Strona główna/[ENG] ART. The Kindom of Animals

[ENG] ART. The Kindom of Animals

Žilvinė Gaižutytė, Basia Nikiforova
Lithuanian Culture Research Institute (Vilnius)


The balance is the penalty of being human: the danger of allowing yourself to feel. On one side we have the descent into animalism, on the other a godhead delusion. Both pulling at us, both tempting. But without these forces tugging at your psyche, stirring it into conflict, you can never love. They awaken us, you see, they arouse our passion.
Peter F. Hamilton

Environmental philosophy mostly describes views of the blessed unity of natural community stressing the continuity of humanity with wider nature and our harmonic membership in that. It seems that a non-anthropocentric philosophy requires that we identify ourselves with nature and thereby minimize human/non-human distinction.
Our essay is focused on Meda’s Norbutaitė’s painting. The creation of a Lithuanian artist is connected by long-term ties with the theme of her own vision of an animal in an inseparable connection with a person.
Keywords:  anthropological machine, animal rights, cruelty, melancholia, non-anthropocentric philosophy, wilderness. 

The growing presence of animals in contemporary art is a mark of ecological, cultural, mentalistic, and linguistic change. The opposition of culture and nature, human and non-human doesn’t seem to make much sense any longer. Environmental philosophy mostly describes views of the blessed unity of natural community stressing the continuity of humanity with wider nature and our harmonic membership in that. It seems that a non-anthropocentric philosophy requires that we identify ourselves with nature and thereby minimize human/non-human distinction. An alternative view more plausible stresses that the distinction between humanity and nature is valued precisely for its otherness. If nature is valued in virtue of its otherness, it is best thought of as an extrinsic, final, and objective good, where the objectivity of nature’s value is a method of understanding, describing, and visualization. The Holmes Rolston view, “environments are horizons that we carry about and reconstitute as we move here and there. Objectively, there are no horizons in nature” (Rolston 1997: 39).

In search of philosophical approach
This essay is focused on Lithuanian artist Meda’s Norbutaitė’s painting. Her creation demonstrates long-term ties with the theme of her own vision of an animal and its complicated connection with a human being.  Norbutaitė represents domestic animals, that have been bred and adapted over generations to live alongside humans – calves and bulls, sheep and pigs, horses and dogs, or wild animals that live aside humans – rats, pigeons, crows, etc. Over many centuries these animals served as a means for human survival: as a workforce, food, material for clothes, etc. Norbutaitė’s animal representations are embedded in a special illogical, irrational, and surreal visual narrative. It combines the extraordinary expression of archaic and postmodern visual forms with inter-civilizational religious images and symbols, the history of their pictorial representation, and places them into a contemporary context. The artist likes grotesque and irony. She plays with visual and semantic contrasts or metaphors and combines them into one pictorial representation of superficial beauty (aestheticism) and ugliness. Norbutaitė’s paintings include such oppositions as archaic and postmodern, ethnic/individual and universal, sacral/religious and domestic/everyday life, and sophisticated and rough images. This combination reveals an unexpected image, that emerged from contemporary individual associations and ancient narratives of civilizational cultural memory.   

 Massumi about the animal continuum. The continuum is a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct. In the book What Animals Teach Us about Politics, Brian Massumi has developed the idea of the human as an animal. This idea served as a basis for his conception of animal politics. Massumi integrates the dominant evolutionary biology and philosophy such notions as play, sympathy, and creativity, which enrich the concept of nature. His inquiry includes not only animal behavior but also animal thought with its apartness or proximity to, those capacities which human beings claim a monopoly: language and reflexive consciousness. Massumi argues that all that is special to the human (language and writing) is not what separates us from animals, it is not denote “the” animal a “pure” and vital expression of our animality” (Massumi, 2014: 59). The animal continuum “must be done in a way that does not erase what is different about the human, but respects that difference while bringing it to the new expression on the continuum: immanent to animality. Expressing the singular belonging of the human to the animal continuum has political implications, as do all questions of belonging” (Massumi. 2014: 3).
He concludes that a matrix of identity is not only way to divide animals from humans:  

“The species converge not through a matrix of identity (“the” animal, “the” human), but through the speeds and slowness of ecologies. Thinking this way perhaps allows us to consider how fields of resonance through the coexistence not of identity structures (the human, the self) but through ecologies that are as many rhythms as “beings”. The point is not that there is no identity – no human, no animal, no plant – but that the species is not where the process begins or ends. Our proposition is not to negate species or identity, but to become aware that the force of collective individuation happens in the interstices where the ecologies are still in active transformation” (Massumi 2012).

