Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Archive for October, 2007

Remembering Elliott Smith

Posted by lisagbrown on October 22, 2007

Four years ago today, on October 21st 2003, the music world lost one if its most talented contributors. Elliott Smith was just 34 years old when he died under mysterious circumstances at his Los Angeles home. Smith’s death was a tragedy, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Anyone who is a fan of his music is well aware of the common themes: alchoholism, loneliness, addiction. Since I knew this sad anniversary was approaching, I revisited Smith’s catalog, this time with an ear towards the role of animals in his music, hoping that I could both honor his memory and explore his relationship with nonhuman life.

I was surprised to discover how few animals appear in his lyrics. With minor exceptions, Smith’s world seems completely devoid of nonhumans. For that matter, nature, wilderness and the environment in any living form are also noticeably absent. This striking omission might be as significant as the presence of his other themes. A world without wild animals, companion animals, even symbolic animals, mythological beings or fantasy creatures seems unimagineable. I searched the lyrics for anything living — plants, insects, fish. I listened for natural habitats like oceans, sky, forest. With rare exceptions, these representations of life are completely missing from his world. Smith sang again and again about the unliveability of his life, a life populated by alcohol bottles, drugs, darkness and not much else. The only life-giving force that ever appears in his music, and does so repeatedly, is the sun. But for Smith, the most obvious element of the sun is its habit of abandoning him every single day without fail. And even when he can manage to derive joy from the sun’s brilliance, he always does so in the context of self-destructive behavior that will cast him to the shadows again.

It is well-known that depression causes people to withdraw from family, friends, work, and all the things they hold dear. But what becomes clear from Smith’s lyrics, and his subsequent (possible) suicide, is that depression can pull people away from the natural world as well. It is a kind of isolation that transcends species and isolates the sufferer from any form of living being.

I never knew Smith personally, nor do I know what role animals and nature played in his experiences outside of music. But I can see from his lyrics that liveness in its many forms was absent from Smith. Spending any length of time within his musical world highlights the haunted genius of his talents, but spending too much time there can cause claustrophobia, as would any world without sun, life, greenery, sky, water and animals. Perhaps there is something to be learned from this. In our darkest moments, we ought to remember to reach out to the natural world, even if we can’t muster the strength to reach towards the human one. Perhaps such an effort could have saved Elliot Smith some pain.

If you would like to honor Smith’s memory, the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund encourages donations to Outside In, a Portland, Oregon organization where Smith had been scheduled to perform a benefit show to support their needle exchange program. You can also learn more about Smith by going to his official fan website, Sweet Adeline.

Photo of Elliott Smith by Autumn de Wilde

Posted in Identity, Music | 2 Comments »

Pop Culture: Useful tool or frivolous entertainment?

Posted by lisagbrown on October 13, 2007

Is it possible to use theory and intellect to draw deeply complicated conclusions about silly, simple pop culture art? I faced this question in the writing of my Master’s thesis, in which I used such illustrious examples of animal imagery as Mr. Winkle (see photo, right). For many reasons, my answer to this question is a resounding yes, but it is difficult to convince scholars that there is academic and cultural value in guilty pleasures.

I’m raising this point because of a Very Special Episode of Grey’s Anatomy the other week, in which one of the doctors (an MD for humans) saves a deer. The episode addresses the issue of childhood attachment to animals. It can potentially be read for its commentary on the legitimacy of adult empathy for nonhumans. However, in discussing the episode with my husband, I realized that the more interesting issue at hand was expressed in a question I posed: Would people stop taking me seriously as a writer and animal advocate if I wrote about a trashy soap-opera like Grey’s Anatomy? It seemed to me that the answer, yet again, was a resounding yes.

So here is the dilemma: latent and explicit meanings embedded in pop culture can reveal societal paradigms in their purest form, yet pop culture is often viewed as mindless entertainment that is devoid of greater worth. How can these intertwined and opposing viewpoints be resolved? To start with, by establishing why pop culture is worthwhile.

In the book From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions (1995), author Murray Edelman explains how and why art and popular culture can provide insight into every day life. Edelman says that “part of the meaning of artistic talent is the ability to sense feelings, ideas, and beliefs that are widespread in society in some latent form, perhaps as deep structures or perhaps as unconscious feelings, and to objectify them in a compelling way (p 52).” If art synthesizes basic beliefs, then scholars ought to be able to learn a great deal from studying art.

To summarize some of Edelman’s relevant points, what we see and hear is constructed and influenced by imagery that we all have acess to. This means that in addition to personal interpretations of art, our culture has a collective understanding of images as well. This is what makes art an integral part of political behavior, attitudes, virtues and vices. When art and the mind are applied to real world situations, they can influence and transform beliefs about the social world, problems, solutions, hopes, fears, past, present, and future. Kitsch art, “art that sentimentalizes everyday experiences (p. 29),” has just as profound an impact on the social and political world as any other form of art. And kitsch art, more than any other form of art, leads to a unique dilemma.

The study of popular culture (kitsch in particular) suffers from an unusual problem. A lot of pop culture art — not all, but a lot — lacks quality. It is not often that a field of study is generated from lackluster product. In the study of popular culture, scholars ask their audience to accept the intellectual rigor of their research, even though the topic of their study may have none. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many critics, the scholar’s ranking as a legitimate academic is only justified by the quality of his subject of study. For instance, an academic who writes about the Sopranos might be warmly received because of the artistic merit of the TV show, whereas an academic who writes about Grey’s Anatomy would get the cold shoulder because the show’s ambitions go no further than entertainment. And yet, there might be as much useful commentary generated from fluff about Meredith and McDreamy as there is from Tony and his gang. Again, it’s the integrity of the analysis, not the quality of the art being viewed, that ought to determine academic worth.

