Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Animals in Art: Nonhumans Benefit from Responsible Representation

Animals in art force us to reflect on who we are and who "they" are.

Last week I went to a wonderful and wide-ranging meeting at the Intersections Digital Studios (IDS) at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, The meeting was called Interactive Futures and was organized by Carol Gigliotti (editor of Leonardo's Choice), Julie Andreyev, and Maria Lantin, director of the IDS. Speakers from all over the world attended and spoke about the general theme called "Animal Influence" by spotlighting the work of media artists whose work has been influenced by the growing wealth of knowledge on animal behavior, cognition, creativity and consciousness emerging from such fields as ecology, cognitive ethology, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy, zoology, and others. These research areas have focused on new understandings of animal life and are helping to shift assumed conventions concerning animal cognition, consciousness, and agency. While the change in human attitudes towards animals has been documented in news media as well as in more academic venues, the idea that animals might possess emotional, moral, cognitive lives is an idea that has been, in the past, either dismissed or associated with metaphorical or symbolic approaches."

My role was to talk about the emotional and moral lives of animals and why they matter. I also was there to be sure that animals were represented as who they really are and I was so pleased that this was the case in just about all the lectures, discussions, and exhibits. Sometimes artists and writers take (a bit too much) liberty with how animals are represented but this wasn't the case at this inspirational meeting. Non-humans are amazing individuals and there isn't any reason to embellish or misrepresent them to make them more appealing than they are. Indeed, it is everyone's responsibility to be as accurate as they can be when doing their work.

To achieve the goals of this unique and inspirational gathering there were lectures and various exhibits including hands-on projects. Two in particular caught my attention though there were many more wonderful projects on display, and I encourage you to look at information about them. The first was the rocking robot, a robotic dog who looked like and acted like a cow by the emminent French artist France Cadet. Her work makes "a critical social comment about ethical questions and possible consequences of a technologically driven future, through ironical caricaturization but which is based on very-real facts." While I watched the robot rock back and forth, and I did so numerous times, I constantly found myself thinking about the various many and challenging relationships among art, ethics, and technology, topics that are given a lot of attention in Professor Gigliotti's Leonardo's Choice.

France Cadet's rocking robot

The other project that caught my eye involved the way in which various animals see the world by Lisa Jevbratt. Called Zoomorph, this project basically involved first looking at a colored drawing on a board and then on an ipad selecting an animal to see how the colored image would look to them. What a wonderful educational tool for getting people to see how animals see the world. It would be great to have a similar project dealing with the ways in which various animals hear and smell the world, although the latter might be difficult to pull off given where the noses of various animals wind up. Still, it would be highly educational.

I also met some very talented students. One with whom I spoke a lot about what she could do with her well-developed talent for drawing animals was Sam Boschmann. With talent like this on the horizon we can look forward to a future in which other animals are well-represented in popular and scientific media and in various types of art. (The teaser image is by Sam.)

A drawing by Sam Boschmann

All of the lectures and exhibits really forced me and others to think deeply about how animals are represented in art and who we are and who "they" are. For many artists in attendance, whether as presenters or audience members, the goal was to find new ways not only to represent animals but also to consider new ways to live with them. I really was pleased to see this practical side of what could have been a more "academic" endeavor with little relevance to the "real world."

I wanted to call attention to this truly interdisciplinary meeting because more and more artists are focusing their attention on non-human animals and we need to be sure that they are represented in responsible ways and also pay close attention to the ethical questions that are raised. The use of animals in art truly sparks wide-ranging discussions that center on human psychology and our often complex and challenging relationships with non-human, or other-than human, beings, in an over-populated and human-dominated world.

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today