In the European Ceramics gallery of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum there is at present a “contemporary art installation” entitled A Nice Cup of Tea? The title is a pun of sorts, and the implied answer to the more serious sense of the question – has a cup of tea always been a nice, a fastidious, thing? – is ‘no’. In fact the aim of the show is to remind viewers who enjoy this refreshment ritual that “every sip connects us to the legacy of the British Empire, global trade and transatlantic slavery”, and in particular with “the brutal exploitation of enslaved people producing sugar in the West Indies”. The art-work itself is in the suspended-bits style pioneered and made famous by the artist Cornelia Parker: a tea set has been broken into pieces (analysed, in fact; it’s a sort of visual pun) and hung on strings above a pile of crockery fragments and dust.
A notebook to one side is made available to visitors: “Please tell us what you think”, says the label. The pages were still blank when I was there: nothing to add, it seems. Or too much for the time and space, perhaps. After all, that dazzling gallery of eating and drinking equipment “connects us” to much more than the prizes and vices of Empire: it’s an index to human life and history. And if the Ashmolean’s curators have rightly spotted the shameful connections to slavery, they have yet to remark on the much more obvious and continuing reference to the non-human objects of our compulsive imperialism. It’s not just that most of this china was designed and used for eating animal parts and products from. Much of the charm, and sometimes beauty, of its designs derives from representations of animal life. (To only a slightly lesser extent, this is true of the whole Ashmolean Museum, and indeed of any art gallery.) The animal presence simply stares at you from all sides. And although the images are often made with affectionate attention, there’s no doubt who’s serving whom. Not only the real presence of animals in flesh and work provides for us, then; their mere forms minister, as ornaments, to our pleasure.
For instance: just to one side of the exploded tea-set installation, a showcase contains the figure of a man reaching up to release a bird (the piece was made in the eighteenth-century at the Bow factory in London). The man’s gesture has a sort of drunken licence about it: might it represent the traditional subversive fantasy of a world turned upside down – in this case, letting the animals go at last? No: the figure is indeed intended to represent liberty, but it’s the man’s liberty; the bird is only a symbol for the human experience. At the man’s feet is a ram, also there as a symbol (of virility), and a dog (of philandering?). The whole piece is in fact called ‘Liberty’, and was designed as a pair with its complement or opposite (not represented in the gallery) called ‘Matrimony’. The wretched bird, all too aptly stuck to the man’s up-reached hand, is just there to image the husband’s day-dream of sexual licence.
One can find this ‘free as a bird’ motif throughout art and literature (yes, and pop music), part of the larger habit of making non-human animals tell us our own story back again: a use for them, in fact. Often these images are very fine. The well-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Everyone Sang’ (which is generally read as a response to the contemporary 1918 armistice, though Sassoon himself denied it was written as such), thoroughly deserves its place in national memory:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
That word “must” at least shows that he allowed the birds their own mystery; he did not pretend to know them. But then of course the poem is not about them. The birds are there to illustrate a human feeling.
The release of poor Miss Flyte’s caged birds at the crisis of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House is likewise very moving, but that too is essentially symbolic – in her case, of liberation from the false hopes and ruinous toils of Chancery law.
In short, these thought-up birds all mean what we mean them to. Meanwhile real birds, birds as themselves, are “everywhere in chains” – in cages, at least – in order to please humans or (as instanced in some previous posts of this blog) to make some possible or merely notional contribution to our understanding of human physiology. It’s surely strange that, feeling this almost visceral communion with the flight of birds as humans commonly do, we should nevertheless deny flight to so many of them. A brief and informal study was recently made by Animals Australia of this phenomenon. Showing, in a series of impromptu interviews, that randomly selected people did have this sympathy, they juxtaposed it with the wretched statistic of 8.1 million caged ‘pet’ birds in that country. The short film ends with a definition of the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’: “simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions”. It’s a human capacity or perversity which has made possible our present tragic relations not just with birds but with all the other animals.
So of course that famous opening statement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was about humans only: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” And how many high-minded invocations of freedom have made it special to humans in just that way! Thus President Kennedy in his fine inauguration address, a locus classicus for the theme of liberty, was talking with all his ambitious expansiveness strictly about “the freedom of man”. And when the politician and diplomat Wendell Willkie wrote grandly, in his best-selling book One World (1943), that “Freedom is an indivisible word”, he meant, of course, within reason: indivisible as between us humans. And that’s the premise also, casual and undeliberate as it may be, of the Ashmolean Museum exhibition. Freedom – the valuation of it and the right to it – is really what divides humans from the rest of nature.
There’s a scene in Axel Munthe’s memoir The Story of San Michele (a book featured in this blog last month) where both these human habits – denying animals their freedom, and yet making them symbols of our own – are satisfyingly busted. During Easter week, it was the tradition in the village of Anacapri (and elsewhere, no doubt) to capture small birds in preparation for a special ritual on the Sunday: “For days, hundreds of small birds, a string tied round their wing, had been dragged about the streets by all the boys of the village.” At the Easter service, they were to be released as images of the resurrection. But not in practice given their freedom, because when let go “they fluttered about for a while helpless and bewildered, breaking their wings against the windows, before they fell down to die on the church floor.” So one Easter at daybreak Munthe puts a ladder up against the church and smashes the windows to let the birds fly out.
