Lolo was a donkey who lived at the café Le Lapin Agile in Montmartre and was a favorite nonhuman of its avant-garde clientele. He is remembered today for his role in an art world hoax generated by the artist and writer Roland Dorgelès. With fake manifesto and equally fake artist named Boronali, Dorgelès submitted and successfully exhibited the painting Sunset over the Adriatic at the 1910 Salon des Indépendents. Boronali was none other than Lola, who, with paintbrush attached to tail, had been coaxed into painterly gestures by way of a tasty array of vegetables.1 This pantomimic episode resonated in avant-garde circles, and as George Baker tells it, from one tail to another, inspired Picabia’s painting Nature mortes (1920), featuring a toy monkey affixed to cardboard.2 Picabia’s original plan was to procure a real monkey. It was only once this proved impossible that he resorted to the stuffed animal from the store.
With this echo from living donkey to stuffed monkey, we have, on one side, a delegated performance, which would not yet have been deemed a viable work of art, just a joke, and on the other, an animal readymade, which was all the more readymade for Picabia’s inability to retrieve an actual primate.3 The doubled irony of Picabia’s failure not only renders the title cheekily senseless (something that never lived cannot be dead) but, as a generalizable commodity object, the toy fulfills Marcel Duchamp’s criteria for the readymade as a freely chosen, mass-produced object with no initial auratic uniqueness far more than a dead primate. With nearly a century since the advent of modern ethology, and certainly since the advances in cognitive ethology and primatology of recent decades, it is more and more evident that monkeys are singular beings with nonhuman forms of selfhood, memory, and personality.4 These breakthroughs in ethological knowledge, which fundamentally alter what “animal” even means, extend to primates as a whole, mammals more broadly, as well as many birds and ocean denizens, notably cetaceans and cephalopods. New knowledge keeps coming in across the animal kingdom.5 In other words, animals can be captured, bred, and now even cloned, but never reproduced tautologically, for even genetically identical creatures will enter into the differentiations of ecological context and embodied plasticity as their lives unfold. This is the paradox of the animal readymade and what Roland Barthes called, in another context, “the impossible science of a unique being.”6 Admittedly, it is only recently that the French legal system has updated its Napoleonic civil code by decreeing that, as sentient beings, nonhuman animals exceed the status of furniture. So in twentieth-century Paris, at least from a juridico-ontological perspective, nothing would have distinguished a bottle rack from a monkey or a urinal from a donkey.
Neither Dorgelès nor Picabia had any real interest in animals beyond their role in sending up bourgeois culture, helped along by traditional associations of asses and apings. This is to say that neither Dorgelès nor Picabia was ethologically minded, which would entail making work having to do with an animal’s actual being and behaviors. The same goes for, say, Buñuel and Dalí’s rotting donkeys on pianos in Un chien andalou (1929). While successful as juxta-poetic shock aesthetics, they have very little to do with understanding donkeys or animality more broadly. This may not be the case with every surrealist, however, and it is suggestive that this well-trodden avant-garde movement developed at much the same time the disciplinary formation of modern ethology was itself getting off the ground through the 1920s and 1930s. Incipient ethological impulses in Surrealism might be found, the likes of Jean Painvelé and Paul Éluard coming to mind.7
As my opening comparison shows, incorporating nonhuman animals into art is part of the deregulative trajectory of twentieth-century Western avant-gardes—from readymades to found objects, performers, collaborators, processes, and bioexperiments. At times, these developments reflect a Pygmalion impulse for something more living than traditional media and a desire for the real.8 For some artists, involving animals serves a default flat ontology, in which all materials are equally available. Recall Allan Kaprow’s list of objects fit for happenings that includes a “dog” among paint, neon lights, water, old socks, and “a thousand other things.”9 Ethological engagement is of no concern here; the animal is just a mundane object for aesthetic or anti-aesthetic uses. For other artists, it seems there is something uniquely potent about the nonhuman body, properties exploited for disparate ends, as in Vienna Aktionism’s atavistic rituals with animal bodies, organs, and blood or Damien Hirst’s more recent spectacularities belonging to a retrograde aesthetics of natural history and zoology—what might aptly be called necroaesthetics.10 If here the animal is treated as a special entity, these practices are also patently nonethological instrumentalizations. For some select artists, however, nonhuman animals have proven to be of interest in their own right, from which ethological attention opens onto a multitude of novel zoopoetic and zoopolitical engagements. Joseph Beuys, though not wanting in atavism in his shamanistic handling of hares, coyotes, and all manner of creatures, is typically cited as an important progenitor of this tendency. It is to these artists that this book attends.