Wilderness and protection of animal interest. The definition of wilderness is important for our research. This notion has connotations, which specifically reflect the values of the late 20th and a myth of the urbane style of life and behaviour. Wilderness is one of the keywords for seeing and understanding nature and animals. The relation with wilderness included such polar attitudes as pragmatism, gambling, competition, and satisfying hunger. At the same time, the desire to avoid unnecessary infliction of pain and aesthetic enjoyment of its harmony and beauty. The conventional definition of wildness in a European context is following:

“Wild areas have a high level of predominance of natural process and natural habitat. They tend to be individually smaller and more fragmented than wilderness areas, although they often cover extensive tracts. The condition of their natural habitat, processes and relevant species is however often partially or substantially modified by human activities such as livestock herding, hunting, fishing, forestry, sport activities or general imprint of human artifacts.” (Wild Europe 2015).

Animal rights theories and practice. Animal rights theories are most commonly grounded on animal interests. These theories are naturally connected with the common theory of human and non-human rights. With its mostly emphasis on well-being rather than on agency, the interest theory seems more open and deeper to the possibility of animal rights from the outset. Modern animal welfare by legislation cannot be explained only then animals are part of wilderness and harmony in nature but from the reason that the animals it protects have morally and legally relevant rights and interests, in their welfare, life, health, and physical or mental integrity. For this reason, reducing the level of cruelty is one of the more visible sides to protecting animal interests in every stage of its life (from birth to death).

Nowadays evolutionary biology, ethology, literature, theory of art, and philosophy try to re-evaluate the human-animal relation from a post-humanist perspective. This approach has entailed not only developing a more nuanced image of animal behaviour but changing the vision of the knowledge itself subject which is endowed with language and reflexive consciousness. Work of art specifically questions the boundaries between nature and culture. This persistent presence of animals in visual art expressed some kind of sign of our involvement, it constitutes our return to early expelling feelings. Karen Andersen named this “to make its absence more bearable” (Andersen and Bochicchio 2007: 14).

Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka believe that the change of paradigm is so important in human–non–human relations in perspective would mean the end to the hierarchy and expanding the framework of animal rights. In their book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, philosophers offered a new approach to the theory and practice of animal rights. Donaldson and Kymlicka imagine the animal as a “political animal” and show, that different types of animals are in different relationships with the human community. From domesticated animals that have full members of human-animal mixed communities, participating in the cooperative project of shared citizenship to wild animals that form their own sovereign communities which need to be protected from such typical human political events and process colonization, war, invasion, domination and other threats for animal existence. (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011). Agamben’s anthropological machine. The intersection of contemporary art, posthumanism, and critical animal studies emerged new fields to rethink the boundaries and relationships between non-human animals and humans and becomes a source for reconceptualizing non-human agency and being. Giorgio Agamben describes this process as becoming of “anthropological machine”, the various cultural, scientific, and philosophical discourses used to distinguish humans and animals through a dual process of inclusion and exclusion. (Agamben 2004).
At the very core of such interaction was the human need for a dialogue with the alterity and the beginning of an acceptance path of a non-exclusiveness of human existence. During one generation open of the decline of anthropocentrism becomes part of a new post-humanistic approach and a new vision of relations between the worlds of animals and human society.

Agamben anthropological machine, “the outside is produced through the exclusion of an inside and the inhuman produced by animalizing the human, the inside is obtained through the inclusion of outside, and the non-man is produced by the humanization of an animal: above all the slave, the barbarian, and the foreigner, as figures of an animal in human form”. (Agamben 2004: 37)

Agamben’s anthropological machine is multifunctional:
• it provides a means of determining who counts, and who does not, for all animals, whether human or nonhuman;
• it deploys ascriptions of animality to include or exclude humans;
• it assigns apparent similarities with, and differences from, humans, in order to subject nonhuman animals to judgments of worth and entitlement;
• bestia sacer, the excluded nonhuman animal, is contained in zones of exception outside the protection of the law.

