Aesthetically Appreciating Animals

In this blog, Samantha Vice of the University of the Witwatersrand introduces her article, aesthetically ‘Appreciating Animals: On The Abundant Herds’, just published online-first in Environmental Values Like the author, you might never have contemplated the beauty of cows, but now is the time to start.

I never thought I would write about cows. But in the midst of the pandemic last year, in search of some uncomplicated pleasure, I returned to a book that had made an impression on me many years previously. The Abundant Herds (2003), written by Marguerite Poland and David Hammond-Tooke, and illustrated by Leigh Voigt, is about the South African AmaZulu people’s elaborate system of names for their prized Nguni cattle. To my knowledge, this is the only book on the subject that is both scholarly and intended for a popular market – it was at a time common to see it prominently displayed in bookstores. Voigt’s exquisite illustrations of the cattle occupy much of the large folio editions and make the book an artwork in itself. The beauty of the book, the beauty of the animals it celebrates and the vision of the animal and human world that the naming practices reflect deserved exploration and appreciation.

Copyright Leigh Voigt

The Nguni are no ordinary cattle. Integrated into the lives of the AmaZulu and other southern African people for centuries, they are hardy and docile, and renowned for their gorgeous colours and markings. A system of classification developed, which predominantly identifies cattle in terms of colours, patterns and horn shapes, with a subtlety and aesthetic sensitivity that is striking. For instance, ‘red with a brownish undertone’ is distinguished from ‘a dark red tending to mulberry’ or ‘an intensely bright red’ (38), or from the deep, rich red of the ‘redwinged starling’ pattern. The cattle are also compared to other animals and birds, natural objects and phenomena. For example, the inzimakazi ebulumunga – a black cow coloured like the bark of the mimosa tree peeled back; a cow may be coloured like ‘the eggs of the lark’, ‘the stones of the forest’, or ‘the clouds of heaven’; like sugar beans or bulrush millet. It may have horns ‘like a snail’, or like ‘the spread wings of a mousebird in flight’. And the human world is a part of this natural world: animals may have patterns of ‘reclining people’, ‘homesteads at a distance’, women ‘throwing up their arms’ or ‘lifting their skirts to avoid them getting wet while crossing a river’. 

Copyright Leigh Voigt

The authors of the book compare these names to ‘small imagist poems’ (38), and the attention of the namers, and then the authors in response, to the beauty of farm animals has both aesthetic and ethical import, rendering marvellous and worthy of respect what we so often overlook. I was interested in this vision of the animal world, what it expressed about the value and being of of animals and how it might complicate some traditional views in aesthetics. 

For instance, the environmental aesthetics literature tends to discuss wild animals rather than those, like our pets or farm animals, that inhabit a more humanized – and thus less ‘authentic’ – world. And the standard approach sees the beauty of animals in functionalist terms – they are beautiful in virtue of their ‘fitness for function’, and are aesthetically evaluated as more or less successfully functioning members of their species. A version of this view also implicitly informs much aesthetic evaluation of farm animals, the fate of which is to be reduced to specimens, their features assessed and admired as signs of their breeding and commercial potential. 

This approach has the result, I argue, that the individuality and subjectivity of animals are overlooked, and so a significant dimension of our aesthetic appreciation too. While functionalism makes sense of much of our rather impersonal and distant viewing of wild animals and accommodates the commercial interests of farming, it overlooks the pleasure we take in animals’ embodied, expressive individuality. The practices explored in The Abundant Herds recognise this. The system of classification captures shared patterns, but does so without reducing the animals to specimens, and sometimes animals are given further, more personal names, based on their history and character. Each animal is an individual, and in her illustrations, Voigt responds to the celebration of individuality that comes out in the naming practices; it is striking how each animal is itself, not the instantiation of a colour pattern or a specimen of a ‘breeder’ or ‘good milker’. At the same time, the animals are integrated into a human world, and humans into a natural world, a vision in which every creature is worthy of attention.

Copyright Leigh Voigt

The obvious utility of the Nguni cattle does not reduce their keepers’ aesthetic appreciation to a purely ‘interested’ one. The amaZulu namers take a delight in the fortuitous coincidence of utility and beauty, and their animals are always also appreciated for themselves and for a beauty that is not reducible to their fitness or utility. The aesthetic responsiveness and delight in these animals as individuals, it seems to me, has ethical import. It is at least psychologically dissonant to harm what you find beautiful, and particularly so when the object is so much a part of your own human world. The practices that The Abundant Herds celebrates remind us that the animals on which we are so dependent and yet which are so often overlooked, have a beauty which is their own, an embodiment of an individual perspective and life, irreducible to their usefulness to us. In responding to their beauty, we are responding to individuals that demand recognition and respect from us. The Abundant Herds shows us how attention to beauty can have an ethical dimension, and my hope is that it can contribute towards developing aesthetics in an ethical direction.

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