “the collision between the old Talmudic prohibition of cruelty to animals and modern indifference to pain and suffering” (221).

Perhaps the most provocative pairing of all appears at the very end of the book in a confrontation between two visual artists, Coe and Damien Hirst. Eisenman argues that species identity in the twenty-first century is “relational,” in that human and nonhuman animals exist in closer proximity than they ever have before—literally, in terms of deforestation, habitat destruction, and an increasing dependence upon zoos to preserve whole species in danger of extinction; and figuratively, in the more general destabilization of identity and globalized communications that govern human society today. Both Coe and Hirst address the relational character of human and nonhuman animals, but they do so in different ways and to radically different ends. Coe, like the endangered species photographer Nick Brandt, is an activist-artist who has devoted much of her compelling graphic work to conveying the horrors of industrial animal agriculture from the perspective of the feeling animal subject, forcing the human viewer to confront the pain and torture that the agricultural industry would like to keep hidden from sight. Hirst, too, puts his viewers in discomfiting proximity to the animal body, stilled and preserved with modernist precision in cases of formaldehyde. But in Hirst’s case these are real bodies, “killed for [his] benefit” (259)—and, one might add, for his enormous profit. Hirst’s icy vanitas remind his viewers that life and death are inextricably combined for them no less than for his sharks and sheep. But the cry that betrays consciousness and feeling, and thus gives meaning to life in the modern world, is absent from his art.

Sarah R. Cohen
Departments of Art and Art History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University at Albany, State University of New York