Derrida and paradigm of animal deconstruction. Derrida deconstructed the anthropocentric philosophical view that incessantly divides the supposedly unique human from what is so crudely and violently called “the Animal,” and insisted instead that were cognize and respond to the difference and multiplicity of the living. Leading Derridean The Animal That Therefore I Am reminds us of the place of animals in the history of different religious and philosophical traditions by asserting that animal has been quite intentionally excluded from them. According to him, this exclusion is already at work in the creation of the very word animal (animot). This word is composed of the word “animal” and the French word “mot” for underlining our non- wishes to belong “to every living being that we are not, and do not want to be”. (Derrida 2008: 41) According to Derrida, the promotion of this view in human history was eternally founded upon acts such as forgetting, mourning, repression, even violence, and the denial of the animality of human beings, leading to a denial of their mortality. The more important results of his philosophical explanation and relation to the animal situation in human society were:

• human beings indeed have a nature, which deconstruction promises to reveal, demonstrating human-non-human essence,
• the singular cruelty of the relationship between human beings and animals;
 its eternal denial of the unprecedented proportions of this subjection of the animal,
•  men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves; in order to organize on a global scale, the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence.

Derrida uses such strong meaning as “genocide” according to animals but at the same time, warns against too literal and frequent use of it.
 Environmental being and language. The language we speak about our environment affects our relationship with nature and animals. Often language denotes our power over nature and speaks about plants and animals mostly in terms of consumption. By developing how we speak about nature, we can better and deeper understand how interconnected we are. The general criterium of difference between the human and non-human world is language or its absence. From the view of Richard Rorty, “the idea that we all have an overriding obligation to diminish cruelty . . . seems to take for granted that there is something within human beings which deserves respect and protection quite independently of the language they speak. It suggests that a nonlinguistic ability, the ability to feel pain, is what is important. (Rorty 1991: 88) Rorthy argues, that “pain is nonlinguistic: It is what we human beings have that ties us to the nonlanguage-using beasts”. (Rorty 1991: 94).

Walter Benjamin in their essay On Language as Such and on the Language of Man created a global, universalistic vision of language as such and claims that everything has its own language, and a mode of communication by words is only a tiny piece of a metaphysical entity of language. The question of the existence of a language of things and non-human beings starts to be the general point of his philosophy of language. It tried to connect nature, man, and God together through language and its meanings. the 'medium’ of communication”. For him, human beings transfer all the diversity of the world and its relations “in language and not through language” (Benjamin 1996: 63-64).
Some researchers following this general idea look continued it until “that the man plays the role of a translator, who can give a name to things and get 'beyond himself’ by gaining knowledge of things, and finally translate this knowledge to a God”. (Barvinska 2014).

Visual arts as a territory of human and animal interconnection. Nowadays most animalists and supporters of contemporary biotech art radically disagree with Jakob von Uexküll’s motto that “No animal can enter into relation with an object as such”. Through such direction as “zones of indeterminacy” is visible animal-human collaboration.  Elias remarks that “indeterminacy or indiscernibility opens up a productive space in which to rethink the status of the Anthropos that underpins the category of the aesthetic”. (Elias 2019). Through jungle zones of indeterminacy, contemporary artists create a visual image of the plurality variants of animal relations with an object as such including human beings, culture, and nature. From J. Marie Griggs view, disruptive practices of violence, injustice, and degradation “coexist with rupturing practices of beauty, recovery, and life means recovery cannot exist without being situated within an understanding of violence. Distinctive moments, sometimes dynamic and sometimes ordinary, accumulate into an embodied understanding, that is necessary for a full aesthetic experience” (Griggs, 2013: 74).

