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Forum: Do You Agree with Peter Singer?

Ethicist and animal rights advocate Peter Singer lectured last night at the Getty Center to a packed house. A summary of his thoughts is below; video of the lecture is posted here.

Update: Read more of Singer's views on Oudry and animals in this interview in Los Angeles CityBeat.

Do you agree or disagree with Singer? Click "Add a Comment" at the bottom of this page to weigh in!

Animals in the Western Tradition
We've always looked at—and painted—animals, said Singer. Animals of the hunt in the caves of Lascaux. Farm animals on Roman mosaics. Oxen being slaughtered in medieval manuscripts. It is hardly unusual in Western art to see cold, detached depictions of animals being used as meat or as objects to please the eye.

The cultural origins of these ways of behaving toward and depicting animals are not hard to find. The book of Genesis tells us that we have dominion over the beasts, and the greatest philosophers assure us that beasts "exist for the sake of man" (Aristotle) and are "merely a means to an end" (Kant).

Rhinoceros / Oudry  
Anxious or glaring? The eye of Jean-Baptiste Oudry's Rhinoceros (detail), oil on canvas, 1749
Staatliches Museum Schwerin
Oudry's Rhinoceros: Sympathetic or Stiff and Glaring?
Oudry's "stiff" portrait of Clara the rhinoceros, the centerpiece of the "interesting and dramatic" exhibition Oudry's Painted Menagerie, reflects this very attitude, said Singer. "Oudry doesn't show a lot of sympathy" for the captive rhino or her experience of being carted across Europe's rough roads and roiling rivers for 17 years, argued Singer, pointing to the shiny white marks on Clara's haunches caused by years of rubbing against her crate.

Is Clara's eye anxious, as others have suggested, or does it, as Singer believes, "glare in a fixed way"? Surely Oudry's is not as feeling a portrait as Albrecht Dürer's famous rhinoceros, with its downcast posture and heavily lidded eye?

Clara was, after all, a moneymaking object, a curiosity, a thing to stare at. The birds in Oudry's painting Demoiselle Crane, Toucan, and Tufted Crane are likewise "things for us to gaze on," far removed, said Singer, from the refined depictions of cranes in flight by Japanese artists who were Oudry's near-contemporaries, such as Maruyama Ōkyo.

Oudry's Drawings: More Sympathetic?
Yet Oudry is capable of moments of empathy with animals, said Singer—just look at his drawings of frightened fox or a reclining tiger in the drawings gallery in the exhibition. Was it perhaps the very "menagerie idea" that prevented this sympathy from peeking through in the paintings?

Are We More Compassionate Today Than We Were in Oudry's Day?
Oudry's Enlightenment contemporaries were the first to recognize that animals can suffer just as we do. And there is no doubt that they do suffer, declared Singer. Today we honor this reality in some ways—we no longer allow the public beating of horses, for example, or find it edifying to watch tied-up animals being vivisected. Yet we deny it in others. What of the suffering of the 10 billion animals that pass through America's factory farms each year? This is cruelty on a massive scale, even worse perhaps because conveniently hidden from view.

Ultimately, concluded Singer, we can all be bent to cruelty under the right conditions. We should never give ourselves absolute power, the power to repress and dominate, if we want to bring about a world of greater compassion. Art can either reflect our culture's dominant mindset, or it can challenge it and help teach compassion.

Re: Forum: Do You Agree with Peter Singer?

It was an excellent lecture and gave Peter Singers views an interesting twist with the addition of art. One thing I think he missed was the art historical aspect of Oudry's era; that art and science thought of themselves as one. Many of Oudry's painted menagerie pieces were meant to be the evidence of research as much as a painted representation. We must remember that Audobon did most of his work from dead specimens, yet his work spawned an appreciation for Nature that grows to this day.

Re: Forum: Do You Agree with Peter Singer?

An important function of art is and always has been to bear witness.

The 18th century seems to have been a time in which the idea of animal rights was beginning to take root in some minds. The artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry's imagery may strike us as neutral that way--neither dismissing nor advocating that animals have their own lives and legitimate perspectives.

But as Singer pointed out, the debate of animal rights was very much in the air at the time. He showed a shocking set of prints by artist William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty from 1750-51. What a vast difference in mentalities between these two contemporaneous artists!

While Oudry was painting for his courtly patrons, Hogarth was making prints for popular distribution, and to show that cruelty to animals is on the same ethical continuum as cruelty to one's own species.

Of course words can help to bear witness too, as Matthew Scully did in his recent book, Dominion, where he gains access to the hellish world of factory farms, whaling, and commercial safaris. But such books can be easily avoided. What Peter Singer points out, so rightly, is the need for artists to expose what is otherwise hidden: the 100 billion animals who suffer unspeakably in the US every year because of factory farming.

We need the vision of artists, including photographers like Dorothea Lange to expose the horror deliberately hidden from sight.

Re: Forum: Do You Agree with Peter Singer?

Ethics about animals can only be discussed in a modern society. In primitive societies, such discussions would be silly. Would this imply there is some degree of cultural relativism? Yes. When there is an abundance of grain and meat-substitutes i.e. soy- we may discuss veganism or vegetarianism - otherwise in a time of extreme crop shortages- eating meat might be the only choice. Therefore, in societies where such shortages exist- the treatment of animals might be more due to economical motives. In an so called - Enlightened society - an anthropomorphically directed form of compassion toward animals and all forms of life would be ideal. However, I am not so sure it is the duty of artists to point out such ethical issues. Visual artist and writers e.g. Upton Sinclair may awaken the hebephrenic public- but those changes do not have a lingering effect. The idea of having dominion over all animals might give Western or Asian societies to treat animals as they wish, but there is a fuzzy demarcation from distinguishing animals from humans- what criterion shall we use? Intelligence? And that is another fuzzy area of debate as well... Looking back historically and judging the ignoble behavior of our ancestor might be too easy- since the same ignoble and mindless treatment of animals occur even today. Parading around "Clara" is not much different from the treatment of circus animals and the anachronistic institutions of zoos. If we do use religious sources to justify our behavior toward animals, it might be interesting to compare all religious writings in regards to the treatment of animals. In Buddhism, eating meat is frowned upon...and the cruel treatment of animals is a brutish klesha that is to be avoided. So, can we continue treating animals so mindlessly and continue the insensitive consumption of meat? It takes a long time for society to change. I think the health issues of eating meat might eventually make future changes in the dietary choices we make, and enlightened awareness to the conditions to the suffering of animals from an 'enlightened society' might modify the treatment of animals. So I would disagree & agree...we as a society require more time to get there....

Re: Forum: Do You Agree with Peter Singer?

Oudry was just a painter whose art was to decorate XVIII-century houses. Hunting was a popular "entertainment" at the time. We don't know Oudry's attitude toward animals, but if I was to play a guessing game, I would say that he must have been in love with Nature. Otherwise he would have never focused on images depicting game.

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