I have been reading quite a bit about art and art history throughout this winter semester – from 19th century impressionism, to photography, to contemporary performance art. But one of the most recent things I have read was Elizabeth Grosz’s (2011) musings on art and animals.
While many philosophical perspectives tend to distinguish humans and animals on the basis of a human’s capacity for art, Grosz takes a Darwinian approach to finding the animal roots in artistic expression.
If I had to take a guess, I would say that the extent of my knowledge on Darwin comes from high school, much of which was probably very basic ‘survival of the fittest’ related evolutionary theory. So when I saw the term ‘Darwinism’ in Grosz’s writing, I felt a little bit out of my element.
In retrospect, I think this was part of Grosz’s goal – to show that scientific theory does not have to be daunting for more humanities-minded folks, and in fact, it can actually be quite beneficial.
Darwinism has opened up a way to engage with animal forces as those with which our own forces participate, and which direct us to a humanity that is always in the process of overcoming and transforming itself. It is the animal forces in us that direct us to what is regarded as most human about us – our ability to represent, to signify, to imagine, to wish for a make ideals, goals, aims. It is the animal in us that, ironically, directs us to art, to the altruistic, to ethics, and to politics. It is animals’ modes of coexistence, their modes of difference, their direct encounters with nonliving forces and materialities that guide our own. (Grosz 169).
As Grosz argues, instead of attempting to understand art and humanity through Enlightenment philosophies that valued “intelligence, reason, and the attainment of higher, more ennobling goals,” Darwin allowed us to see the connections between humans and their animal ancestors (169-70). Essentially, Grosz aims to change the conversation of art from its reliance on the human, to its relation to the world beyond (170).
The animal becomes not that against which we define ourselves but that through which we come to our limits. We are animals of a particular sort which, like all of life, are in the process of becoming something else (Grosz 170).
Although I tend to be apprehensive about looking to animals for our understanding of humans (it is sometimes a slippery slope in terms of ethics, depending on the angle you take), but Grosz does bring out some interesting points.
One of the key concepts that she brings in is that of Umwelt, biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s term for the particular world, or the “soap-bubble,” in which each living being exists.
An organism’s Umwelt is the unique world in which each species lives, the world as its body represents it, the world formed by the very form of the organism, whose morphology is the long-term result of evolutionary pressures, of the living engagement with a particular territory and its particular modes of object …
The Umwelt is the sensory world of space, time, objects, and qualities that form perceptual signs for living creatures, the world that enables them to effect actions, to exercise their organs, to act … It is a bubble-world, much like a creature enclosed in an invisible snow globe, which always positions the subject within the center of a movable horizon (Grosz 175).
According to this, we might see how “the body of an animal is an inverted map of its world” (Grosz 182). While at the same time, the animal’s world (the bubble in which it experiences life) “is a projection of its bodily capacities” (Grosz 183).
How then, does this fit in with art?
Grosz compares the material relationship between animals and their surroundings. She explores the significance of instinct for the creation of such things as bee hives, bird nests, and ant tunnels, in terms of ‘home’ and ‘territory,’ and what this means for life in general.
Without territory surrounding the home, both protecting it and infusing it with a certain set of resources, there can be no stable or ongoing home, as is the case for the vast majority of animals. And without the space and safety of the home, there can be no elaborate courtship dances and songs, no acts of spectacular rivalry, no arts of performance and enhancement – that is, no territory, no milieu, no art, no seduction, only the weighty reality of the phenomenal world, the Umwelt. That is not to say that there is no sexuality, no seduction, no sexual selection for the homeless or the nomadic of the animal world, only that such animals have no access to the resources for the artistic transformations of their own bodies or their milieu such as territory enables” (Grosz 185).
Grosz suggests that it is these animal arts that “become the raw materials of the human arts” (185).
We use such things as feathers, colors, and scents taken from, or inspired by, what we see in the animal world to adorn our clothes, our canvases, and our bodies (Grosz 185).
In a way, the human arts are not as distinct from the nonhuman as we usually think. Both the human, and the human arts in general, “are the transformation, the reworking, the overcoming of our animal prehistory and the beginning of our inhuman trajectory beyond the human” (Grosz 186).
If we consider these ideas of art and the animal, how does this transform the ways in which we think of our selves?
How might our understanding of space, territory, and home in terms of Umwelt, potentially rework our understanding of human geographies? How might we view migration and (trans)nationality, or race and belonging, through this perspective of the Umwelt? How might it change the stories we tell? Or how we tell them?
“The animal is that from which the all-too-human comes and that through which the human moves beyond itself” (Grosz 186).
Grosz, Elizabeth. Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art. Duke University Press, 2011.
Hollar, Wenceslaus. Three Butterflies and a Wasp. 1946. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/361547?sortBy=Relevance&ft=wasp&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=1.
“The Dodo.” Illustration from “[Our Earth and its Story: a popular treatise on physical geography. Edited by R. Brown. With … coloured plates and maps, etc.],” The British Library, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11223540985/in/album-72157641858423503/.
© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.