Cat is Art Spelled Wrong
Ed. By Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz
Coffee House Press, 2015
208 Pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Matt Hanson
From the oral storyteller to the YouTube channel, animals sell. In a world where people are inundated with the digital marketing of sex and violence, the viral cat video is a welcome reciprocation to what is mostly decontextualized absurdity. And the numbers are in: estimates say that more than three hours of cat videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
Reflecting on the effects of such extreme diversion, Aldous Huxley prophetically rebutted George Orwell’s conclusion that cultural modernization would increasingly dwindle free expression. In reference to the now oft-cited Huxley-Orwell dialogue featured in Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the fascinating collection of fourteen essays by Coffee House Press, “Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong” is an all-too-unsurprising manifestation of just what has been foretold by social critics.
In an article for CounterPunch, writer and scholar Henry Giroux recounts one of the most epic, and revealing intellectual analyses of contemporary mass media still to this day. “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance,” Giroux writes, echoing Postman. “In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
Marshall McLuhan, the famed media studies scholar, rightly the father of the discipline, is known for his iconic saying, “The medium is the message.” When on television explaining his ideas for the masses through the very means of his criticism, he would clarify, how since the medium itself is the message, what the medium transmits, namely the message, does not actually matter.
So, the cat video may simply be just the ideal expression of the medium of the internet (which arguably defies McLuhanist hot or cold categorization), prone to the absurdism of a technology that still leads its users to gawk, instantly gratified by a virtually infinite array of wonders and excitements.
Essayist Sasha Archibald disputes the relationship between YouTube cats, and ancient felines. “The ancient cats of myth, literature, art, and even early twentieth-century popular culture bear little resemblance to today’s big-eyed kittens,” she writes. “YouTube speaks a tale of catness thoroughly at odds with feline history.”
Archibald is one of the stronger writers in Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong. She persuasively explains why such a benign and trite activity as watching cat videos provokes enduring intellectual response. Unlike cinema and television, the user-generated and amateur content of YouTube is a bastion of nonconformist youth in a global culture increasingly waylaid by xenophobic acculturation. And the qualities of the cat, namely secretive indifference and manipulative faithlessness are fitting.
She writes, “…cats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more likely to be used as symbols of nonconformity…This symbology helps explain the cat’s enduring alliance with artists and writers, and why certain gatekeepers of high culture have no qualms contributing to the schmaltzy genre of cat books and cat art.”
The Cat Video Festival that inspired, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong led to well over 10,000 fans beaming with pure elation. In terms of a literary and cultural retrospective on the motif of human-animal synthesis, Coffee House Press introduces Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong with a declaration by Will Braden, the creator of Henri, le Chat Noir (a bored existentialist cat), who asserts that cat videos are really about people.
“Cat videos are the crystallization of all that human beings love about cats,” writes Maria Bustillos, in the opening essay, “Hope Is The Thing With Fur.” “In this way, cats exactly reflect our feelings about ourselves.” As a person stares into the mirror, people become mesmerized by specifically feline dynamics, such as in the contrast between beauty and absurdity.
Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong achieves a superlative reflection on one of the most seemingly trivial aspects of modern life, the time-killing YouTube craze. Yet, Bustillos, for example, cites Shakespeare, allegorizes Evelyn Waugh, and refers to the works of a new academic discipline, “internet cat scholarship.”
The entire book is remarkably insightful. “Cats share something more with us than mere creatureliness: They share, somehow, our central predicament,” Bustillos writes. “What we can but dimply apprehend of our own condition, we can really see and identify in cats.”
Bustillos is a modern historian for the Internet age. She points to origins with stunning relevance. Painting, for instance, arguably began with the depiction of animals. Nearly twenty years after hampsterdance.com went live in 1997, receiving a quarter million hits, nyan.cat invaded the Catalan language internet domain.
Comparable to the literary symbol of Mowgli in The Jungle Book who represents common humanity amid the awesome diversity of life in the “jungle” (i.e. internet), the star of the Internet cat video speaks to audiences everywhere, regardless of class, gender, and nationality.
At first glance, readers would probably never believe that Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong seriously considers historical process, the eternal present, democracy, culture industry, ecological consciousness, music history, art criticism, existentialism, animal intelligence, and even the Fall of Man, goddess worship and the cosmos.
The reason why the book is titled Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong is revealed in the essay, “The Nine Lives of Cat Videos” by 2013 CatVidFest juror and art critic Jillian Steinhauer. To her astonishment, she was once asked in an interview, “Are cat videos art?” during the CatVidFest, because it was produced by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
In her essay, she recalls the cat videos made by artists, such as when New York-based videographer Cory Aarcangel filmed cats playing the first atonal music composition in Western history, Schoenberg’s Op. 11. Expectedly, she sees the cat video in general as mere spectacle, the type of entertainment that is not art.
From the outset, the moving image has been associated with mass distraction. Steinhauer cites the criticism of Siegfried Kracauer, whose analyses of early cinema culture in Berlin have uncanny parallels to the role of the cat video. Kracauer understood cinema as purposed, often politically, for mass distraction.
Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong chronicles the nexus of isolated and mass distraction in the event of the CatVidFest, which began in 2012 awarding the “Golden Kitty” to the most distracting hilarity on the net. The festival appeared to become a social event itself mediated by the YouTube video, where unity is founded in distraction.
In an age where painful, and sometimes violent demonstrations are becoming the norm, this type of togetherness is almost healing. In “The Internet Is A Cat Video Library” essayist Ander Monson argues the point, saying that the cat video only “plugs you back into your own predictable desire”, the opposite of dialogue.
What Steinhauer noted was how even on the extraordinarily flighty basis of the cat video, the CatVidFest created community. Strangely, the festivalgoers also formed a cult of fame around such feline personas as Grumpy Cat and Lil BUB. The stars of the YouTube cat video assume a reality celebrity, whose only accomplishment is exposure.
The cat video is the other, less gruesome side of the coin that butchers animals. As the industrial age is overwhelmed by influxes of new technology, the animal in either matrix remains exploited. “We accept them only on our terms, as extensions of ourselves,” writes Steinhauer, who sees cats as having fallen “from sacred subject to empty spectacle.”
As essayist Ander Monson writes of watching Nyan Cat videos, “After several attempts, I must report that I can’t make it past 334 seconds without an intense feeling of having wasted my life.” Yet, poet and contributor Matthea Harvey proclaims the need for more. “In loving animals, our simpler, sweeter selves come out,” she writes. “The world needs more cat videos.”
The fact that the first YouTube users began to upload content free of commercial intents, is one pure element of amateur “entertainment art” such as known to the vaudeville days among early 20th century immigrants in New York. Yet, shameless investment has created cat video stars like Maru, worth over six figures.
Again, animals sell. Some may remember which album holds the record for the largest single pressing of any album in history: Songs of the Humpback Whale. If Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong is any indication, the most widely distributed film may star none other a worthy successor of Bastet.