By framing this recent history of art and animals in such a way, something interesting happens. We are sent back to worn questions about modernism and medium specificity. In making ethology the dividing line, we have on one side nonethological practices that are effectively pre-modern, in the sense that they have no awareness of the scientific breakthroughs concerning animality and assume dogmatic and historically obsolete (though still culturally powerful) conceptions of animals drenched in tropes and fables. On the other side, we have art practices that do reflect an ethological interest in animality and therefore are modern in their internalization of novel understandings of nonhuman animal life coming to us from scientific observation. This holds real implications for both formalist art modernism and the historic avant-gardes. For the standard reading of art modernism, a la Clement Greenberg, it is one thing to know the conditions of possibility for painting—paint, flatness, opticality, and so on—but quite another when it comes to a complex creaturely organism. In what sense can an artist be true to her materials, or have medium specificity, when the entity being incorporated is completely misunderstood? It is easy to see why art modernism limited its competence to purportedly disinterested and autonomous aesthetic experiences of traditional mediums, which prove far more easily tractable. As for the historic avant-gardes, which broadly speaking sought to facilitate the collapse of art and life, what happens to its paradigm when the inclusion of nonhuman life is equally based on misrecognition and ignorance? Perhaps this is why the now canonical advent of the postmedium condition in the 1960s and 1970s, which represents a continuation of the historic avant-gardes and a repudiation of formalist reductivism, saw a precipitous rise of animal bodies in art. Yet, unlike scientific modernism—which, if it had not restricted its preoccupation with Kantian conditions of possibility to traditional and inert materials like paint, might have opened the door to a better understanding of the living—the deregulatory impulses of the postmedium condition by and large incorporated nonhuman animals without any real knowledge of their bodies and minds. So, on one side, we have a scientifically minded conception of modern art that cannot venture too far enough away from the human eye and its official mediums, while on the other, we have a more liberatory aesthetic or anti-aesthetic realm that does not, for the most part, understand the creaturely preconditions of life, even when creatures have been involved in its practices.
Artists who remain unaware of ethological knowledge have an ideological blind spot when it comes to animality. Many modern and contemporary philosophers share this blind spot and have similar trouble updating their thinking. This is a situation of not only they know not what they do but equally of they know not what they have. In the case of artists, it might be said that this is simply antimodernist. In some cases, this is probably true.11 But premodern is a much better way to describe nonatavistic practices and discourses that nevertheless assume atavistic conceptions of animality. Even Futurism, for all its technoliquidations of the past, comes back time and again to historically clichéd figures of animality (reread Marinetti’s 1909 “Futurist Manifesto” and encounter a snorting bestiary of horses, lions, dogs, sharks, and serpents). What I am laying out, however, is not some diachronic progression, for many contemporary artists remain similarly premodern in their understanding and usage of animals. Lola was not born at a time when animals could be featured in art installations. This had to wait for the latter half of the twentieth century—for example, Maurizio Cattelan’s Warning! Enter at your own risk. Do not touch, do not feed, no smoking, no photographs, no dogs, thank you (1994), which was restaged at Frieze Projects in 2016. The installation is simplistic, which tends to be the case with living animal subjects in art, whose very appearance is assumed to be enough for novel art world experiences. The donkey, Sir Gabriel, was confined to a white cube filled with grass and hay under an ornate chandelier. It is not that he was overtly mistreated, or that his preferences were not fully recognized in this context (though they likely were not), or that his labor was simply taken as a given.12 The real point is that the installation offers nothing new about its performer, who, after all, is the central point of interest. We breathe in the stale air of novelty, along with ethological ignorance, which are only afforded by a rather unreflective sense of entitlement on the part of the artist and likely much of the audience. This posture has become especially untenable in the Anthropocene, from which anthrosovereignty has increasingly come under deserved scrutiny. It also reflects a tired humanism more generally.
