People, Animals, and a Fruit of Combined Agencies
Duchamp’s readymades turned many aspects of art-making that were once constants into variables. The entire field was radically opened in his wake, whether it was an accident of history or not. One element that remained constant in Duchamp’s model, however, was the artist himself. If we accept the far-reaching implications of Breton’s definition of readymades as “manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of art through the choice of the artist,” we must accept that something called “art” has dignity, and that someone called an “artist” has the agency to move certain objects in and out of this dignified state. The possible course of art history where Sunset Over the Adriatic replaces Fountain as a seminal art prank taken seriously is one in which the avant-garde could have eroded the centrality of human agency to the creation of art.
There are curious examples where we can glimpse humanity attempting to keep a grip on our self-declared role as the lone creative species. In 2011, British photographer David Slater’s camera was stolen by a crested black macaque in Indonesia. The monkey took many photos, including some compelling self-portraits. The photos were shared online, and were added to the Wikipedia page of the crested black macaque species. Photos on Wikipedia pages are usually public domain, but the ownership of these images was not immediately clear. A group of Wikipedia editors defended their use of the image, explaining, “This [image] is in the public domain, because as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested.”
Slater was unhappy with this, and is in the process of taking legal action against Wikipedia, claiming he owns the copyright of the image. During the proceedings, legal experts pointed out that a “natural person” must exist for copyright to be claimed, and the person (or animal) clicking the shutter is the default owner of the rights to a photograph, unless some prior arrangement has been made. Since animals cannot legally be copyright holders, the image belongs to no one. The question of who owns the equipment is irrelevant (1). PETA took it upon themselves to name the macaque Naruto, and advocating that the animal held the copyright. A federal judge denied this, stating from the bench it would require action from Congress and the President to extend the Copyright Act to animals (2). The fight over the technicalities of the copyright point to the monkey selfie as an example of a creative act occurring outside of human agency, revealing the legal (and legalistic) limits of how we define authorship. An anthropocentric view of artistic creation has deeply entrenched legal as well as cultural precedents.
Monkeys don’t usually have access to cameras, but it’s an extreme case that reminds us of a larger point: animals create objects, images, gestures, songs, and architecture all the time. Whether we label these activities as art is both a semantic and theoretical choice. One thinker arguing that non-human creativity should be included in our definition of art is curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. She asserts that the field of contemporary art is historically determined and far from universal. People imagine that the way they live — and the broad systems that organize their society — are the best, despite the fact that these things are always changing. History never ends, but we’re constantly fooled into thinking that everything has led up to the current moment with some kind of purpose or finitude.
Social anthropology, she points out, isn’t normally concerned with art because it’s too ethnocentric. Contemporary art as a field, despite all its efforts to capture and process a global zeitgeist, is still only concerned with the notion of art as defined by Western art history. Anthropologists can’t approach art methodically, because it operates as a kind of religion. If you accept that it works the way it’s supposed to, by entrancing participants according to a set of pre-defined modes of creation and interaction, there is no way to look at it from without, rather than from within. Even the most radical and political art practices today still trace a distant lineage to Manet (3).
Art, according to Christov-Bakargiev, is based on human exceptionalism. Art is speciesist, in that it privileges humans over other inhabitants of the planet. To escape this, we should embrace incoherence and uncertainty, building alliances with non-human species. We should consider creativity from a broader perspective than only the human point of view. Human forms of knowledge are only one of many forms. These other knowledges are constantly being shared and adapting to one another, and have been since long before humans existed.
In Christov-Bakargiev’s vision of the future, forms of life and forms of art combine, “sharing architectural and creative knowledge with bees and butterflies and beavers, with bacteria and microbes, with eukaryotic cells as well as with software; cobbling together desires, sensibilities and abilities on a par with the microcosmic world within our bodies and the macrocosmic ‘music of the spheres’ in a multi-species dimension, extending the ‘we’ to all living sentient beings.”
This is not, she insists, a neo-romantic return to nature. It’s an acknowledgement that there is no difference between nature and culture. After all, paintings are made of subatomic particles that are subject to reactions, combinations, and degradations in space and time. So a painting is only partially a man-made thing, it’s a “fruit of combined agencies.” (3)
Lolo’s Sunset Over the Adriatic is nothing if not a fruit of combined agencies. The same could be said for the crested black macaque’s selfie. If things had turned out differently, twentieth-century art history could have been the story of artists grappling with the rejection of an anthropocentric approach to art and life. Instead, we’re just coming to these questions now, a moment when our species’ irreversible damage to the climate has become frighteningly clear, a moment when we’re inching closer to entirely new artificial forms of intelligence and creativity. It’s high time to consider the other creators all around us.
Special thanks to Dr. Karen Carter.