As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (*see We Need to Tip and 2017 Goals) I am trying to read more for fun. So here goes book review numero two for 2017.
Writing a blog post about a print book that was written about an internet phenomena in order to commemorate a festival that celebrated that internet phenomena which was inspired by cats is a rather tricky endeavor. But here I go.
A little over a year ago I was in Powell’s Books, a book-lover’s paradise in the heart of the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. With no particular course in mind I perused the titles as I meandered along by, coffee in hand, through the forrest of light-wooded shelves. I turned a corner to climb to a new colored room when a cover, displayed on the end of a bookcase as a “Staff Favorite” caught my eye. A white page stained with black cat-shaped spots and big colorful block letters reading Cat is Art Spelled Wrong stopped me in my tracks. Cats. Ew. But art? I like art…intrigued me at best.
It’s true. I don’t like cats. I tolerate them. I stand firmly by my mantra that if a cat happened to me, I wouldn’t be cruel but I would never go out of my way to make a cat happen to me. That is to say that if I was desperately searching for housing and the only promising prospect included a feline roommate, I would concede. Or if a significant other somewhere way down the line had cat I wouldn’t make them choose between the beast and me. Although let’s be real, would I ever really end up with a cat person? Get outta that one sweetheart, you need a dog-person in your life.
I don’t like cats and yet Cat is Art Spelled Wrong has been sitting on my shelf for the last year, purrfectly fine. Until last week I could feel it staring me down, practically begging me to read it right meow. Just like any other cat who doesn’t want your attention at all until one day they knock over your lamp cause you wouldn’t play with them.
Cat is Art Spelled Wrong is a book of collected essays edited by Caroline Casey, Christ Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz and was co-published by Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center both of which hail from the great city of Minneapolis. With entries from fifteen different authors, the perspectives include the entire range along the “cat spectrum” but each piece wrestles bold questions like “What sparked the cat video epidemic?” and “Are cat videos art?” and most importantly,”Why do we even like cats?” Once beyond its beautiful cover, these were the exact questions that drew me in.
I think David Carr perfectly encapsulates my personal relationship to cat videos when he writes:
I don’t mind looking at cats on the internet, in part because they are ubiquitous and can’t be avoided, and in part because I think that’s where cats should live, on the internet, imprisoned by my browser and one click away from being banished. So my little friends, go forth and multiply. Infest every corner of the web as is your nature. Chase that laser light, squeeze yourself into a glass bowl, freak out at the toy robot that your owner has set before you. Youtube is waiting, and people imprisoned in office cubes everywhere depend on you, cats of the internet, to bring a moment of respite to the quotidian tasks that are on other applications minimized until the boss walks by. (Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, pg. 138)
As an Art Historian, I spend a lot of time contemplating what constitutes art- and “what makes good art” is one of the most frequent questions that I am asked. I don’t mind because I find the discussion to be ever-changing and always intriguing; but philosophers, historians, psychologists, and artists themselves have been attempting to answer that question for centuries and I doubt I’ll be able to do any better than they have. I have done extensive research on the differentiation between so called “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture, the barriers we create between what we deem to be popular art versus fine art. But what I’ve come to believe, especially in our technological age, art is in the eye of the beholder. I look at a cat and see a demon made manifest whose sole purpose it to keep me awake at night by sleeping on my face, but others look at a cat and see the epitome of love and grace and elegance. Why should art be any different?
The book concludes with a chapter written by Sarah Schultz, Director of Education and Curator of Public Practice at the Walker Art Center. Not a proclaimed cat lover, but an art lover to be sure. Sarah beautifully expounds on the intersection between the art museum and the intricate world of the online catosphere. The Walker put on a cat video festival in no way anticipating the size or type of crowd and attention they would draw. It was a risk, but it was one worth taking. In her concluding section Sarah writes, “Questioning rather than imposing what is worthy of our attention can only give us a richer experience of who we are and who we might want to become. And sometimes museums just need to lighten up and have some fun.” (Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, pg. 159) As an art historian, it has become so important for me to abandon what I think I know in order to encounter what is unknown.
Art is complex. It is renaissance icons and polychrome sculpture and drip paintings and cat videos. It is symbolic and expressive and historic and reflective. Art carries drama in the visual as much as the written word. Art provokes, encourages, critiques, and distracts.
And this book, just like its video counterparts, accomplished just that. It provided a critically sweet diversion and kept the actual fur at a comfortable distance.
Photo Credit: L. M. Raitt February 2017