Not Just What's On Your Plate: How Veganism Is Changing The Arts

Dead cow by Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst's art has cost an estimated 1 million animals their lives (Photo: Gazanfarulla Khan)

It's often said that not even the most attentive vegan life is ever fully free of the consumption and use of animal products.

That's because of the invidious and often hidden ways in which global mass consumerism aims to make a profit from every part of the animal – an idea made famous in Upton Sinclair’s 1904 novel The Jungle set in the Chicago stockyards, where the slaughterhouses 'use everything about the hog except the squeal'.

And culture is no different from consumerism. The arts have a long history of anthropocentrism, and the objectification and exploitation of animals is central to most cultural industries, whether that be Disney films, children's books, Damien Hirst's sculptures (at the cost of 1 million animal lives), or Bear Grylls' The Island.

Vegan beyond the plate

So if vegans want to see the end of animal suffering and exploitation, social and cultural practices have to change far beyond what we put on our plate.

And luckily, a new set of artists, writers, academics and performers are looking to do just that.

Contesting the use of animals in art

"My goal is to lift the non-human animals into the center of a critical discussion concerning the production and reading of art works," says EvaMarie Lindahl, a Swedish performance and fine artist studying for a PhD at the Centre for Human-Animal Studies at Edge Hill University.

Her project contests the use of animals as 'resources' in art production – from representation on the canvas, through to body parts in arts materials, such as hair for brushes and pigments in paint. It is her job, she says, to make art that 'points to living beings, not material'.

"When I studied at the Art Academies of Sweden between 2003 and 2008 I can't recall a single moment of a discussion focusing on non-human animals, even though they were constantly used as material or as symbols telling human stories."

Art from a vegan perspective

Lindahl's work makes a concerted effort to engage the 'art lover' in a new way of thinking about animals from a vegan perspective - and that involves bodily engagement.

"I am re-writing art histories from the perspective of the non-human animals portrayed within paintings hanging at the walls of art museums.

"These histories are then performed as guided tours aiming for writing a less anthropocentric art history. It is in the intersection of art, history and activism that I hope that my current experimenting will add something new."

The anti-speciesist novel

"I turned vegan again when researching Goblin," says Edinburgh-based writer Ever Dundas, about her debut novel, which won the Scottish first book of the year at the Saltire literary awards in 2017.

The novel tells the story of Goblin, who grows up during the Second World War and witnesses, among other things, the cat and dog massacre, an event where, explains Dundas, 'around 400,000 pets were killed in London in 1939 just after war was declared'.

The character goes on to have animal best friends through her life, and advocates for the end of exploitation for circus animals, as well as eschewing meat products in her diet. The set-piece of the novel revolves around that pet massacre – but the real story is how Dundas writes about animals without relegating them to symbols or subordinate characters.

Non-human animals

"I found out about [the pet massacre] when I saw the film Glorious 39 and I had the opportunity to ask the director why he included it," she explains. "He stated that he was using it as a metaphor for the Holocaust, which disappointed me.

"A foreshadowing, I could understand (watching what unfolds with the pets, it's unlikely you wouldn’t think of what was to happen to humans later), but a metaphor isn't good enough.

"I was getting sick of reading books and watching films where non-human animals (if they featured at all) were used as vehicles for the protagonist's emotional journey or as metaphors for human suffering. It's so arrogant and anthropocentric, and I wanted to write a book that prominently features non-human animals where they weren't reduced to metaphors.

"Non-humans animals are constantly reduced to symbols. I challenge writers to do better."

Using music to reach out

"My particular art reaches demographics that are systematically left out of the vegan conversation due to a misconception of the diet/lifestyle," says Donald Vincent, a writer, musician, and teacher based in Los Angeles, California.

Like Dundas's writing practice, Vincent's music is about asking people to think again about the ways that the art form might be representing nonhuman animals, and especially their place in our food systems.

"For example," says Vincent, "we live in a world where people look up to celebrities, so when a new celebrity goes vegan it becomes a trendy fad. This might seem great in a sense, but it can make veganism seem expensive, classists, and inaccessible. On the song The Recipe I rhyme my morning ritual with my ethical values. My music invites the every-man/anyone to enjoy in the playful puns of food language in order to eat better and live better."

Donald Vincent's song The Recipe

Challenges of a vegan arts practice

But there are many challenges to a fully vegan, non-exploitative arts practice.

"Non-human animal body parts are hidden within a lot of material," explains Lindahl, especially within fine arts, "and I believe that failure is inevitable when keeping a vegan art practice."

Other challenges are not so physical, but to do with the nature of cultural expectations around what constitutes 'good' music, literature or film.

"I don't want my listeners to ever think I am talking down or judgmental from my vegan pedestal," says Vincent of his project Vegan Paradise. "But I also try to give the message that it is not just food, but also how we abstain from wearing and supporting those industries that exploit animals."

Speaking for animals

Dundas sees similar challenges in writing literature. Not so much for the audience, but for the animals who she is trying to write for.

"When writing about non-human animals and our relationship with them, there is always a danger of anthropomorphizing, assuming that we can speak for them, so it's tricky territory," she says.

"I thought all this through when planning Goblin and I decided that a child protagonist was the best way to deal with the way humans regard and exploit animals. Goblin’s identity as 'goblin' positions her as 'other', moving her into the 'creature' realm, making her a stronger ally for non-human animals.

"Goblin, while clearly important herself, is my way into exploring our relationship with non-human animals. I use her as a way to show the reader that non-human animals matter, that their lives are of intrinsic worth."

An Art of Positive Change

All of the artists see the relationship between their arts practice and veganism as positive force for change, and not only in their own lives.

"The Vegan Paradise project helped me to see that, while I am only a fish in the pond, those that are veg-curious will find this music project and be inspired to join the many voices that make up the cruelty-free community," says Vincent.

For Lindahl, the challenge becomes the opportunity.

"I now use my research project as a force to say that the openings, coffee breaks and dinners held in connection to my work need to be vegan," she explains.

"Working with anthropomorphism, empathy, and imagination as methods for change has also made me open up emotionally to the experiences of the portrayed non-human animals without feeling shame. Instead, I refuse what Franz De Waal would call 'anthropodenial' while aiming for similarities instead of differences."

Vegan lifestyle

And for Dundas, practicing her art form is, in a way, the best form of activism she can perform for nonhuman animals, which strengthens her commitment to the vegan lifestyle.

"I love the Camus quote 'Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth'," she says.

"Art moves people in a way that presenting them with facts and figures doesn't. An author, literary critic, and carnist read Goblin and said, 'Can you guess who my favorite character is? Corporal Pig'.

"I considered that quite the achievement. This pig wasn’t 'just meat' – they were an individual with a personality."

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are prepared in the author's capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Plant Based News itself. 

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PBN Contributor:

Dr. Alex Lockwood is the author of 'The Pig in Thin Air' (Lantern Books, NY), a vegan memoir and study of new animal advocacies, as well as an academic and activist. He is a Fellow of the RSA and a member of the Vegan Society Research Advisory Committee, and has recently conducted interviews with 40 vegan men exploring their journeys into plant-based lifestyles. You can follow him on Twitter @alexlockwood

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