Archive for the ‘On the Road’ Category
Only in Texas would it take a full day of flight travel, including a layover, to get from the central to the western part of the state. El Paso. It’s a town so dry that an 8-mile run in the morning sun leaves you free of sweat. It’s a town so dry that the river separating the United States from Juarez, Mexico, is now a strip of brown dust dividing cities so different that one has one of the highest murder rates in the world while the other has one of the lowest (although I gather car theft is a big problem in El Paso). It’s kind of a strangely cool border town, marked by dramatic contrasts between a pancaked desert landscape stuffed with 800,000 people running into the Franklin Mountains, the valleys of which are covered in spiky desert flora and rattlesnakes.
But perhaps El Paso’s sweetest secret is its Vegetarian Society—one that’s two decades old and still thriving. I spoke last night to about 75 people—prepared all week for it. What stood out more than anything was the generational diversity represented. After the talk I got questions from folks of all ages–from college students to senior citizens. In addition to the generational diversity there was also dietary diversity. I wasn’t really sure what people were eating.
“We don’t quiz each other on our diets,” my host and President Liz Walsh (vegan) told me, but it was evident that vegans were probably a minority while vegetarians and meat eaters were, in whatever proportion, the majority. This was good. I found myself enjoying the experience more, knowing I wasn’t preaching to the converted. My message of compassion for animals and food reform was, as a result, (perhaps?) sparking new thought. (In case you care, Steve Best wasn’t there—he evidently stopped showing up at the society’s events years ago but seems to be missed very much. I certainly would have liked to have met him.
My talk came after dinner, which was prepared by Michael Ross, chef at El Paso’s Opus World Bistro. The restaurant isn’t vegan, or even vegetarian, but Ross has learned to cooked superb vegan meals for the vegan portion of his menu. Items of note included dolmas, tabouleh, a lemon-kale soup, and delicious little lentil cakes.
Before heading to the airport this morning (where I’m now writing), I had a truly lovely brunch at Richard and Sukie Sargeant’s house (Richard and Sukie founded the El Paso Vegetarian Society). Their house is set on several acres and harbors rescue chickens, a rescue goat, a couple of dogs and more than a couple of cats, every vegetarian cookbook ever written, and an experimental veganic farm that spans the Texas/New Mexico border. Watermelon and cantaloupe seeds are in the ground now. Fingers are crossed.
It was a memorable experience to pull into this beautiful ranch house on the border, in the midst of land that had been, over the years, turned to dust by overgrazing, and pull up behind a car with a Texas plate that read “VEGAN-1.” The brunch itself was outrageously good—beans, homemade salsa, a potato casserole, amazing tofu scramble, watermelon, roasted jalepenos with peanut butter (good!), fresh orange juice, and kick-ass coffee. Oh, and a great cinnamon bun. You eat this way and you think “nobody would miss animals if they could eat such food.”)
I’ll be honest: these events—the speaking and the socializing— once frustrated me a little. I’ve never felt great about public speaking (being more at home behind a computer), the travel gets old, and it always sucks up writing time. But last night after my talk, while sipping a stout beer and adding notes to my journal, it occurred to me how deeply gratifying it can be to come out of the cave, as it were, and interact socially with people, really good people, who are working in quiet and often unappreciated ways to make the world a better place for animals.
It was a simple but reassuring thought, nourished by a ton of great food.
The role of diet in my running transformation is a theme I’ve visited often here at Eating Plants. The physical and emotional empowerment that comes through food reminds us that so much personal improvement is literally right at our fingertips. Since starting to eat a nutrient-dense vegan diet my long distance running–as well as recovery from all strenuous distance runs–has gone from dreadful to nothing short of astounding.
This morning I ran a very technical and hilly 30K trail race just outside of Austin. Beforehand I ate a piece of wheat toast with avocado and nutritional yeast. The day before I ate a great deal of quinoa and arugula and pumpkin seeds. Soon afterwards, I ate upwards of six vegan breakfast tacos stuffed with spinach, black beans, tofu, and salsa; two smoothies with bananas, blueberries, almond milk, hemp seeds, and cocoa; a cup of homemade granola; a bunch of nuts, a carrot, and some dulse. I was starving. But as I write, there’s no stiffness in my legs, no fatigue in my joints. No dehydration ache in my head. (Although my feet are pretty banged up.)
