Art for Animals: Its Historical Significance for Advocacy

An interview with Keri Cronin about her new book focusing on art and activism.

Posted Jul 06, 2018

I recently received a copy of Dr. Keri Cronin's new book called Art for Animals: Visual Culture and Animal Advocacy, 1870–1914. I honestly know just about nothing about this topic, so I immediately opened the book and couldn't put it down. It immediately became very clear how important visual imagery is when the lives of nonhuman animals (animals) are being discussed -- who they really are and what they need from us so that they can live in peace and safety, with dignity and respect, rather than lives filled with abuse, misery, and death. Part of the book's description reads: "Animal rights activists today regularly use visual imagery in their efforts to shape the public’s understanding of what it means to be 'kind,' 'cruel,' and 'inhumane' toward animals. Art for Animals explores the early history of this form of advocacy through the images and the people who harnessed their power... Uniquely focused on imagery from the early days of the animal rights movement and filled with striking visuals, Art for Animals sheds new light on the history and development of modern animal advocacy."

Robert Morley, 1906; Courtesy of Keri Cronin
Source: Robert Morley, 1906; Courtesy of Keri Cronin

I wanted to learn more about Dr. Cronin's book so I was pleased when she said she could answer a few questions about her latest work. Our interview went as follows.

Why did you write Art for Animals: Visual Culture and Animal Advocacy, 1870–1914?

I have long been interested in animal advocacy, but it took me a while to realize how it connected with my field of study, art history. While I was in graduate school I discovered through the work of people like Diana Donald and Hilda Kean that not only did animal advocacy have a longer history than I'd realized, but that imagery—visual culture—has always been a central part of it. I think today we expect that activism has a visual component, but prior to this I hadn't really stopped to think about this history in any serious way before. As I began to conduct this research I realized just how significant this intersection of art and activism was in previous eras, and how a lot of these stories and images remained locked away in archives. I wanted to bring attention to the work of these artists/activists so that their stories would be more widely known, but I also wondered what we, as 21st century activists, might learn from studying the past. 

Courtesy of Keri Cronin
Source: Courtesy of Keri Cronin

How does it follow from some of your previous work and what makes it a unique contribution?

I've long been interested in the ways in which imagery and activism go hand in hand, and my previous writing was shaped by an environmental studies focus. Art for Animals is, I believe, a unique contribution because it focuses in on how activists from previous generations used and thought about art. There are scholars like Stephen F. Eisenman and Diana Donald who have also written important work on imagery, activism, and animals, and their work was very influential to my project, but they tend to focus less on how the various different advocacy groups worked with images. There are a lot of important publications on the history of animal advocacy, but they often focus on legal or political aspects and less on the artistic side. Likewise, art history as a discipline has not been that quick to embrace an animal studies lens. I'm hoping this book can make a contribution towards broadening the conversations in both of these areas. 

Who is your intended audience?

This is a scholarly book (published by The Pennsylvania State University Press) and, as such, it will likely be of interest to scholars and students in such fields as history, art history, animal studies, etc. Having said that, my aim was to write this book in an engaging and accessible way so that anyone who is interested in animals or art or history might find it an enjoyable and informative read. 

The old horse's appeal (Harrison Weir, 1871); Courtesy of Keri Cronin
Source: The old horse's appeal (Harrison Weir, 1871); Courtesy of Keri Cronin

I learned so much from reading your book, so can you please tell readers about some of your major messages?

Thanks! I'm glad to hear you enjoyed reading this book. I think some of the major messages include: 

- Imagery (and other forms of representation) always have "real world" implications for animals. Images can both challenge and normalize dominant ideas about animals, about how we treat them, about what constitutes "cruel" or "humane" behaviour, etc. 

- There is a long history of both animal advocacy and of using images to fight to make the world a better place for animals — I think it is important for activists today to know about and acknowledge this legacy.

- Different kinds of images can be effective and, as I explain in the book, there has long been disagreement amongst activists as to which kind of images are the most useful in trying to stop cruelty to animals. Today we hear a lot of debate about the effectiveness of graphic, gruesome, and violent images — this debate also existed in previous eras of activism. 

Why do you think that art is a good way to reach people about nonhuman animal advocacy and the ways in which nonhumans are represented  people who work hands on in the animal protection movement and for those who don't?

I think that art and visual culture have tremendous potential for animal advocacy because of the ways in which our reactions to images can be so visceral and immediate. Sometimes imagery can be used to tell stories in a way that draws people in and helps them think differently about the animals we share the planet with. With different kinds of art there can be a bit of a sense of distancing from the raw and graphic violence of animal cruelty that can cause some people to turn away and not engage. I think this is where it is important to recognize the potential in working with a wide range of media. In other words, a painting or a sculptural representation can sometimes reach a wider audience because it may invite viewers to engage with the topic in a way that a disturbing photograph or video clip often does not. Having said that, those graphic images also have an important role to play in activism — they make visible what is often culturally invisible. However, they also have the potential to shut down conversations if people just turn away and refuse to engage. I think that a blend of different kinds of visual images and approaches is often the way to think about effective activism, something I discuss in Art for Animals through examples from previous generations of reformers. 

What are some of your current and future projects?

I was only able to include a fraction of the research I found in Art for Animals. There is a lot more I'd like to write in terms of the ways in which art and activism come together in the history of animal advocacy. I've also been working with Jo-Anne McArthur (author of We Animals) on The Unbound Project, a project that celebrates the role of women in animal advocacy both today and in the past. 

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

I'd like to stress how important it is for everyone who wants to work to make the world a better place for animals to consider how they can work towards this goal within the framework of their own lives, professions, etc. Often I hear people say things like "oh, I wish I could quit my job and open a sanctuary." While this is, of course, a wonderful goal (sanctuaries are so important!), this isn't always realistic for most people. How can you find ways to advocate for animals from the current life you are living? Are you a teacher? Can you incorporate humane education in to your classroom? Are you a lawyer? Can you take on legal advocacy work that can help animals? Can you ask your office, school, cafeteria, or gym to provide vegan alternatives? (there is a boxing club in the town I live in that has purposely selected non-leather bags and gloves!) Can you host a vegan potluck or cooking class in your community? I mention these kinds of things because for a while I felt like my professional life (art history) and my personal life (vegan, animal advocacy) were quite separate, but I realize now how mistaken I was. There are many more connections than I could have ever first imagined! I'm excited to think what will happen when more and more people start asking these questions of their own lives. By all means, open that sanctuary if that works for you, but for those of us who can't live that lifestyle, it is important to ask how we can bring this kind of framework to the lives we currently live. The animals need us to do so!

Thank you so much, Keri. I hope your book enjoys a broad global audience. Not only is it a goldmine of information about art for animals, but so too it shows how important visual representations are for attracting people's interests in the lives of other animals and for showing what humans need to do to give them the very bet lives possible.1

1For another interview about the importance of art for animals please see "Animals, Exploitation, and Art: The Work of Colleen Plumb." And for another historical discussion of art and animals please see "'Granville's Animals' Foretells Research on Animal Minds." 

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