Book Review: Piers Beirne, Hogarth’s Art of Animal Cruelty: Satire, Suffering and Pictorial Propaganda
For well more than two decades, Piers Beirne, Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Southern Maine, has sought to expose the wide-ranging use and abuse of animals and to explore its causes and consequences. Almost single-handedly, Beirne has brought the subject of animal abuse and cruelty to criminological attention by exploring anthropocentric conceptualizations of animals as objects of human agency, animals as criminals, and legislation involving animal abuse, as well as the sexual abuse of animals and linkages between interspecies abuse and interhuman violence. Thanks to Beirne, terms such as speciesism and theriocide are part of criminological vernacular, while established scholars such as Angus Nurse, Ragnhild Sollund, and Tanya Wyatt can point to Beirne’s influence and pioneering work.
Always pursuing new avenues for contemplating animal abuse, Beirne weaves together art history, human-animal studies, and green criminology—as well as a healthy dose of 18th-century British literature (e.g. Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift)—in his most recent undertaking, Hogarth’s Art of Animal Cruelty: Satire, Suffering and Pictorial Propaganda. The book—a short but intense endeavor—focuses on The Four Stages of Cruelty, a series of four prints produced and circulated in early 1751 by the English artist William Hogarth (1697–1764). While Beirne states clearly the questions on which he is focused—“How did Hogarth see animals? What did he intend with his animal pictures in The Four Stages of Cruelty? How should we see Hogarth’s animals?” (p. viii)—this delightful monograph forces us to ponder variation in how animal abuse has been perceived over time and across cultures, as well as the nature of social relationships involving the unjust exercise of authority, knowledge, and power.
Beirne begins, in Chapter 1 (“Introduction”), by asserting that “[o]ne of the central tasks facing any social theory of animal abuse is to understand the emergence of human sentiments that are at once against cruelty and pro-animal” (p. 2). To do so, Beirne explains, he has selected for examination The Four Stages of Cruelty which:
has nowadays achieved canonical status in moral philosophy, in literary criticism and in the animal rights movement for drawing attention to the changing ways in which we humans inflict pain and suffering on nonhuman animals … and in legal history and in sociological criminology as an influential milestone in the study of the link between childhood animal cruelty and subsequent violence between one human and another. (p. 2)
Because Hogarth’s paintings “were often dense tapestries whose multiple meanings were accessible only through the unlocking of linked clues, puzzles and coded messages” (p. 16), before commencing his study of The Four Stages of Cruelty, Beirne proposes, in Chapter 2 (“Seeing Hogarth’s animal images”), a typology of the five main ways in which Hogarth represented animals throughout his art: (1) animals as hybrids; (2) animals as edibles; (3) animals as companions; (4) animals as signs of satire; and (5) animals as objects of cruelty.
According to Beirne, hybrids lurk in the edges and depths of Hogarth’s art. “If Hogarth’s genius lay in creating a new British style of art based on iconoclastic comedy and savage satire,” Beirne postulates, “then at the beginning of this accomplishment he leaned heavily on the seventeenth-century animal iconography of Dutch and Flemish painters” (p. 18). Beirne also compares Hogarth’s depiction of hybrids to that of Swift, arguing that “Swift’s hybrids grapple with human identity: They act, talk, think, reason and feel, even if they do so somewhat primitively. Hogarth’s hybrids do none of these things. Mostly, his hybrids crouch, threaten, scowl and lurk. They merely look the part” (p. 19, emphasis in original). Nevertheless, hybrids provide Hogarth with the opportunity to make coded allegorical points about humans and animals sharing certain instincts and natures.
Animals that have been recently slaughtered, cooked, or salted—as well as pieces of animals—also feature frequently in Hogarth’s art. These “animals as edibles,” Beirne instructs, signify prosperity and embourgeoisement, rewards for military success, and as satirical statements against gluttony and corruption.
As companions, animals are represented by Hogarth in varying degrees of straightforwardness. In some works, they appear with their human family in a posed portrait, positioned amid elegant furniture and furnishings. In others, animals—most often dogs—“appear as skirmishing or scavenging creatures who, like playful children, cause humans noisy, if minor, disturbance … [C]hildren and dogs operate as signs of commotion and impending disorder” (p. 25). According to Beirne, Hogarth would deploy animals “as bearers of territorial instincts” (p. 26)—a description that elicits a laugh when one learns that Hogarth’s dog was named “Trump” and who, like the US presidential candidate and business magnate, gazes warily and with animosity.