It is dangerous when scholarship is judged by the subject or topic being studied, and not by the academic rigor of the research. Yet, this does happen, and anyone in the field of human-animal studies has intimate knowledge of this idiosyncrasy. Because animals are not taken seriously as a worthwhile academic interest (aside from biological) many scholars in human-animal studies experience a lack of respect for their work — even if the quality of their studies are stellar. When the study of animals is combined with the study of popular culture, scholars may be digging themselves into an academic grave.

Steve Baker, author of Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation (2001) offers a perspective that compliments Edelman’s theories about pop culture. Baker asserts, “much of our understanding of human identity and our thinking about the living animal reflects — and may even be the rather direct result of — the diverse uses to which the concept of the animal is put in popular culture, regardless of how bizarre or banal some of those uses may seem (p. 4).” Like Edelman, Baker places value in even the most frivolous imagery of popular culture representations. Using a butter TV commercial and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as examples, he explains that any understanding of animals is reliant on our understanding of their cultural representations. Baker explains that animal imagery is purely a human construction and is not an accessible reality. Thus, understanding greater cultural mentality about animals will come from exploring the meaning, both latent and explicit, in these manufactured representations.

Without placing judgments on either the symbolic animal or the real animal, it is possible to recognize value in exploring their qualities as mutually informing influences. For example, it is almost impossible to interact with a live pig without thinking (consciously or not) of the charming personality of Babe, Wilbur or Gordy. The childish voice and do-gooder nature of these pigs have created a lasting mythology around the innocent kindness of an entire species. This symbolism is based on fictitious human-made creatures, but the influence on the real is undeniable. The artistic quality of the films from which these pigs came is subject to debate. But the truth is, Babe, Wilbur and Gordy do not have to come from artistic masterpieces in order to generate, influence or reflect cultural attitudes towards animals. It is for this reason that scholars ought spend time evaluating and theorizing about popular culture and, in particular, instances of animals in popular culture — even if such studies are tantamount to academic suicide.

To return to the question with which I began this essay: Is it possible to use theory and intellect to draw deeply complicated conclusions about silly, simply pop culture art? I’ll reiterate again, yes. I’ve outlined here some of the many reasons why. But finally, let’s return to the question that began my thoughts on this subject: Would people stop taking me seriously as a writer and animal advocate if I wrote about a trashy soap-opera like Grey’s Anatomy? Unfortunately, I think the answer is still yes, but perhaps with room for change.

Baker, S. (2001). Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Edelman, M.J. (1995) From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Regan, L.J. (2001). What is Mr. Winkle? New York: Random House.

Posted in Art, Human-Animal Studies, Public Policy, Television | 1 Comment »

American Photo, Assignment: Earth

Posted by lisagbrown on October 7, 2007

The cover story of this month’s American Photo is about the intersection of public policy, activism and art. More specifically, it’s about the role that photography plays in the conservation movement. Read the fantastic introductory article by going to American Photo. Then peruse the beautiful work of the photographers they highlight like Xi Zhinong, whose images of the extremely rare snub-nosed monkeys (above right) “precipitated a logging ban by the [Chinese] national government.”

Posted in Photography, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

Josh Ritter and the Digital Fish tank

Posted by lisagbrown on October 5, 2007

Josh Ritter is a local Boston folk-scene fixture. His recent appearance as musical guest on David Letterman solidified his status as an up-and-coming star. All the more reason why this charming, self-effacing performer should be noticed; not only for his singer-songwriter talents, but also for the ways that animals play a role in his music.

Last night I saw Ritter play live at the Somerville Theater in Davis Square. In between songs he told a story. He and his bandmates have recently discovered the digital fish tank, a DVD of fish. A single camera is statically focused on a tank. Every two hours the film is looped back to the beginning, to create an endless movie of fish tank livelihood. Ritter deadpaned that the fish tank was an exciting hotbed of action and he and his bandmates were riveted. The crowd laughed at Ritter’s apparent irony, but I think his comments were as honest as they were comedic. Surely a man who wrote an entire album called The Animal Years (2006) finds worth in the observation of animals. He went on to lament how difficult it is to get to know a fish’s personality. Again, the crowd laughed because fish don’t have personalities, right? But Ritter continued: Is the fish friendly? Is it mean? The ongoing guffaws of the audience confirmed my suspicions of their thoughts: fish are fish — the suggestion of personality differentiation is nothing more than stand-up comedy!

Ritter ended the story by wondering aloud what kind of fish he would be. At the very least, he determined, Zack Hickman his bassist (a statuesque man with an impeccably maintained handlebar mustache) would be a Manta Ray.

To hear Josh Ritter’s music and find tour dates click here.

Posted in Music | Leave a Comment »

Trainscape: Plush

Posted by lisagbrown on October 1, 2007

The Decordova Museum in Lincoln, MA is currently exhibiting an installation show called Trainscape: Installation Art for Model Railroads. Each of the twelve individual exhibits in the 3500-square foot gallery is connected by a small, working, travelling model railroad. The fourteen artists that participated have created unique worlds that are changed, influenced and connected by the moving presence of the trains. The Decordova describes that in Plush, the installation pictured above by Stuart Schecter, “the pleasant innocence of youth appears in the stuffed animals…while the penned-in toys and their menacing actions suggest the darker side of trains.”

The exhibit continues through January 13th, 2008. See the Decordova Museum website to watch a movie of the train travelling through the installations.

Posted in Art | Leave a Comment »