These issues even crop up in more thoughtful works than Cattelan’s. Marina Abramovic’s Confession (2010) is a performance with yet another donkey in a gallery.13 The artist kneels before the unmoving creature in a nondescript white room. With no audio, the viewer is instead presented with scrolling text of the artist’s inner monologue recollecting tumultuous and often dark childhood memories. Confession holds a subtle ecofeminist critique in its marriage of an animal and the dysmorphic struggles of a young girl dealing with her appearance and fraught domestic life—girls and donkeys both having preconceived notions and constraints thrust upon them from birth. Abramovic recalls the pejorative nickname “giraffe” given to her by fellow teasing schoolmates. Moreover, as one of the more confrontational performance artists, Abramovic knows what it means for a living being to be reduced to an object, something an ecofeminist attuned to species would say many nonhumans also understand in different ways.14 And yet, this performance is also not quite ethological. The animal was likely chosen for its beast of burden symbolism—as fabular trope grounded in histories of labor and toil. The performance might even be charged with artistic narcissism, since the donkey appears to be nothing more than a foil for one-way autobiography. The question is never posed: What about the donkey’s biography? Can nonhuman animals even be autobiographical?15
As a multispecies performance documented on video, Confession forces viewers to choose: read the text that runs at the bottom of the moving image; look at Abramovic, whose expressionless pose offers much less information than the text; or look at the donkey, who also stands largely motionless. The limits of human perception preclude doing all three at once. Most viewers will presumably focus on the text since it provides a tangible narrative, but nothing stops us from focusing on the donkey, for which ethological grounding proves essential. What does it mean for a donkey to remain still and silent like this? Are subtle gestures more meaningful than we know? What about the fact that, along with primates—Homo sapiens included—equines have some of the most expressive facial muscles on the planet, as cataloged by the Equine Facial Action Coding System?16 Why is it that donkeys make such excellent therapy animals? And what to make of those markings on his body that look like lacerations? For all this, the art historian will need to be equipped with “ethograms,” an iconography of the living used by ethologists, along with, ideally, firsthand knowledge of donkeys in empirical fieldwork.
A recent theater piece moves us toward what such an ethologically attentive work might look like. Balthazar (2011–15) was a research project by the theater director David Weber-Krebs and the dramaturg and theorist Maximilian Hass. First performed in Amsterdam, the roughly hour-long play involved a troupe of human actors and a donkey (sometimes two). As Haas writes in a text introducing the project, rather than mere prop, the donkey was understood as a nontrained actor and protagonist who commanded the play to undercut “cultural conceptions of the animal.”17 On a sparse stage, the human performers in plain street clothes would walk in tandem with the donkey, sit on the side of the stage, lie on the ground, run around, slide, crawl (the only movement that seemed to make the donkey clearly uneasy), eat carrots, roll out a prop cutout donkey, yell “Balthazar” before petting him, and retell the family tree of the animal, who is in fact a female named Lily. For her part, the donkey would smell the floor, sometimes follow, sometimes lead, sometimes ignore, and sometimes walk side by side with these humans. This walking alongside is meaningful, as it denotes comfort and being at ease.18 Often, when breaking the fourth wall, the donkey would elicit laughter in the audience, even though, of course, the only creature with a theatrical sense of the fourth wall are us humans (as far as we know). While we cannot know if the donkey shares their amusement, her nonplussed reaction seems to relay neither fear nor anxiety.
In this way, Balthazar can be understood as theater crossed with behavioral ecology, since it is the nonhuman animal’s reactions and interactions with her surroundings that take center stage. By taking the donkey’s preferences seriously as both form and content, Weber-Krebs’s piece necessarily questions the performance container and its audience’s presumptions and demands. While they often played along with the actors, the delegated donkeys just as often became recalcitrant by standing in front of the door they came in through, seeming to express their desire to exit the stage. In Berlin, Weber-Krebs describes a situation where any hope of performing became impossible; the architectural space and a thunderstorm outside found the donkey too ill at ease.19 This all gives rise to a crucial question: is the nonhuman animal an inadequate actor in such a cultural space, or is it the cultural space itself that is impoverished in relation to nonhuman creaturely demands and desires? The ethological success of this work lies in allowing for the latter to dictate the performances, which let the donkeys become the teachers and trainers. Quite simply, contrary to the relentless demands for spectacle and novelty, a donkey mind and body need care and social settings conducive to their mode of thriving.20 From this perspective, the theatrical breakdown of the donkeys wanting to exit the stage is the piece’s most successful moment.