Feeling energized on this run was especially important. I’ve been trying all week to make sense of the events in Boston. They touched a raw nerve for me because marathoning—as well as trail races such as the one I did today—are events where everyone there is there to be good. It’s a simple truth. The bombing at the finish, and the violence of the aftermath, left a black mark on my most sacred of physical and emotional places: the finish line of a marathon. All week I kept having to stop what I was doing and react with one emotion or another, or a weird sort of amalgam of many feelings. The communal run today was my catharsis. My catharsis was made possible by my energy and attitude. My energy and attitude were made possible by plant-based foods full of stuff that helps make us become better and better at seeking the goodness that’s in all of us.
Yesterday was my semesterly Chapel Hill visit to Professor Jim Ferguson’s legendary EATS class, now in its 29th semester. The format of the course is elegant and simple. Students read some of my work (in this case two Atlantic articles on animal rights and a chapter from Just Food), they write a response, I read what they have to say, and then we meet in person to discuss. If you are ever in the position of designing a course, and have the luxury of inviting guest speakers, this is the way to do it.
In the past, the majority of students—some of the brightest at UNC (it’s an honors class)—predictably come at me from a sustainable foodie, local foodshed, point of view. They’re mildly sympathetic to the idea of animal rights, but any deeper interest in exploring such a perspective, much less trying to work it into their preconception of “sustainability,” is countered by a near religious commitment to eating animals raised under comparatively humane and local and organic conditions. Blah blah blah.
Interestingly, refreshingly, this semester was different. Two observations stand out. Before I elaborate on them, I should say that the class discussion was of the highest quality, perhaps the best I’ve had on my many visits to the seminar. The students were impassioned and more than eager to delve into the most intellectually challenging topics. With two hours up, I very much wanted to keep going (which is rarely the case for me), and, given the complexity that students were game to take on, there were a lot of places to go.
The first change I noticed was in the way students positioned themselves in their response papers. There was little hesitation or doubt about their stance on eating animals. There was, in other words, an honesty that I greatly appreciated, whether it was an honesty that condemned the unnecessary suffering of animals as categorically immoral, one that admitted that it was wrong to eat animals but that the person would continue to do so because animals “tasted good,” or if it was a firm belief that humans were at the top of the food chain and had evolved to eat every other species that moved so, you know, get the hell out of my way. These opinions, laid bare on the page, gave us much to talk about. And we did. And it was productive, at times, I hope, correctively so.
The second change I noticed was, perhaps, the presence of too much honesty. What I’m about to say here is not a complaint so much as a neutral observation, one I’ll elaborate on momentarily with an attempt at a useful takeaway. Those readers put on the defensive by my ethical arguments were remarkably aggressive with their rhetorical weaponry. I say this not to whine because, frankly, I don’t really care about my ideas being dismissed as “silly,” “ridiculous,” marked by “a gaping hole in logic,” and coming from “a righteous vegan trying to proselytize.” But, nonetheless, these phrases—and others like them— were all written, for me to see before I visited, by students who have yet to graduate from college. That’s something new for me.
My elaboration/analysis of this phenomenon—one that, I’ll admit, had me choking on my airplane coffee as I read them on the flight to Raleigh-Durham—begins with this observation: the students who wrote these words were, in person, engaging, friendly, and smart. Their tone in no way reflected their character. Instead—and this is my sort of terrifying hypothesis—their tone, which sounded quite familiar to me, reflected the bitter writing culture that has evolved out of online commentary, a dungeon of expression in which you hide away and throw verbal and sub-verbal bombs because, well, you can.
I think these students were just as freaked out to see the physical me—a real live individual with passions and personality and a beard—as I was to see them. My message was, on this particular score, simple: when you want to throw an insult, hold back and use your turbo-booster brain to make an eloquent and well-reasoned argument. Because, if my hypothesis is correct, it would genuinely pain me to see so many intelligent students fall victim to the ubiquitous boorishness of online ranting, a form of communication that leads nowhere.