Satire bleeds through Hogarth’s works, but “animals as signs of satire” also constitutes its own discrete category for Beirne and he points to examples of Hogarth using dogs to give voice to political interests, as well as to depictions of male and female genitalia, human and animal, to satirize some aspect of objectionable human morality. While Hogarth employed animals satirically to comment on social relationships that he considered constrained, exploitative, unfair, or otherwise problematic and in need of reform, he also called attention to literal human abuse of animals. Beirne describes a handful of depictions of animal cruelty, thereby setting the stage for Chapter 3’s analysis of The Four Stages of Cruelty.
Beirne begins Chapter 3 (“Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty: ‘[T]o reform some reigning vices peculiar to lower class of people’”—the subtitle is a reference to the stated behavior and actions Hogarth meant to influence with his series) by situating The Four Stages within the trajectories of two social movements: (1) a transformation in the inventory of powers in the English criminal justice system; and (2) a revolution in the style of mass popular communication, most visible in the production and consumption of cheap prints, broadsheets, and handbills. As Beirne explains:
Hogarth intended that The Four Stages should be visual lectures on public morality, but different audiences naturally took from his images some combination of his chosen intentions, on the one hand, and what they chose and according to what they understood and to what they were accustomed, on the other. (p. 62)
From here, Beirne guides us through the “fogs and mazes” (p. 48) of each stage. We learn, for example, that The First Stage of Cruelty, which features tortured birds, cats, and dogs, is as much about the plight of homeless and abandoned youth on the streets of the St. Giles-in-the-Fields district of London as it is about animal cruelty, while The Second Stage of Cruelty, which depicts a hackney-coachman beating his weary and collapsed horse, can be understood as a message about the perils and vicissitudes of urban travel. Cruelty in Perfection and The Reward of Cruelty, the third and fourth stages, similarly reflect not just Hogarth’s detestation of animal cruelty but his insecurities about crime, dangerous neighborhoods, and the abuse of professional authority.
Whereas Beirne devotes the first half of Chapter 3 to unpacking the iconography and iconology of The Four Stages and to Hogarth’s own intentions, he dedicates the remainder to a consideration of how spectators may have reacted to Hogarth’s visual stimuli, as well as to the types of animal cruelties missing from The Four Stages and his larger oeuvre (such as the hunting of animals, which was a common practice of his patrons, the gentry). From here, Beirne considers whether—and subsequently concludes that—the instances of animal cruelty in The Four Stages and elsewhere reflected a genuine abhorrence for the torture and killing of animals and “were not mere fanciful artefacts that [Hogarth] used either to point to or to veil some other discourse” (p. 87).
Beirne’s final chapter (“After Hogarth”) is a curious one. Rather than connect his book to other criminological explorations of the visual representation of crime and harm—such as green cultural criminology or the visual criminology of Michelle Brown and Eamonn Carrabine (whose 2011 article, “The iconography of punishment: Execution prints and the death penalty,” discusses Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness cycle of 1747)—Beirne elects instead to situate Hogarth’s legacy in the development of 18th-century “animal-it-narratives,” that include stories told by or about bees, birds, cats, dogs, donkeys, fleas, lice, mice, pigs, and ponies. Beirne also chooses not to link his discussion to the emerging narrative criminological framework of Lo Presser and Sveinung Sandberg. Beirne’s purpose seems to be to challenge the conception of Hogarth’s The Four Stages of Cruelty as “some prefigurative marker in the history of animal rights” and to assert that “[a] logic of disgust and pity as the desired emotional reaction to animal cruelty can never in itself lead to an acceptance of animal rights” (p. 100). Because Beirne does not, in this book, provide us with a map for understanding the development of animal rights or offer us suggestions for how and where one might conduct similar examinations of the use of animals in visual art, readers may feel they have been left in a perilous Hogarth-like labyrinth. Perhaps this is Beirne’s ultimate genius—to embed his moral messages as hauntingly as Hogarth did his.
Brisman, A. (2017). Book review: Piers Beirne, Hogarth’s Art of Animal Cruelty: Satire, Suffering and Pictorial Propaganda. doi:10.1177/1741659016688729
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