Karin Andersen as an artist and scholar argues, that “the opposition of culture and nature – deeply rooted in anthropocentric and humanistic visions of the world – doesn’t seem to make much sense any longer”. (Andersen and Bochicchio 2012: 13). It means that “the animal is the real and unacknowledged star of the contemporary art system” (Ibidem). This situation should answer one of the key important questions: “Might contemporary art that engages with animals allow the differences and connections between species to be understood outside of an entrenched division between culture and nature or between the art institution and what it contains?” (Elias 2019). Andersen and Bochicchio found four variations to the understanding of the animal role in contemporary art:
• multimedia animal portrait: representation as such focused exclusively on the
animal’s identity, body, or eyes.
• animal simulacrum and element of a metaphorical narrative.
• ritual use of dead animals: a sacrifice capable to purify human beings through artist-shaman mediation.
• presence of living animals in the artwork: the use of living animals is often connected to ritual works and to the metaphoric representation. (Andersen and Bochicchio 2012:17)

The numerous examples of the presence of animals as spectators or actors or players in the art institution remind us of what Donna Haraway describes as a ‘becoming-with’ other species or an acknowledgment of “the flourishing of significant otherness” (Haraway 2003:3). The important first point of the current debate on the post-humanistic identity is no longer considered as deactivation from the “Other.” Generally, socio-cultural approach to contemporary visual arts allows us to understand that the animal presence in arts is stronger during these historical periods when human identity is questioned and becomes the subject of deconstruction. The second point is associated with to what extent the “uneasy looking” is necessary for artworks that are in a different way related to animals. In edition. contemporary artists are increasingly focused on the differentiated mechanisms of interaction between the human and animal spheres through such emotions as melancholia, sadness, longing, pleasure, joy, and fear.

Meda’s Norbutaitė’s magic partnership with animal otherness
The inspiring and provocative artistic image of the animal. Lithuanian philosopher Gintautas Mažeikis poetically defined Meda’s Norbutaitė’s painting as “moderately surrealistic, postmodern associating baroque and Peter Paul Rubens, which seeks to reveal the energies of the spirit, purification, and sacrifice of the soul, encourages overcoming the stagnation of the spirit and rising with the birds” (Mažeikis 2020:249). Norbutaitė’s human and non-human images have a special emotional expression and artistic language. The pictorial representation of the animal becomes a visual metaphor and a mediator between the animal prototype, the artist, and the viewer. Through animal images, the artist speaks mostly about people, their relationships, social stereotypes, emotions, habits, and behaviour. At the same time, Norbutaitė appeals to the level of knowledge about nature with culture through such products of human spiritual activity as mythology, religious texts and the rituals described in them, parables, and legends.
The artist creates an inspiring and provocative image of animal essence and existing thoughts on the depicted topic.  Sometimes, there is a feeling that the above-mentioned theories, conceptions, fears, and pessimism of present and future environmental disasters, the conflict between new environmental ethics and pragmatism have passed her. However, this initial feeling fades as we gaze longer into depicted images of animals. We discover for ourselves what we have already seen, known, experienced in childhood, or noticed quite recently. The artist seeks to convey the current de-romanticized state and image of a human being who lives here and now, for whom the animal world is clearly divided into fetishized pets and those who are the supplier of daily food. Norbutaitė’s artworks reveal a few phases of her relationship with the animalistic subject. This relationship was changing over twenty years.

Around 2010 Norbutaitė’s animal drawing is characterized by new opportunities for creative reflections on the common existence of human beings and animals in the shared living space. During this period, she paid a lot of attention to the plastic expression, colours, shapes, and factures. 
 Later Norbutaitė was interested in symbolic meaning. She had the intention to create narratives related to human-non-human inner states. Since 2013 she has started the search for a symbolic union to convey aspects of political or social criticism. Recently, the subject of the animal has become a suitable object for considering a few main aspects. Firstly, it is meant to reflect on the current environmental problems of the world through which cruelty to animals is in different forms. On the other hand, it is meant for contemplation about social problems.
It should be emphasized, that Norbutaitė uses a double manner of painting, in which human images are not finished and, on the contrary, animal images are carefully depicted. Aesthetics of non finito (not finished) as a mode of artistic expression and a unique dynamic are clearly visible in paintings of human beings. At the same time, animal images are carefully painted in detail. The artist offers to look at animals as if we are seeing them for the first time. 