Either way, it reminds me of the power of personal contact to shape the tone and demeanor of personal interaction, whether it be between humans and humans or humans and animals. Just as it’s much harder to sit next to a person and call his ideas “silly” or “ridiculous” or “illogical” or whatever, it’s also harder to spend time with an animal, see that he has a personality, and then kill and eat the poor creature.
Not a bad thought to have the morning after a first-rate seminar.
Last night I spoke to an Animal Rights Law class at NYU. I more or less gave an overview of my book-in-progress, The Modern Savage, which takes a critical look at non-industrial animal agriculture. It was a small class, but one comprised of fiercely smart students who were more than happy to challenge my arguments, or at least bring more nuance to them. Lawyers. I never know now to evaluate how these kind of meetings go, but I figure if I leave with more to think about than I came in with, it went well. That happened.
One guy seized upon my grudging willingness to balance ethical purity and pragmatic reality in my activism—by, for example, not blowing a gasket over “meatless Mondays” while holding the line that exploitation of sentient beings is always wrong. So, he wondered, wasn’t the small-scale system of animal production just another case of society taking a bold step in the right direction? Why was I getting all worked up over one and not the other? (Lawyers.)
Honestly, probably because I’ve been centered so laser-like on tearing this small-scale model to shreds, I never thought about it in such terms. Small-scale animal agriculture has always struck me as more of a greenwashed sham than a positive step toward ending animal exploitation. But that’s largely an impression. My answer was thus to concede that, from the consumer’s perspective, this guy was onto something, despite my observation that many consumers of “humane and sustainable” animal products simply want no more than to enjoy a tasty hunk of flesh without guilt.
That said, the sustainable alternative, I reminded him (and myself), may actually be worse in some ways for the producer who, in working so closely with his animals, suffers the psychological fallout of not only slaughtering a sentient being, but slaughtering a sentient being who he raised and knew well. What benefit was there, I wondered, in claiming to care for the welfare of an animal and then killing that animal ? The moral schizophrenia (to paraphrase Francione) that results could only reverberate negatively throughout the food system, much less the society that aims to reform it.
Another woman asked a question that led us into the ethics of a painless killing. The animal is raised well and is killed without warning or pain. What’s the problem here? Lawyers. My answer drew upon an idea that takes me beyond Peter Singer, who essentially accepted such a scenario. It also took me into philosophically thorny terrain. Basically, I mumbled my way through why the enjoyment of life is not only about the past and the present. It’s about the future as well. To slaughter a being who enjoys the experience of life, has some level of memory, and a rudimentary sense of the future is thus to arbitrarily deny a future of experience—some or maybe a lot of it imbued with happiness. Who grants us this right?
A third issue involved meat substitutes. What did I think? On the whole I’m all for them, I explained, because they represent a great technological opportunity to dramatically reduce the consumption of animals. That said, I think that eating animal substitutes tacitly endorses the legitimacy of eating animals–sort of like that those bubble gum cigarettes they used to sell implicitly endorsed smoking. In any case, the question was soon settled when we all walked over to Blossom and ordered a seitan dish that looked like chicken cutlet. Delicious food. No slaughter required.
All in all, it was a mood-boosting, mind-stimulating pleasure to spend an evening with so many thoughtful and inquisitive people.
Tomorrow: why raising horses for meat will never work in the US
a) If, as an activist, you want to experience the sting of insignificance consult China. Raising animals for billions of people to eat with increasingly regularity, and doing so without regulation, leads to both public health nightmares and abysmal treatment of animals. Recent evidence of this combined threat was confirmed in a BBC report documenting the discovery of thousands of dead pigs in the Shanghai River. As the body count reached 5,000, public officials declared the water to be safe. The pigs may have been disposed of after freezing to death in a factory farm. The response seems to have been a collective yawn.
b) Several posts on Eating Plants have expressed grudging support for governmental regulation of harmful eating habits. Most notably, I’ve argued that if the government can get away with regulating sugary soft drinks—which have zero redeeming value—then this regulation might set a precedent for the future regulation of hamburgers or bacon when we become aware of the equally detrimental health consequences of these items. Well, it turns out (for now) that you cannot regulate soft drinks in New York. Bloomberg’s ban was recently overturned. Making matters more depressing, the largest opposition to the ban came from groups who suffer the highest rates of diabetes and other ill effects of huge sodas. Why? Turns out these groups were carefully targeted and financially supported by the soft drink industry. I’m sure Big Beef is watching very carefully. Story is here.
