Humanimal – Art & Ethics
Daily life of the vegetarian #11
I’VE BEEN VEGETARIAN for 35 years, and a journalist for 34 years, yet it only occurred to me in 2011 to “come out” (as it were) and to write about vegetarianism.
The thing is, for most of that time I have been filled with passion for the arts and popular culture. Contemporary music was my big thing (with movies leading up the rear), and for three decades my enthusiasm never wavered.
I always knew there was a big wide world to write about, but it’s only in the last five years that I’ve felt an inclination to grow up and write about real life.
Music, like all art, is representational, an articulation of emotions and ideas. Heck, music is too many things to go into here, but one thing it very seldom does is take a moral position.
There are artists who bang on about starving African kids or (name a pet cause) but who remain rich and remote and whose music almost never reflects more than the ego of the star who made it.
One thing I’ve noticed about musicians and artists over the years (and I have known a few) is that they generally fit a mold of self-absorption that allows them to exclude an over-riding sense of ethics from their lives.
I guess that’s why vegetarian artists are more likely to eat meat-free for reasons of vanity than ethics, and revert back to meat eating when it suits them (like a certain Madonna Ciccone).
When you listen to music, you don’t have to think about whether the band or artist is likely to have got stuck into a suckling pig after the gig, unless it’s a song that specifically alludes to the supposed joys of carcass consumption. But when you watch a film, the director imposes his or her visual universe on you for a couple of hours, and that can be an upsetting experience.
I remember going to a few critically revered foreign films in the ‘80s that happened to centre around the consumption of a feast, and unable to concentrate on the drama, so appalled I was at the loss of animal life that one film represented. You learn, over time, to avoid food-centric (or meat-centric) films, but other movies that show a distinct carelessness towards animals other than ourselves are much trickier to negotiate.
I’ve always appreciated the “outsider art” of John Waters, whose films have trampled over many social and sexual taboos over the years. Often, Waters’ z-grade budgets actually enhanced films that had genuine points to make about society, and made you laugh at the same time.
But when I watched his most infamous movie again last year, just prior to conducting a phone interview with Waters on the eve of his one-man show at Auckland’s Civic Theatre, I was really appalled. The film was the outrageous 1972 classic Pink Flamingos, and no, it wasn’t the eating of dog shit, or the “talking asshole” scene that upset me. It was something that I hadn’t expected to encounter: during a faked amorous sex session, a real chicken was literally squashed between two heaving human bodies. On the ‘director commentary’, Waters laughed about how animal rights groups had complained about the chicken, and pointed out that it had been purchased from a butcher (so it was already condemned to die) and that the production crew had eaten the dead chicken for dinner.
I can see Waters’ point. He’s not a vegetarian, it was going to die anyway; so what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that the chicken was clearly distressed, probably died an agonising and painful death. This scene worried me for days, and I had to bite my lip when I interviewed Waters, who had always been one of my (anti-) heroes. Would there be any point in grilling (ha!) him about it, 39 years after the fact? Not really.
Waters has always painted himself as a subversive, but German film director Werner Herzog, by comparison, sees himself as a humanist. There’s much to like about Herzog’s work – many of his films are bleak and about doomed characters, but they are deeply ruminative, and his more recent half-life as a documentarian has a prosaic streak that kicks against the sentimentality of a lot of “wildlife” soap operas.
In many ways, however, I find Herzog’s treatment of animals in his own films even more revolting than that of Waters. In his early film, the bizarre Even Dwarves Started Small (1970), chickens are seen cannibalizing each other as if it’s justification for what follows: actors in the film carelessly, brutally manhandling, throwing and injuring the poor chooks. For all I know, Herzog may now feel some guilt for his treatment of those chickens some 42 years later, but in his DVD commentary he makes no such admission of guilt, just talks about how stupid they are, and how easily you can hypnotise them.
The most famous Herzog quote on chickens is this: “Stupidity is the devil. Look in the eye of a chicken and you’ll know. It’s the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creature in this world.” Chickens are something of a running theme for Herzog, who featured them in most of his films for many years, and repeats the story about their stupidity with tedious regularity.
What really got me when I viewed this rather pretentiously arty film earlier this year was that not even one animal life justifies the “art”. Herzog also slaughtered a mother pig as part of the film, and there’s an upsetting scene where its piglets are trying to suckle the dead pig. Herzog does elliptically express some regret over the pig in the commentary.
Herzog’s greatest film (in my opinion) is Stroszek (1977), in which a compassionate German loser starts a new life in a mobile home in America. It’s a doomed scenario, and at its unforgettable conclusion our hero finds himself at the end of the road (metaphorically speaking) at an amusement arcade that contains real, live animals. That is, you put your money in the slot machine, and it then puts out electrical impulses to make the animals appear to be doing whatever they’re supposed to be doing. The final reel centres on a dancing chicken, prompted via repeated mild electrical shocks to keep on dancing. It’s a powerful, deeply distressing scene, and famous for having seemingly instigated the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in 1980.
I always thought that Herzog had found this amusement arcade and simply integrated it into the dramatic arc of his story. That it may have even been a statement about animal cruelty, in part. I was to be profoundly disappointed. When I listened to Herzog’s commentary, he blithely admitted that he had spent weeks training the chicken for the film, and had come up with this horrible attraction himself.
The conceit of the egomaniac artist – and Herzog is undoubtedly in that category – is that the artistic statement somehow justifies the animal cruelty. The conceit of the egomaniac artist is that he considers himself a true humanist. I think not. A true humanist would think deeply enough about our species to see its interconnectedness to other species, along with its responsibility to them.
Art and ethics – I’m still torn. You can’t unmake a piece of art and a great film, even if it has involved animal cruelty; the animal cruelty doesn’t make it a lesser film, but when (like me) you become aware that fact, it becomes tainted. Tainted, with blood. GARY STEEL