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Animals, art and activism : an investigation into art as a tool for engaging an ethical consideration of human-animal relationships
thesisposted on 2023-05-26, 04:12 authored by Yvette WattYvette Watt
This PhD research has explored concerns regarding the relationship between the manner in which animals are depicted and the way humans think about and treat nonhuman animals. The research has been underpinned by a concern that, while there has been substantial interest in animals and human-animal relationships as subject matter for artists and curators in recent years, animals are too often present in these artworks and exhibitions as symbols or metaphors for aspects of the human condition or as generic signifiers for the natural world. I propose that this results in the animals becoming marginalised, allowing the artists to avoid addressing the broader ethical issues surrounding the ways humans interact with animals. This avoidance of the politics of animal representation in the visual arts is at odds with a rethinking of animals and human-animal relationships in other disciplines where there is an increasing emphasis on the importance of foregrounding the ethical and political issues surrounding humananimal relationships. The research seeks to aid in redressing this matter through the production of artworks that are overtly informed by what can be loosely termed an 'animal rights' ideology, and which thus operate within the scope of socio-political commentary. While the research is broadly located in the long history of the representation of animals in art, with the main historical context from the 19th century onward, its primary focus is on the period since the mid 1970s. The exegesis addresses the work of contemporary artists such as Sue Coe and Angela Singer whose work tackles issues surrounding the ethics of human-animal relations, as well as surveying the work of artists whose work has involved the suffering and/or death of animals. Key theoretical references for the research have been provided by the writings of British art historian and cultural theorist, Steve Baker. However, the overall context for this PhD research extends beyond the art world and is located in the field of scholarship that has become known as 'HumanAnimal Studies'. This rapidly growing, multi-disciplinary field of study, which has its basis in the humanities and social sciences, has been the source of many of the readings that inform the arguments presented in the exegesis. The research has resulted in the production of artworks that actively encourage the viewer to consider animals particularly 'farm' animals -as sentient beings rather than as insensate, objectified commodities. This is achieved through judicious use of anthropomorphism or, more aptly, 'egomorphism' in the depiction of the animals. The latter term, coined by social anthropologist Kay Milton, places the self, rather than humanness in general, as the primary departure point for any understanding of nonhuman animals. The activation of egomorphism in the work reflects the fact that this research is driven by a very personal empathy for non-human animals, and a consequent concern about human attitudes toward and treatment of other animals, especially those used for food. Additionally, the egomorphic approach to the depiction of the animals prompts the viewer to engage with the idea of animals as active, self-interested agents rather than simply passive receptors of human ideas and actions. The result of the PhD research is a number of discrete series of works including paintings and digital prints, all of which incorporate the artist herself in some way, reflecting the personal nature of the passionately held concern for animals that has driven the research.
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