c) Finally, there is a national mystery meat in South Africa called “Biltong.” Very often biltong is labeled as being made of gazelle. What has consumers in South Africa in an uproar, however, is not that biltong is made of gazelle. Rather, it’s the recent revelation that biltong labeled as gazelle is actually made of horse meat. And that biltong labeled as antelope is actually giraffe. And that biltong labeled as ostrich is kangaroo. Seems that consumers are impassioned about what kind of sentient animal they are eating but stubbornly indifferent to the fact that their discrimination means nothing to the animals that end up in these little meat sticks.
On a personal note, as I travel from Los Angeles back to Austin, I find myself feeling as down as I ever have about the prospects of creating a friendlier world for animals, and as convinced as ever that, while the work we do is essential, there will be no celebrations in the course of our lifetimes.
Early last month Germany banned the practice of bestiality—an act classically defined as penetrative sex with a non-human animal. Of course, the first reaction most rational people had to this news was “you mean it was ever legal in the first place?!” Not only was it ever legal (since 1969) in Germany but it remains very much so in Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden.
The driving force behind this legality, and the most vocal opposition to the German decision to ban bestiality, was an interest group called ZETA—Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Information. Given the geographic distance between P and Z on the standard North American keyboard, ZETA, one might note, is not likely to be confused with PETA, which holds no stock in the act of bestiality.
In the wake of the German ruling, ZETA fought back. A representative said, ”It is unthinkable that any sexual act with an animal is punished without proof that the animal has come to any harm.” Needless to say, this kind of comment conveniently overlooks the fact that a non-human animal typically lacks the ability to provide an essential prerequisite for human sexual intercourse to be legal: consent. As the ZETA rep kept talking, though, it became clear that overlooking consent was a small element of a much more sinister problem. This person added, “We see animals as partners and not as a means of gratification. We don’t force them to do anything. Animals are much easier to understand than women.” This ZETA rep, again needless to say, was a man. The importance of this designation will be evident in the last paragraph.
A topic of such moral and sexual magnitude scrambles the mind and, I’m going to guess, I’ll lose about 100 subscribers with what follows. On the one hand it’s ridiculously simple—bestiality is wrong—end of column. But, on the other, it can and should be easily tossed into confusion. I’m not going to support bestiality in what follows, but I am going to drop my preconceptions and think aloud on this one in order to highlight a paradox and, however cursorily, register my opposition to bestiality on different grounds than you might expect.
Questions that arise: How does such exploitation meld with the human’s view of the animal he was buggering? Does this rather dramatic crossing of the species barrier inspire greater love and respect for animals? Or is it the opposite—that is, that demented people copulate with animals as a very sick pretext to eating them? And which is worse, really, screwing or eating an animal? What if the ZETA people truly love the animals with whom they copulate? Should these emotions be dismissed and criminalized? As a heterosexual male, I do not understand romantic/intimate love for another man, but so what. I support gay marriage and believe in the moral equivalence of homo and heterosexual love (interestingly, the 1969 legality of bestiality was the same year homosexuality was given legal protection).
By what measure, other than speciesism, do I exclude non-humans from this acceptance? This last question, of course, assumes that there might be a way for an animal to consent to sex with a human—which might be possible, as animal ethologists always remind us how animals tell us what they want. Or maybe not. Either way, to deny the power of consent is to accept some level of human paternalism or selective speciesism.
It’s worth noting that this anti-bestiality act was passed under a pre-existing welfare statute, thereby highlighting the reality that you can’t bugger and animal but you can slaughter her. Could this inconsistent legal right to exploitation have the unintended consequence of increasing awareness about the complexity of the human-animal relationship? That is, if a cohort of humans were legally authorized to express genuine sexual and romantic intimacy with animals, might more people question the ethics of eating them? Do we have any proof that animals might enjoy the act? Maybe not those in, I swear it, “erotic zoos” or “animal brothels,” but perhaps those out on the free range? All unlikely, of course. But I’m just trying out a few different positions here.