In referencing Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar (1966), Weber-Krebs and Haas’s theater piece invites a retroactive consideration of nonhuman animals appearing in the film, but also any prior visual culture employing animals. Instead of reading the film’s nonhuman actor as limited to symbolic foil (often Christological), one could revisit the work by deploying an ethological aesthetics calling on what we now know about animals. Weber-Krebs chose this reference exactly for this reason, as he interprets Bresson’s film to be a nonfabular tale.21 With respect to the examples of Dorgelès, Picabia, Cattelan, Abramovic, and (perhaps) Bresson, none knew exactly what they had, to the extent of their contemporaneous knowledge concerning nonhuman animals, and each remains premodern in that regard. Yet the corrective I propose in the following study is not simply to scour the latest ethological studies for hermeneutical tools and corresponding ethograms. While necessary, this is not sufficient. An art history critically informed by ethology must go beyond scientific constraints to progress and offer something new through its own, though often very different, constraints. A critical ethological aesthetics will remain vigilant of ethology’s “operational exclusions,” what Isabelle Stengers, in speaking more broadly about the natural sciences, describes as the self-grounding demarcations of “modern practices” that disqualify “their other—charlatan, populist, ideologue, astrologer, magician, hypnotist, charismatic teacher”—in sum, the sophistry outside the gates of true modern scientific knowledge.22 The artist is such a sophist with respect to ethology.
This is the reason, Stengers goes on to argue, that the “factishe” is so troubling for modern disciplines. The factishe, a concept borrowed from Bruno Latour, is a mode of existence both found and produced; it is an objective fact of the real whose conditions of possibility and appearance are paradoxically made possible by human techniques of scientific apparatuses. The fact in factishe is therefore partly contaminated by nonobjective forms of fetishistic sophistry.23 I will not wade too far into these science controversies, but I do want to suggest that the animal has a similar operational structure. Animals are out there in the real, which has made them available as powerful sites of totemic and fetishistic projection across human myths, folk knowledge, and the natural sciences, the latter often uncritically retaining certain premodern received wisdoms of animals. Therefore, the concept of animality, like a factishe, is both found in the evolutionary real of creaturely existence yet also produced by the cultures, technologies, and sciences that set the rules for what counts as a living, communicating, feeling, and conscious entity.
Animality would then represent a rather singular factishe, in that the apparatus that both unearths and fabricates the animal is none other than one of its members: Homo sapiens. We are the creatures who find and order other creatures, even if historically the self-conscious disclosure of our own creatureliness among other creatures is very recent. From a transcendentally humanist understanding of the human—as purportedly standing objectively outside animality—this implicating structure remains invisible or disavowed. The circle remains hidden. From a nonmetaphysical, creaturely understanding of the human—which is the only lucid post-Darwinian point of departure—human knowledge can no longer be seen as standing objectively outside animality. This is even the case for those human qualities deemed anthroproprietary, as uniqueness within a field does not metaphysically extricate one from that field. We might simply be the only creatures that do history in the ways we do, or use technologies to the extent we do, or use symbols in the sophisticated ways we do (should all these qualities actually be discretely human propensities and not permutations of nonhuman animal memory, tool use, and language, which likely involve existential modalities of immeasurable differences that go beyond a sliding anthropocentric scale of life founded in concepts like “sophistication”). Consequently, we find ourselves as always already immanent to the creaturely continuum, all while embodying the very measuring devices with which we produce our knowledges of nonhuman animals—and of ourselves. In short, the human creature is the factishe of animality from which all other animals are both objectively discovered and subjectively interpreted. This is Giorgio Agamben’s understanding of animality—that it originates primarily from within “man” and that the purported human–animal divide has been a decisive force in human history via the “anthropological machine.”24 But what is this creature from which the animal has been produced by human knowledge and history? How do we have access to this creaturely absolute that suffuses the planetary living before it gets chopped up by anthropogenic machines? And what is this creaturely mode of existence for all those nonhuman animals who do not share our epistemological concerns and taxonomies, but quite clearly come up against a meaningful world and who see, feel, hear, and unearth other entities around them? Thinking along these theriomorphic lines, which turns the tables on the anthropological machine to face the creaturely absolute, makes for an uncanny conception of animals (us included).
