Picture 59 in Sue Coe’s new book shows a city at night, where men with clubs beat an
escaped cow, coercing it back to be slaughtered. The incident is illuminated by a stark white light, as by a flash of lightning. The buildings jerk and sway in this electric charge, their windows momentary witnesses to the savagery which belongs to the city’s way of life but which it prefers to keep as a secret from itself. Silhouetted, another cow (or the same cow?) seems to curvet into the white distance. Perhaps it’s the cow Freddie “who escaped from a slaughterhouse twice”, and to whom, now enjoying a sanctuary in New Jersey, The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is dedicated.
This is a woodcut, like all the more than a hundred other pictures in the book. That’s the oldest form of print-making and the simplest: a piece of fruit-wood, a gouge or other sharp edge, ink and paper. (The wood in the present case is wild cherry from trees cut down to make way for the Millennium Pipeline, so the medium really is part of the message here.) The unsophisticated technology is visible in the coarse textures and stark contrasts of its results, apt for drastic events and elementary passions: for instance, war, bereavement, torment, fear, shame, and that particular composite of them all which characterises what we do to the other animals.
It helps to remember that a woodcut is a relief print, so the cutting works from black to white; the knife cuts light into the scene. These woodcuts report places and practices which are normally out of view, metaphorically in darkness. But Sue Coe has been present at them, sketching them from life. In an interview, she mentions Goya, who wrote in his sketch books of inquisition torture, “I saw this.” She has seen these modern horrors, and her woodcuts now bring them out of their darkness, and shed bright light upon them so that all may see.
The style plainly belongs to the expressionist tradition, especially as raised to its highest possibilities by the German artists of the early twentieth century (including Max Beckmann, whose terrifying Night is referenced in the previous post). Expressionism is often described as a mode of art that distorts appearances “in order to express the artist’s emotions or inner vision”: that’s how my Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists describes it, for instance. So the art is about the artist, a personality-tour, which is indeed what is very commonly looked for and talked about in art. With such aesthetics Sue Coe has nothing to do: “It’s not about me and my emotional reactions. It’s about the chick being ground up or a calf being punched and kicked.” In her woodcuts, the distortions, rough finishes, and directness of appeal express not inner vision but the true and objective urgency of the subject. That flash of light, and the lives which it shows being grasped or struck or thrown: they may last a moment only. There isn’t time for fine art. In fact Sue Coe prefers to speak of “reportage” or “propaganda”. But all the same, there is woodcut art of the very highest character in this book.
The men at work or other exertion in these scenes of manifold predation – reaching for
the doomed calf in the dairy cow’s womb, injecting the piglet with Ractopamine, slaughtering, hunting, eating – are portrayed as such actions truly and tragically make them (the expressionist truth): that is, coarse, ill-formed, gross of prehensile hand and mouth. But these are only the instruments after all, half-victims themselves. The directing power is glimpsed in the men in suits, the businessmen and financiers – the grinning one shown feeding a pig to a fat child while another child (African?) correspondingly starves, the ranting politicians of the ‘Humans Only Party’, the money-men on Capitol Hill standing on heaped dead animals and picking each others’ pockets. “The crime is economics,” Sue Coe says. And in fact the cost, to all except those to whom this wealth-at-all-costs accrues, is shown even in the faces of the thuggish agents, which grimace equivocally with ferocity and horror.
As Sue Coe has said, “Our unique contradiction as animal activists is that the most
oppressed are not leading their own resistance.” Art has to lend them the acts of resistance which in real life only the very few, such as the cow Freddie, can convert their passive suffering into (though we can know that all of them would). And gradually in this book, subversively, the animal-dreams of nature and freedom do turn into acts: a lobster, a cow, a goat, each in turn snips the barbed wire; a pig bursts its chains; four species co-operate to see over a prison wall. And now the light which the artist has been blazing upon scenes of violence and cruelty becomes a life-promising sunburst, glorifying the later images as the book moves towards the manifesto itself. That’s the story in the book, an expressionist story, for it acts out the inner urge of the animals, and it acts out also the sympathetic urge of all who remember (as Sue Coe makes us remember from the start) what razor wire, bars, poison gas, and systematized slaughter, have meant in our human history, and who now see that incomprehensible wrong perpetuated upon these other innocents.
Although The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto touches also on the plight of zoo and circus animals, it doesn’t picture the ones in laboratories. To those, Sue Coe has already devoted a whole remarkable book, Pit’s Letter (2000). It records the experiences of a dog adopted from the street, abandoned again, captured for laboratory use, and then tragically re-united with its human in that fright-filled setting. The illustrations are not woodcuts, but part-coloured images in (I think) charcoal, crayon, and wash. They are even more astonishing and hellish, as a collection, than those in the Manifesto, being unrelieved by any of the Manifesto’s positive and delightful images of free animal life. But like the woodcuts of the Manifesto, they show with brilliant insight what our part in the living world looks like when it appears as it truthfully is, inside and out.
Notes and references:
I apologise for oddities of layout/paragraphing in this post, which I’ve been unable to correct.
The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is published by OR Books, New York and London, www.orbooks.com. The illustrations above are used by courtesy of OR Books. In the book itself, the pictures are untitled.
Images from Pit’s Letter, as well as many other art-works by Sue Coe, can be seen on the Graphic Witness web-site at http://www.graphicwitness.org/coe/enter.htm.
The quotations from Sue Coe are taken from an interview which she gave earlier this year to Animal Liberation Currents, at https://www.animalliberationcurrents.com/rendering-cruelty-art-politics/#more-1804. Other interviews which she has given are linked on the Graphic Witness page referenced above.