A historical take on bestiality yields some interesting stuff. In colonial America, especially Puritan New England, bestiality was seriously bad news for human and non-human alike. Death. The hidden significance of applying a legally mandated sentence to both human and animal for a shared sexual act was the paradoxical inclusion of supposedly “alien” species in the same legal framework applied to humans. The law said “you and the goat” are fundamentally different. The sex act said, “well, your honor, not that different.”
This inclusion, in turn, reiterated Cotton Mather’s dictum that, as Colleen Glenney Boggs cites it, “We are all of us compounded of those two things, the Man and the Beast.” Castaway in a New England wilderness, the prevailing fear—obsession, really—was that humans’ inner beast would be let loose and civilized Puritans would devolve into savage Natives. There was no dichotomy between civility and nature and the slope from one to the other was slippery. Bestiality was evidence that such a declension could happen in the thrill of any moment, and as quickly as a tomahawk to the head.
Interspecies sex was also evidence that the species barrier, for all intents and purposes, was, well, fluid. Dangerously so. It is the avoidance of this reality, in my opinion, that recently led Germany to ban bestiality, rather than the animal welfare justification, which I think is totally bogus because, last I checked, you can still make sausage in Germany. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe we should reserve our genitalia for consenting members of our of own species, but the erotic zoo advocates who would beg to differ are, in serially and sexually violating animals, also highlighting the evolutionary continuum that we prefer to ignore when we slaughter animals. They might also be doing so with more love than we’re comfortable acknowledging.
The gender implications of bestiality are mind-blowing and, to a large extent, are the primary grounds upon which I condemn this act. Given that penetrative power is generally limited to men, the species-bending implications of bestiality locate far too much cultural and social power in the human penis.* Plus, I cannot shake the memory that Mather, the Puritan minister quoted above, had a weird love for bees and ants. These species, as he saw them, were orderly and self-sustaining and should left alone, he argued, to offer humans a model of how to live organized and hierarchical lives. It was only the animals that could be physiologically fucked, he implied, that were fair game for brutal domestication or extermination. Not an ideology conducive to the lives of Puritan women in the seventeenth-century. Or the twenty-first for that matter.
tomorrow: Big Bald Mike
*I’m fairly certain this is the most bizarre sentence I’ve written to date.
NOTE: I added the emboldened sentence after several comments came in.
I’m no nutritionist. But I run and I eat. And I listen to my body. Today I ran the Austin Marathon. A lot of factors prepared me for a good race: the support of my heroic running friends, good training, and excellent weather. What I’m especially appreciative of now, though, having run the fastest marathon I’ve done in 20 years and qualified for 2014 Boston Marathon, is vegan nutrition. I owe a lot of today’s performance to veganism.
Over the past several months I’ve worked to fine tune my vegan diet to reduce, sometimes dramatically, refined flour and heavily processed foods. Simultaneously, I’ve worked to increase my consumption of nutrient dense fruits, vegetables, legumes, and seeds, I’ve upped the dosage of nutritional yeast, chia seeds, and flax. I’ve eaten a lot of avocados and kale. I’ve lowered the dose of bread. I haven’t messed one bit with my steady but modest beer consumption.
I’ll elaborate more later, but I think there’s a great deal to be explored between vegan diet and performance, and I think vegan advocates can and should promote that connection as yet another reason to become powered by plants.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about architecture. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the way that manipulated physical space dictates our movement through it. If you enter a house, and you want to get from one room to another, the channels through which to do so are preordained. If you arrive in a city and want to get from midtown to downtown, your choices have pretty much been forced upon you. If you want to go to floor 34 of a skyscraper, options are inherently limited. As much as we value and tout our freedom, the most basic decisions about where, when, and how to negotiate space have trumped our mythical notion of freedom. Architecture is, in essence, a stealthy little tyrant. No wonder architects are so shamelessly arrogant.
As with physical space, so it goes with mental space. Although often harder to recognize, our intellectual and emotional lives are trapped in preexisting mazes every bit as dictatorial as a building or a metropolis. Plus, the more those roads are traveled, the more customary those routes become. When I came to this realization—years ago—I stopped regularly reading newspapers and other mainstream sources of public information. Instead, I sought out the intellectual world’s version of double-secret back roads and relatively unknown trap doors of knowledge and insight. Of course, over time, these too become routinized and dictatorial in their own ways, making alternative ways of living and thinking appear commonplace and complacent. Like early settlers in a new land, we must—to preserve intellectual dynamism and originality—seek new frontiers. No wonder journalists are so shamelessly arrogant.