This would seem like a proper task for ethology, yet these sorts of speculations are exactly what modern scientific paradigms are (self)constrained against venturing into. The creaturely absolute, that is, the animal unconditioned by the factishe of animality, and indeed any feature of animality that cannot be directly tested and observed in an objective way, is categorically off-limits. Science has the tendency to mistake its cast net for the mirror image of the real, while disavowing anything that eludes its trawling. Vinciane Despret, one of the most compelling philosophers of ethology, notes how the recent scientific literature has rehabilitated animals as more than mere dumb brutes or soulless machines, and yet she is quick to suggest that these modern practices nevertheless betray “less explicit forms of denigration that present themselves under the often noble motives of skepticism, obeying the rules of scientific rigor, parsimony, objectivity, and so on.”25 This scientific skepticism, while sometimes judicious in its cautiousness, can also simply reinforce the operational exclusions that frame modern scientific disciplines. Since animals always seem to find ways of eluding complete disciplinary capture in their complexity, plasticity, and intractable modes of living, when it comes to ethology, the operational exclusion is often the animals themselves, barring a more capacious understanding of the creaturely. This all holds implications for artists who venture into the ethological domain, for again, from a scientific perspective, they will be deemed incorrigible sophists; nonetheless, it is this sophistry that may provide a constructive outsider position free from ethological constraints, from which to speculate on creaturely modes of existence that evade scientific capture. This is why simply integrating a modern scientific discipline like ethology into art history, making the latter fall into the former’s scientism, risks methodological naïveness. Instead, artists and art historians have to be critical about ethology’s reductive assumptions and operational constrains. Conversely, one of the major questions I work through herein is to what degree more recent forms of cognitive ethology are themselves no longer modern in certain ways and might even be labeled posthumanist in their admittance of, invoking Deleuze, zones of indiscernibility between human and nonhuman—zones which, in truth, have contaminated the comparative methods of ethology from the very beginning. Instead of avowing these zones of indiscernibility between human and nonhuman animals, modern and even some contemporary ethologists will buffer its subjects with skepticism and set the constraints for validating verifiable conclusions, all while limiting any ability to make assertions that exceed experimental apparatus and reach.
Returning for a moment to the precritical understanding of animals in art, it is necessary to call attention to a dialectical twist resulting from these observations: if it is true that “we have never been modern” in Latour’s admittedly overused phrase—that is, that we have always been unable to quarantine the nature–culture hybrids—we nevertheless would have had to have appeared modern at some point. To no longer be what one never was is a strange logic that nonetheless contains a key historical insight, one befitting the wishful discreteness of the autonomous human in humanism. Yet, as I demonstrate in my brief history of donkeys in twentieth-century Western art, when it comes to animality, in so much modern and contemporary art, this historical delusion was never comprehensively reached at all—in large part by having let slip by an uncritical acceptance of timeless and natural conceptions of animality. In other words, when dealing with the creaturely in art, most of our aesthetic practices and discourses have not yet become modern in order to then never have been modern. An ethologically informed art history will therefore have to work across two phases: first, a backward-looking modern phase that gets art up to speed with ethological knowledge and, second, a forward-looking critical phase that questions the constraints of this same modern scientific knowledge. My hope is that bringing contemporary art and theory in contact with ethological knowledge will result in a critical ethological aesthetics benefiting both sides (if not making them always happy, since the artistically minded will likely begrudge whatever limits are imposed on creativity, while the scientifically minded will likely resent compelling artistic speculations that exceed the paradigms and constraints of experimental observation and truth-claims). In short, ethological knowledge will correct modern and contemporary art practices that remain largely premodern and ignorant with respect to animality, while philosophically informed art theory and practice will confront contemporary ethology with its scientism, which tends toward occlusive skepticism that finds merit only in tractable phenomena without ever questioning that a key existential feature of minded creatureliness might be to elude full tractability.