Like most direct actions, this was an imperfect victory: “only a very few of the doomed birds found their way to freedom” . But for those birds at least it was real freedom, not a picture of it, or an idea about it. Just so when Mr Virtue, the parson in Flora Thomson’s memoir Still Glides the Stream, attends the village show: he knows that many wild birds are cruelly kept in cages by the villagers, but at least they are no longer proudly exhibited, as are the various rabbits, cats, and canaries, “because one year Mr Virtue, who judged the pet entries, had carried outside and released a skylark, and when its owner had complained had thrown the empty cage at him, swearing with many oaths unfitting for a Flower Show, that a man who was capable of robbing a little singing bird of its liberty should be sent to gaol for six months’ hard.”
Yes, an incomplete victory, but a real freedom, so that the visceral communion I mentioned earlier itself becomes real, an authentic sympathy rather than a romantic whim. When 1500 foxes were set free from a Scottish fur farm in 1976, one of the cage-breakers recalls as much: “It was like being liberated at the same time as the foxes.”  It’s a beautiful saying, and here we’re beginning to see that freedom is indeed morally indivisible, or as William Hazlitt said, love of liberty is love of others (love of the others, he might have said). And in fact that quotation about the foxes comes from a book which is a great testament to that indivisibility: Keith Mann’s 600-page history of the Animal Liberation Front titled From Dusk till Dawn (2007).
This most remarkable book chronicles the efforts of groups and individuals, from the 1970s to the early years of this century, to practise that love of others by actually liberating them, and implicating their own freedom in the endeavour. The book itself was begun in a prison, and as papers or discs it followed Keith Mann from prison to prison. So it’s not just a story of captivity and freedom, but a material product of this largely invisible but altogether real strain in modern society. It relates to the Ashmolean’s artistic meditation on slavery much as an escape bid relates to wringing your hands in the comfort of home (or for that matter, I’m afraid, writing prose like this about freedom). In one vivid and exemplary scene, “the prisoner Mann” (as the police report of the incident calls him) does indeed make his own escape bid, slipping from a police escort, jumping onto and over a twelve-foot gate, cycling off on a ‘borrowed’ bicycle, and then hiding up under a railway viaduct, all the while “chuckling intermittently to myself . . . I’d liberated myself and it felt great.” He stayed free for nearly a year, which he spent (of course) at an animal sanctuary.
That impertinent glee, the chuckling, is characteristic of this folk-heroic personality, pictured grinning undefeatably on the back of the book. For Mann belongs to a kind that has been embarrassing authority, mocking its dignity and disrespecting its institutions, ever since the first official uniform was put on, but also paying for it, often far over the odds. And From Dusk till Dawn, full as it is of subversive wit and dauntlessness, is necessarily a tragi-comedy. At every story of liberation that Mann tells (and as Benjamin Zephania rightly says in his foreword, “Mann is a natural storyteller, with a hell of a story to tell”), some or most of the animals have to be left behind. Even those that are freed can have no firm property in their freedom: getting them back into confinement is at least as much part of the official response as punishing their liberators is. Keith Mann recounts the effortful rounding-up in this way of some beagles briefly rescued from Oxford University’s notorious Park Farm (at that time “a complex of windowless buildings imprisoning various species of animals awaiting the vivisector’s carving knife”), and he wonders “What is this obsession with taking these animals back to these places?”
One consequence of the direct actions which Mann recounts has been stricter law and increased security, so that his chronicles now have a period feel about them; such low-tech raids on the prison camps of speciesism are no longer feasible. Compare, for instance, the disorderly and half-supervised Park Farm with its “comparatively minimal” security, as Mann describes it, with Oxford University’s present-day animal storage and research facility, the Biomedical Sciences Building, likewise windowless, but also fenced, front-doorless, and protected by CCTV. But of course that ‘love of others’ never goes away, so that, as Keith Mann says with his characteristically selfless buoyancy, the story of ALF “will continue to be re-written and be added to by many others over the coming years until animal liberation is finally achieved.”
The hazardous actualities of From Dusk till Dawn, even the simple but wholly practical proto-ALF interventions of Axel Munthe and Parson Virtue, seem to belong to a different dimension from the fashionably aesthetic meditation on historical slavery which the Ashmolean’s “contemporary art installation” provides, but in fact it’s all one unhappy and continuingly urgent subject. The placard pictured here on the right, which was being carried during August’s Official Animal Rights March in London (reported in this blog), succinctly states the case which the Ashmolean Museum might bear in mind if it wants its art to be not just modish but actually modern.
Notes and references:
The free exhibition A Nice Cup of Tea? is on show at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, until 22 March 2020.
The Animals Australia video can be viewed here: https://www.animalsaustralia.org/issues/caged_birds.php
Research using birds is a particular topic in this blog on 21 May 2019 (‘What are Sixty Warblers Worth?’) and 24 October 2016 (‘How to Learn about Magpies’).
The post in this blog about Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/10/04/franciscan-medicine/
Still Glides the Stream was first published in 1948, its contents looking back to the late nineteenth century. The quotation is from p.103 of the Oxford University Press edition, 1966.
The critic and essayist William Hazlitt contrasted love of liberty with love of power (which, he said, is “love of ourselves”) in the article ‘Illustrations of the Times Newspaper’ published in Political Essays (1819).
From Dusk till Dawn was published by Puppy Pincher Press in 2007. The book is available to buy online at http://www.fromdusktildawn.org.uk/shop/
This year’s Official Animal Rights March was reported in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/march-of-a-nation/
See also, on this subject of direct action, the post ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/in-prison-and-you-visited-me/