The journey through the Orwellian seven Commandments. The Seven Commandments in George’s Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) are as follows: “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. No animal shall wear clothes. No animal shall sleep in a bed. No animal shall drink alcohol. No animal shall kill any other animal. All animals are equal” (Orwell, 2001, p. 21). Let’s travel to Meda Norbutaitė’s animal imagery!

1 The Reincarnation, 2020

Animal images represent different layers of social life and human behaviour, in which the human body itself turns into an animal body. This idea further expanded the range of her creative tasks. The artist chooses for herself reincarnation as a state of mind and body in a moment of life crisis and existential tragedy. Norbutaitė represents the image of human reincarnation into an animal as retribution for arrogance and enjoyment of power. The dehumanization of body and soul through this way of incarnation is the judgment (just as human beings have to die once, but after this comes judgment, Hebrews 9:27). It means a verdict, that has already taken place without the right to pardon. The human part of the body is worthy of pink colour, becoming an animal only an indefinite brown colour. This painting indicates, that the loss of human appearance is not a metaphor or a conditional expression, but rather a literal dehumanization of subjectivity.

2 The Golden Calf, 2016

Several works of the painter allude to the biblical narrative with reference to contemporary consumerism. Her painting The Golden Calf (2016) represents the image of an injured bull, who might be perceived as a consequence of humanity’s overestimation of material goods. At the first glance, this image of a wounded and crippled animal should evoke in the viewer such emotions as compassion, pity, or anger. The title of the picture summarizes the main idea of this work. It guides us to the symbolic meaning of a calf as a cult image, that is found in the biblical narrative. God told Moses about the Israelites, who quickly deviated from the path, that God commanded them, and began to worship the Golden Calf. There are many interpretations of this narrative in literature, arts, and popular culture. Among these works can be mentioned Charles Gounod’s opera Faust (1859) and the famous Méphistophélès’s aria The Golden Calf is still standing. The golden calf here is the symbol of universal cupidity. Norbutaitė’s animal is fallen down and blood like rubies pours from the wounds. The image gives hope, that human cupidity can be overcome.

Meda’s inspirations. In an interview, Meda Norbutaitė noted, that almost the biggest inspiration for the animal imagery was Damien Hirst’s creative thinking. The British artist has combined aestheticism with the maximally provocative idea of representation. It should be mentioned, that Hirst also reflected this topic in his controversial artwork The Golden Calf (2008). The calf was put in formaldehyde, with hooves, horns, and the disk of goddess Hathor between its 18-carat gold horns. It was sold as a real golden calf in Sotheby’s for the hefty sum of 10 million pounds. Kieran Cashell contends that Hirst’s works compel us to feel “humiliation and guilt for the instrumental and systematic abuse of those that deserve our care <…> it necessarily evokes an emotional response that activates the ‘sympathy’ associated with the ethics of care to provoke our fundamental compassion for the animal-as-other” (Cashell, 2009, p. 175). However, Norbutaitė’s interpretation of this subject confirms the main idea of Hirst’s opponents: “the intention to unmask the corruptibility/corporeality/animality of human beings can only be fulfilled when this sort of unbearable real is, to a certain extent, masked” (Huang, 2015, p. 110).

3 The Still Life of Eyes, 2013

The Still Life of Eyes is a provocative invitation to look into the eyes of domestic animals when they are served in the form of dishes. Five plates with heads of pig, sheep, bull, horse, and goat are placed on a table, covered with a red (maybe blooded?) tablecloth. Folded cutlery and red rubies like blood drops testify that something terrible has happened just now. This picture also reminds an iconography of the biblical narrative about the mission of John the Baptist. The preacher was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas, when the daughter of Herodias Salome asked him to bring John’s head. Salome bearing John’s head on a platter became a popular subject, especially in the Baroque painting. This biblical narrative was depicted several times by Dutch painters Rembrandt and Peter Rubens. Their paintings always were a creative source for Norbutaitė’s imaginary world and she fills Christian iconography with new content – contemporary issues of animal ethics.