Very few souls are willing to challenge these boundaries. As a result, internal and external architectures have entered a sort of conspiracy to prevent, or at least dramatically lesson, the prospects of real change, fundamental change, compassionate change. So much about life has been etched in stone. In ways we rarely appreciate, we’ve no choice, if we want to function in civil society, but to follow the paths set out before us. We might push against the edges, but that’s it. Otherwise, we have to drop out. This is why, I imagine, so many vegan activists are angry. I know it’s why I’m angry. Such are the thoughts that arise while hungry, stuck in an airport, and unable to find a single vegan option in terminal D of Dulles Airport.
Thank god for vegan beer.
Blake Hurst, the charismatic Missouri farmer who has established himself as an articulate and no-nonsense defender of industrial agriculture, said the other night (see my last post) that his job is to produce what consumers demand. In Hurst’s case, that means growing corn and soy to feed to cows and pigs so we can eat burgers and bacon.
Hurst’s agricultural emphasis notwithstanding, this comment might be interpreted as good news for the reform-minded consumer. Speaking for big agriculture as a whole, Hurst claimed, by way of example, that if consumers wanted all their crops to be grown according to the loopy principles of biodynamics, farmers would respond to market demand, acquire manure-filled ram horns, and bury them under their crops in accordance with the loopy principles of biodynamics. All we have to do is ask.
If Hurst’s assessment seems crassly reductionist, do not miss the point: what he’s suggesting is that crass reductionism can work to our advantage. It can empower the well-intentioned consumer. Hurst said it: if you want it, he’ll grow it. If you want biodynamics, you got it. If you want organic food grown without pesticides, you got it. If you want virgins within 50 miles to pick your crops, he’ll find them (that’s kind of a scary thought). If you want a diversity of plant-based foods for people rather than animals to eat, just give Blake Hurst a call.
It’s a seductive message. Hurst is conceding to the consumer an under-appreciated and immense power theoretically granted to the consumer by the inherent logic of free-market capitalism, a vision he supports with salivating enthusiasm. We shape demand. We drive the system. We are in charge. Reform minded consumers of the world . . . unite!
But hold on a sec: could it be that, while we do indeed have a choice, we don’t know how to choose? As encouraging as Hurst’s message may be, I think the primary reason why vegan advocates have such a hard time shoring up critical demand for a compassionate diet centers on western culture’s profound failure of culinary imagination. I’m sorry if this claim is vague, but what I want to drive home here is that the rigid parameters our culture has built around the entire idea of food and eating has placed us in a prison. The problem is that too many of think we’re dining in a palace.
My prison/palace metaphor is critical to the Big Point I want to make in this column. Despite the absolutely heroic efforts to promote an expanded culinary ideology through a range of vegan cookbooks, restaurants, and food carts, vegans still face an American cultural landscape that has an insidious way of creating the appearance of food choice while, in actuality, narrowing that choice to a dietary short-list of animal-based products surrounded by piles of processed junk and the merest smattering of a few fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. There are literally tens of thousands of edible plants in the world. Americans get 95 percent of their plant-based calories from 5 of them.
It is one of the creepier accomplishments of modern capitalism to bombard the consumer with so many options, and to do so from so many directions and through so many different forms of media, that we find ourselves so dizzied by the slick cornucopia of “choice” that we fail to grasp the essential irony: there is no choice. McDonald’s or Burger King isn’t a choice; the Cheesecake Factory or Chipotle is not a choice; Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s isn’t a choice; corn or flour tortillas is not a choice; paper or plastic is not a choice; red or green sauce is not a choice; Dan Barber or Mario Battali—not a choice. Somebody needs to overturn the apple cart.
The foodie critics of capitalism—those we would hope to get this point— hardly help untangle this cultural contradiction. Instead, they celebrate it. They tell us BBQ is part of what it means to be southern; they tell us clam chowder is essential to the Yankee identity; they tell us that salmon and the Pacific Northwest are inextricably linked; they urge us to eat andouille gumbo in New Orleans because that’s what New Orleans is all about. They attempt to preserve but, in so doing, they reduce rather than expand choice. Their myths are just as constructed as are those of Monsanto’s and Walmart’s.
