Animals: Wise instructors, or false teachers?
We have all been taught something about the world from someone else. Growing up, we have been shaped by past experience, for better or worse. The teachers who educated us could have taken many forms; parents, movies, books, and even animals. Animals can be effective teaching methods, especially to children. However, while we typically see animals teaching children, they can also teach us as we grow older. While the reasons for animals being disarming methods of conveying morals or life lessons seems ambiguous, we can see the impact. However, not all teachers speak the truth. We can see how animals are used to encourage our ability to love others, while some incite hatred towards them. What they have in common is that they all convey moral truths, whether positive or negative.
Alexandre Decamps tells us about the nature of art critics in The Experts. Showing finely dressed primates evaluating a landscape painting, Decamps is teaching the viewer something about the “experts” who critique his work. What is interesting is the ambiguity of his portrayal of them. Whether it is malicious or lighthearted is not explicit.
While the message of Decamps’ piece is ambiguous in nature, others are not. Winnie the Pooh and Frog and Toad teach us positive life lessons. They teach the importance of love, persistence, and other values. However, Dr. Seuss’ World War II political cartoons use animals to devalue the lives of others, reducing them to a primitive state with the intention of making them less than human. In addition, propaganda against the Irish also speaks a moral truth about nationalism. What is important to realize is how these are telling what some believe to be the truth, requiring discretion when reading.
E. H. Shepard, Illustration from Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, 1926
Named after a stuffed animal that belonged to the son of Milne, Winnie the Pooh is a series of stories about a fictional anthropomorphic bear. The first story was published in 1926 and would be followed up with others, including movies and poems. Pooh is characterized as thoughtful, loving, and faithful towards others. The stories were met with widespread popularity. Eventually, Pooh would be voted as one of Britain's most influential literary characters. Pooh is used as a teacher for children to convey the importance of particular values. Growing up, children would have read these stories and taken away something from them. What is important is the subject matter, that the stories help build an appreciation for the others around us.
Arnold Lobel, Illustration From Frog and Toad Are Friends, 1970
Frog and Toad Are Friends follows the adventures of two close personified animals. Published in 1970, the book contains shorts stories that spread across multiple topics, including a touching story on being alone. Perhaps we have read books like this and Winnie the Pooh. They may have changed how we see the world and what we value. Additionally, Lobel’s story conveys the importance of companionship, using animals as a literary tool to teach us positive truths about the world.
Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, The Experts
1837, Oil on Canvas, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
As we move away from children’s books, we start to see more ambiguous intentions behind the artist’s use of animals to portray humans. We see the primates stand around the canvas, analyzing its contents. Decamps uses the primates to take the place of his critics. The mockery towards the social elite appears to be central to his piece. However, the moral truth seems unclear. Assumptions can be made about the message regarding the “experts,” but it is not as explicit as the themes of positivity and friendship that surround the earlier works.
William Holbrook Beard, The Tables Turned, Unknown Date
Beard primarily made portraits earlier in his life. Eventually, he would discover his fondness for nature. Using satire to comment on his personal views would draw many people to his work. We see Beard putting animals in a human-like situation to give us a new perspective on matters. Seeing the bears hunt people can make us questions the ethics of certain practices we have. However, this is speculation as the intent of his work seems to be satirical, remaining ambiguous.
John Tenniel, The Irish Frankenstein
May 20th, 1882, British Museum
As we look at this piece of anti-Irish propaganda, what is visually striking is the use of animals to devalue human life. The name being taken from Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, we see the manifestation of the monster being an Irishman. While the nationalism is tangible in this cartoon, we cannot help but see a “moral truth” being used to tear down the dignity of someone else. Additionally, even though an animal is conveying a message for us to learn, we sense that something is untrue about what we are being told. It is teaching hate and malice, unlike the earlier artworks.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, Maybe only alley cats, but Jeepers! A hell of a lot of 'em!
December 10, 1941, Dr. Seuss Political Cartoons. Special Collection & Archives, UC San Diego Library
With this final piece, we once again observe animals being portrayed as humans to teach something to the viewer. However, just like in Tenniel’s piece, this political cartoon dehumanizes Asian Americans. Made just three days after the events of Pearl Harbor, Dr. Seuss’ propaganda cannot help but seem malicious. Functioning under the practices of nationalism, the apparentness of his anger towards Japan can be felt. While we can empathize with the want to protect one’s homeland, confronting the destructiveness of both Tenniel and Geisel’s works is important. Even more so that Dr. Seuss is also a children’s book author, being someone a lot of people have read at one point or another. A feeling of betrayal is justifiable if someone who writes light-hearted books with positive messages also has viciously attacked others, using animals to mock their appearance in an attempt to destroy their character.