4 The Sacrifice, 2015

Sometimes Norbutaitė’s animals represent sacrifice, which means “purifying” from sinful passions. In this sense, it acts as an important tool or element of ritual action. In the other case, the dual symbolism means the sacred innocence of the animal that from religious canon ready for human meals (Paganism, Judaism, and Islam). The general atmosphere of the painting The Sacrifice is multifaceted. Looking at the picture we are feeling the purifying sacralization and ritualization of collective action, the desire to create an image of a pseudo-living lamb that is conveniently located in a gilded baptistry. Beads of small rubies are a simulacrum behind which a spicy pomegranate is hidden. In front of our eyes, a pure concentration of sacrum and profanum appears in one image.

5 The Change of Mind, 2021

6 The Blue Blood II, 2016

7 The Pink Head, 2021

The mystery of the blue blood. Norbutaitė’s paintings depict various domestic animals that are closely related to traditional agriculture and farming, production of meat and milk. She represents images of sheep, pigs, horses, poultry, bulls, and birds. An image of a pig in her paintings appears around 2014. The pig as a symbol had negative connotations in Judeo-Christian tradition. It is an unclean domestic animal and “it seems, served in part to define in consciousness a boundary between the civilized and the uncivilized, the refined and the unrefined <…> The pig highlighted what should be avoided” (Malcolmson and Mastoris, 1998). The two most renowned literary pigs are Napoleon and Snowball in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Actually, they are really not pigs at all – they are personifications of totalitarian state agents. Norbutaitė follows the same symbolism. Her pictures The Change of Mind (2021), The Blue Blood Carrier (2019), The Blue Blood I (2014), The Blue Blood II (2016), The Pink Head (2021) are pictorial reflections of human behaviour. Historically the word blood has references to family ties – people you are related to sharing the same blood. The notion of blue blood is a reference to a special social category with high social status – aristocrats. La noblesse is a privileged and noble family, that is wealthy and powerful. Norbutaitė’s paintings are questioning this traditional understanding of blue blood and la noblesse. Who is the contemporary elite? Those people, who are publicly visible in the media, are really the elite? Or maybe, the glossy surface hides only simply swinish unrefined nature? We look at the head of the blue pig in a plate or at the head of the pink pig on a dark blue background. In the other picture, the blue pig takes a bath, and colour, that masked her body, turns the water blue showing the true “pink” swinish essence. Another blue pig is looking hopefully at its reflection in the mirror trying to see its own beauty while its “colleague” moves away in the depth of the picture.

8 Banana Sun, 2022

In recent years new species appear in Norbutaitė’s painting: monkeys, rabbits, or hares. Through monkey images, the painter reflects social circus and affectation (The Banana Sun, 2022 and The Clownery. Identity Searches, 2022). Smiling, mocking, posing, or imitating monkeys are strong metaphors for human social behaviour. Visibility, conspicuity, imitation, and following are the main principles of contemporary hyper-spectacle society. Sometimes monkey’s vital animal nature overcomes human tiredness and weakness. The image of a naked flabby human body wearing a joker cap and holding a humming top in a hand contrast with the image of a strong patronizing monkey (The Banana Sun).
How to stay in an imperfect world (conclusion). Norbutaitė reflects on these social themes in her work in recent years. Her animal representations are embedded in a special illogical and sometimes surreal visual narrative. A combination of archaic and postmodern visual forms with inter-civilizational religious images and symbols, “baroque” artistic manner, and contemporary content create a particular imaginary Meda’s Norbutaitė’s world. Grotesque and irony, the play of visual and semantic contrasts, and metaphors make her painting polysemantic and open to different interpretations. Oppositions of archaic vs postmodern, individual vs universal, sacral/religious vs domestic/everyday life, and sophisticated vs rough reveal an unexpected image, that emerged from contemporary individual associations and ancient narratives of civilizational cultural memory.

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Wild Europe 2015.

Kultura Enter

Meda Norbutaite. A Portrait of Artist.

The Reincarnation, 2020

The Golden Calf, 2016

The Still Life of Eyes, 2013

The Sacrifice, 2015

The Change of Mind, 2021

Blue Blood II, 2016

Pink Head, 2021

Banana Sun, 2022