by Stephen F. Eisenman. Reaktion Books, dist. by University of Chicago Press, February 2014. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9781780231952 (pbk.), $29.00.
Reviewed September 2014
Farah Friesen, Research Coordinator, Centre for Faculty Development, St. Michael’s Hospital, firstname.lastname@example.org
In The Cry of Nature, Stephen F. Eisenman offers an analysis of how humans have conceived of animals throughout history. His critical inquiry examines how the ways in which we define an animal impacts the ways humans understand other sentient beings as well as themselves, and how these characterizations have direct effect (positive and negative) on human-animal relationships.
This book is not a general survey of animals in art, and Eisenman points out that many major animal painters are left out. The purpose of The Cry of Nature is to present a detailed chronicle of the ideological history of the movement for animal rights and position artists and art within/alongside this history.
Eisenman artfully weaves together examples from literature (Jean de la Fontaine, John Oswald, Sartre, Kafka, Orwell), natural philosophy (Descartes, Montaigne, Diderot, La Mettrie, Rousseau), psychology (Freud), politics and economics (Marx), and animal welfare/rights discourse (Peter Singer, Gary Francione, William Wilberforce, Richard Martin) with interpretations of artistic works to create a varied and intertwined explanation of human-animal relationships from antiquity to the present, with a main focus on the middle ages, pre-modern, and modern period. Given that quite a bit has been written analyzing animals in pre-twentieth-century art, whether in direct relation to the ideas of animal welfare/rights/speciesism or not, one expects that this book would dedicate a good portion to examining more recent representations of animals in art. Regrettably, the book does not go into depth but only briefly details post-World War II art and literature, with a short list of suggested contemporary performance art, photography, painting, and artistic works.
This book is suitable for those interested in political, social, and economic contexts of human attitudes towards animals, with examples from art reflecting human-animal relations that result from these beliefs. The book is well researched, but not written in an overly academic tone; therefore, it is a good entry point to historical and contemporary ideas related to animal welfare/rights and art. There are ninety-eight high quality illustrations, though all images are black and white. Each chapter has endnotes, comprising a detailed bibliography with a “further reading” list. The book is indexed with a solidly bound spine and thick pages.
Eisenman successfully demonstrates how human relations to the world are constructed through subjective understandings. Yet, sometimes limited human definitions and the ways humans conceive of other creatures affect their choices, which in turn have real, practical implications on the lives of other beings. Art provides a unique lens through which to examine conceptualizations, calling into question dominant discourses and illuminating alternative understandings.