What Is the Role of Animals In Art?

Animals have always been an integral component of human storytelling. From ancient folk tales and myths to the Brothers Grimm to modern Broadway hits such as War Horse, it seems that our appetite for animal stories is unquenchable. They stand in for humans in fables and take the place of people in morality tales. In fact, the personification of animals is so common that most of us inherently accept animals as representative symbols for human behavior and interaction.

Una Chaudhari’s talk for the first-year drama students on animals in art featured slides from Steve Baker’s book The Postmodern Animal, including this one of work by artists Olly and Suzi in which a shark is biting a photo.

(Photo by Chris Downes)


For Una Chaudhuri, professor of English, drama, and environmental studies at N.Y.U., however, animals exist in our stories as far more—or less—than just symbols. Chaudhuri is at the forefront of an area of academic research/ performance practice that exists at the intersection between animal studies, eco-criticism, and performance theory. She has termed the central idea of this theory zooesis, the basic tenants of which she shared with Juilliard’s first-year drama students during a February 9 lecture titled “Theater of Species.”

At the heart of zooesis lies a desire to liberate animals from their place as metaphorical placeholders for humans in art and move them into the literal. For example, under the watchful eye of zooesis, George Orwell’s porcine characters in 1984 might not just be symbols of man’s greed, but would actually be pigs. The scientifically non-accurate puppets of War Horse might have been traded in for flesh-and-hoof horses, as was the case in the Public Theater’s production of Sam Shepard’s Kicking a Dead Horse. Visual artists such as Olly and Suzi employ the ideas of zooesis when they have animals physically interact with their art and only consider it completed once they have done so. In this sense, animals in performance would stop being mirrors for human behavior and would force audience members to view animals for what they actually are—animals.

But why? According to Chaudhuri, the purpose of representing animals literally on stage and in art is to fundamentally change the way we regard and interact with animals in the real world. As environmental worries have grown, the relationship between animals and humans has become more strained. Concerns about the preservation of natural habitats to the quality of life for animals in zoos bring up issues that deserve to be considered in academic, artistic, and political arenas. In this sense, the most practical application of zooesis seems to be as a tool for animal activists interested in changing the terms of discussion. By using literal presentations of animals, artists and activists can force audiences to look at the way we treat and think about those animals instead of using them to make us look at the way we treat and think about each other.

While Chaudhuri’s presentation provided quite a bit of food for thought, the ideas behind zooesis seemed highly conceptual, and the mere 90 minutes that we drama students spent with Chaudhuri provided only a glimpse into the content and purpose of this area of study. While it is obvious that our treatment of animals is something worth thinking about, it seems to this writer that the grand purpose of art (the creation of which serves as a major distinction between human beings and their animal counterparts) is to provide us a way of looking deeper within ourselves. Considering the profundity of symbolic animals in not just Western but global art, one can’t help but wonder if the literalization of animals might not overly narrow the possibilities for what it is that we might see.


Popular Columns

Recent Issues