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Why We Look at Animals

Humans evolved with a desire to connect with nature, but how long will that last?

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Imagine yourself in a room with two benches arranged back-to-back.

One bench faces a large glass window through which you can gaze upon a beautiful, masterfully carved statue. Let's say the art is spectacular, like Michaelangelo's David or Antonio Canova's Cupid and Psyche.

The other bench also faces a large glass window. But through it you see a garden with carefully tended banks of colorful wildflowers, neatly trimmed shrubbery, trees rustling in the wind, and a pool dotted with soft waterlilies and a gently flowing fountain at its center. Pretend that songbirds chirp in the breeze and a litter of puppies, only a few weeks old with eyes barely open, scamper on a bed of freshly mowed grass.

I exaggerate the scenario slightly to make a point: Which bench would you choose to spend time on? The answer, even if you have cultivated a taste for Renaissance and Neo-Classical sculpture, might surprise you. In the answer lies a force that all human beings feel, if only subconsciously. And it's this feeling that may account for why some 40,000 people are expected to come to Charleston this weekend to experience a three-day annual event that rivals even the Spoleto Festival USA.

Of course, I'm talking about the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, the largest wildlife art and nature event in the United States. Although it also promotes nature conservancy and celebrates the sporting lifestyles of hunters and fishermen, it's primarily a showcase for wildlife art, featuring some 120 artists and 350 exhibitors that together provide Charleston with an estimated $64 million of economic impact.

What is it about nature, about animals in particular, that fuels our need to look at them? Why do we still feel a desire to connect with animals despite living in a post-industrial technocratic culture that requires little interaction with them? And is it possible that someday we won't need this connection anymore?

Killing Them Softly

Animals have been a part of art for 10,000 years. In fact, they were the first thing early man represented on the cave walls of Lascaux, France, likely using the animal's own blood. From the beginning, these images were not just about animals but about human culture and mankind's interaction with animals.

"There is something primal about our relationship with the other creatures on this planet," says Adam Harris, a curator at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "Perhaps it is the enigmatic nature of this relationship that drives people to create images of wildlife."

Depicting animals was a way to worship their powers and harness that power. Magically inclined shamanism pervaded prehistoric thinking and spirituality. By representing an animal, one could control it, because there was little difference in the mind of early humans between animals and their representations.

Later in medieval and early Renaissance Europe, in which Christianity and feudalism dominated, animals became symbols for other things, says Dina Deitsch, a curator at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., where last year she assembled an exhibit called Going Ape: Confronting Animals in Contemporary Art.

"Animals were allegorical," she says. "Dogs, for instance, were symbols of fidelity."

This allegorical treatment faded as the scientific method took root. Animals, especially birds, looked stiff and flat, as in the paintings of Mark Catesby, an Englishman first based in Charleston who is generally credited with having written and painted illustrations for the first ornithological book on American birds.

"It was an attempt to catalog the knowledge of the world," says Scott Weidensaul, an expert in wildlife art who wrote Of a Feature: A Brief History of American Birding. "He was the first to put botanical specimens in his paintings. He was jamming as much information in there as he could."

Putting birds in their environmental context was groundbreaking, says David Elliott, executive director of Charleston's Catesby Commemorative Trust, which presents the movie The Curious Mister Catesby at the Sottile Theatre on Feb. 18. "No one did that before," Elliott says. "He influenced naturalists for a century."

Among those he influenced was John James Audubon, whose life and work are a benchmark in the history of wildlife art. Audubon's major achievement, in an era absent of cameras, binoculars, and film, was making the birds look alive. His way of doing this, Weidensaul says, was ironic: He killed them first.

"While they were still warm, Audubon pierced them with sharp wires and posed them on a wooden armature to look like they were in their natural habitat," Weidensaul says. "He was the first to breathe life into the painting, and he added foreshortening, vibrant colors, and context.

"He tried to show nature, not a museum piece."

Audubon was the first realist wildlife painter. He was even partial to blood and gore. But realism soon gave way to idealism as the U.S. moved from the agrarian economy of the pre-Civil War era to the industrial economy of the Gilded Age. As subsequent generations moved to cities and urban centers, nature artists began working in a more romantic, more idealized mode. As the railroads expanded across the plains and the once-throbbing herds of native bison were decimated, for instance, the demand increased for art, as well as stamps and coins, depicting scenes of untrammeled nature out of the range of human contamination.

"After Audubon, wildlife was depicted as something special about America that had been lost due to exploitation of the land," Harris says. "The bison was an icon of the magnificence and lost power of nature."

A similar pattern is seen today. In Going Ape, DeCordova assembled works that underscored contemporary concerns about the ecological fallout from man's dominion over nature. The more anxiety there is over the environment, Deitsch says, the more contemporary artists use animals critically to express that anxiety. Some artists were prone to imitating Audubon's romantic-realist style to illustrate the fact that he had to kill his birds in order the save them for posterity.

"In the 21st century, we are aware of that history," Deitsch says. "Using Audubon's style is a way to refer to the importance of animal imagery in the formation of human knowledge."

How They Became
'Animals of the Mind'

Remember the benches? One facing a statue, the other facing nature? Bearing in mind the role of animal imagery in the formation of human knowledge, what's the likelihood people would pick the one facing nature?

Right.

This kind of scenario was the subject of a 1984 book by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. In it, he devised a theory, called biophilia, to explain our evidently genetically pre-determined affinity for nature. He wrote that "to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents."

But how long will this last?

Sure, our affinity for nature comes from 10,000 years of evolution. But given the current state of human habitation, in which we can control and manipulate nature physically and virtually (take the online universe Second Life, for instance), is there a possibility we might not need a future connection with animals?

Perhaps we already don't, according to an idea posited by art critic John Berger.

In an influential essay called "Why Look at Animals," published in 1980, Berger observed that since the 19th century, the time of Audubon and the rise of the Gilded Age and a new genre called Wildlife Art, "every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature" has been broken.

Traditional societies that lived close to animals didn't see the difference between worshiping and sacrificing them, breeding and dominating them. Animals were mortal and immortal, Berger said, and they were like and unlike us.

" ... an animal's life, never to be confused with a man's, can be seen to run parallel to his," Berger wrote. "Only in death do the two parallel lines converge and after death, perhaps, cross over to become parallel again: hence, the widespread belief in the transmigration of souls."

If animals are like us and not like us, and if animals were among the first symbols of language (hieroglyphics, for instance), then they were the first metaphor, "because the essential relationship between man and animals was metaphoric," Berger wrote. "Within the relation, what the two terms — man and animal — shared in common revealed what differentiated them. And vice versa."

In the simple act of looking at animals, we are in a way looking at ourselves. And in the act of representing animals in art, we are representing, metaphorically and metaphysically, something about us.

But in the process of moving away from nature, we have come to experience animals mostly as representations by way of media: television, movies, books, and art. Even our beloved pets are not animals as much as they are "animals of the mind," Berger writes, meaning they are "co-opted into other categories so that the category animal has lost its central importance."

Animals' essential physicality, their beingness, is not important to us. They have "disappeared." They are "spectacle."

Recent evidence suggests Berger might have been on to something. An article in the Feb. 4 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a "fundamental shift away from people's interest in nature." Researchers at the University of Illinois looked at four indices, including visits to national parks and purchases of fish and game licenses, to find a 25 percent drop in interaction with nature since 1987.

Still, numbers are sometimes ambiguous, Scott Weidensaul points out.

"About 40,000 people are going to Charleston's wildlife expo," he says. "As you say, that's a lot of interest."

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