I run several risks in this endeavor. The history of ethology is complicated, as I summarize in the following chapter, and it is never politically neutral. From the beginning, ethology was interested not only in nonhuman but also in human behavior to varying degrees of nefariousness. Konrad Lorenz, Robert Yerkes, B. F. Skinner, Desmond Morris, and lesser-known scientists working in the fields of animal behavior can be linked to some nefarious political affiliations—Nazism, eugenics, and social engineering. Working with this material can feel like stepping into an analogical minefield, which deserves a whole other study. While properly engaging these analogical dangers exceeds the bounds of this book, I express a commitment to rearticulating animality so that its overbearing pejorative associations are exploded, which might help in undercutting reactionary and racist analogies that lurk uncomfortably in Western historical knowledge, playing certain humans against certain nonhuman animals. From the outset, I also maintain that there have always been two, mutually reinforcing forms of worldly debasement through animalization: that of the human and the nonhuman. If a critical ethological aesthetics reveals newly complex and variegated creatures living behind tired beastly tropes, which heretofore have provided nothing more than projected differential placeholders for humanist superiority, then it will also find creatures that exceed the “animal” in “animalization.” This means that nonhumans, too, can be unfairly debased through animalization. This unmooring of the “animal” in “animalization” will allow nonhuman creatures to become newly important across history, culture, politics, and environmentalism as denizens of various stripes. This opens toward a posthumanist or zoopolitical reorientation of formerly anthropo-restricted concerns, which is already well under way and implicates a multidisciplinary platform. As I argue at the end of this book, ecopolitical solidarity is crucial, since the mere fact of knowing more about nonhuman animals through ethological knowledge is likely not enough to notarize cease and desist orders against their relentless debasement and exploitation, though it is an important first step.
Like any other study, this one is limited by my expertise—Western European and certain global practitioners who have invoked animals in their work. I cannot possibly articulate a truly global conception of animality in what is broadly called non-Western cultural production. This would demand an intriguing and welcome volume of many diverse voices and approaches. There is therefore a risk, even when decoding and deconditioning tired Western conceptions of animality, of nonetheless remaining within an all-too-Western discourse. My sneaking suspicion, which exceeds the ambitions of this present book, is that the creaturely absolute might hold a key to a much sought after universality—an extracultural universality that necessarily resides beneath and beyond any universal category as such (and in fact is likely not a category at all but a nonnegotiable and foundational mode of life in the evolutionary real, which is also indelibly connected to the plant world). If one of the major philosophical revolutions of the twentieth century was the grammatological questioning of the primacy of speech, which found talking to be a subset of writing and trace structures, then the twenty-first century may very well give way to a similar dynamic that has long been in the works: to take seriously our self-knowledge that humanity is a subset of the creaturely and its sentient trace structure. Here it is clear that any politics of rigidity not allowing for flexibility and plasticity is a grave danger. To think culture and politics in a creaturely mode is to affirm foundational capacities and limits based in specific forms of animality, especially the specificity of the human animal, which does not fall into the trap of normalizing immovable or essential categories (as race and gender have been in the history of essentializing human politics). The creaturely has to be understood for what it is: a capacious term for forms of life that find themselves in various and continual states of becoming and “supernormality,” to use a useful term from the ethologist Niko Tinbergen, which Brian Massumi has picked up in his philosophical work on what animals can teach us about politics. We are creatures of great plasticity among nonhuman creatures who are also plastic in relation to their capabilities, communities, and worlds.
I define “artist as ethologist” broadly as any practitioner who elucidates nonhuman animal being through a work. This book unfolds along a few paths. First, in the following chapter, I discuss the history of ethology and its possible parallels with art history. This section develops chronologically—from modern ethology and its affinities with modernist art to more recent developments in cognitive ethology and its influence on contemporary art practices. The following chapters then provide ways of rearticulating animals in art, culture, and politics along three steps: (1) deconditioning animality, (2) attempting to enter into speculative nonhuman worlds, and (3) building a multidisciplinary coalition toward a creaturely politics. Although I offer a number of readings along the way of disparate art practices, by no means have artists or the art world as a whole properly internalized the almost daily insights coming from cognitive ethology.26 The meta-ambition of this book is to galvanize this internalization.