Indeed, these efforts to celebrate a “sense of place” through food—many of them from scholars and journalists— are often quiet attempts to challenge the incessantly modernizing and homogenizing effects of global capitalism. What they really do, though, is employ the fundamental tools of commercialism to promote messages that limit genuine choice under the veneer of cultural preservation. Choice—the kind that shatters paradigms and upends the cart—is still lost, even as culinary cultures are supposedly found. In essence, if you’re counting on the people Hurst calls “Agri-Intellectuals” to truly challenge the western diet, forget about it.
The falsity of choice is what Hurst misses. This is the dark side of a system that he argues gives the concerned consumer power. The insidious outcome of perceiving to have choice when we don’t is that we set the most provincial of parameters for our imagination to explore what could be. As if we weren’t burdened enough, vegans thus need to do more than challenge the paradigm of an animal-based diet, something that I think, for all our petty little internal battles, we do rather well as a collective endeavor. We also need to rethink very basic questions such as: What does it mean to eat? Why am I expected to eat three meals a day? Why can’t turnips go in my taco? Why do I have to sit at a table to eat? Why can’t I have a pile of kale for breakfast? Why do I have to eat off a plate? And why does a knife have to be sitting next to it?
A great white shark suspended in formaldehyde, a cow sliced in half and ensconced in glass cases, and a rotting calf’s head might not meet your personal definition of art. But woe to you, philistine, because to reject these objects as disgusting displays of sensationalistic crap would be to reject the work of one Damien Hirst, the boy wonder of the London art scene and vaunted subject of a much heralded retrospective at the Tate Gallery. I attended the show last week and am here to report that, lo and behold, the cow’s head, surrounding by flies within a glass case, smelled horrible. Art?
Whether or not these crude displays qualify as art is unanswerable. My concern is not with the contemporary art world’s gutless non-definition of what constitutes art, but rather with the general conclusions animal rights advocates might draw from the depressing popularity of such exhibitions, ones that exploit the bodies of animals to make a larger cultural or sociological point that resonates with the superficial and absurdly pretentious discourse that dominates the precious world of art criticism.
Despite the basic offensiveness of a putrefying cow’s head being displayed in an art gallery, the idea that I kept coming back to was . . . so what? It appears that Hirst is seeking to make a Deep Statement about the ephemerality and interconnectedness of life in the natural world. Animals die and flies—flies!—undertake the unenviable job of decomposition. Is this interesting? Are we really that starved for simple information about natural processes, or ignorant of the periodic brutality of the natural world, that an artist choosing to illuminate the obvious with such derelict displays of ersatz biological connectivity can become an international sensation? I don’t get it, but I imagine it has a great deal to do with our urbanized distance from the webs of life. I sometimes sense the same gee-whiz reaction among foodie gardeners who think it’s so cool—so cool!—that you can plant seeds in the backyard and, get this, they’ll grow.
Another point, which I attribute to a friend to whom I complained about the show, is that the intended, and noble, role of art is directly subverted when animals are drafted into service for the whimsical demands of creative expression. Historically and contemporarily, a major function of the world’s best art has been to challenge the ruling power structure. Even staid portraitists were able to get their digs in at the pompous blowhards submitting to their brush. While it is difficult for me to gauge precisely what netherworld paradigm of influence Hirst could possibly be confronting, I can say for sure that relying on a rank and most insensitive form of speciesist dominion–the tasteless parading around of an animal’s vivisected carcass–hardly helps the cause of dismantling the superstructure of the slaverous power elite.
Perhaps, though, I attribute too generous an intention to Damien Hirst. Perhaps, more accurately, he’s little more than an modern-day opportunist smart enough to seize up on the perfect combination of vulgarity, public ignorance, and pseudo-intellectualism to elevate himself into a multi-millionaire bete noire who fiddles and smiles while common sense and artistic integrity go down the public toilet. If that’s the case, as is so often so when it comes to animal exploitation, we consumers are as much to blame as the producer—and I should know, I paid 16 pounds to see the horror show.