My conversation with Sue Coe


MCR:  You started this body of work more than 25 years ago and its relevance to our culture hasn’t diminished. Does that surprise you?

SC: Animal Rights, or Animal Liberation if you prefer, is a global social justice movement. It transcends cultures. There exists a global community of animal rights activists. In our lifetime we have seen the rise of global “factory farming” and the decline of free born species to the point of extinction for many.

I started this work, for animals, back in the 1970’s. As animals are trivialized and activists for animals are trivialized, so too has the art dealing with this content. This is no different from any other social justice movement, or representing any oppressed group in artwork. We always believe that our social justice struggle is so much more difficult, with its own set of unique problems, than any other in history.  It seems insurmountable.

MCR:  How do you liken the animal rights struggle to other social justice movements?

SC: The commonality in all social justice movements is that a group of beings is bullied, silenced and then murdered – the narrative is identical. The crime, or excuse for the crime, always has an economic driver that benefits the few at the expense of the many and always blames the victims. In that sense it’s a simple narrative. Comparing strategies of liberation throughout history is interesting because they generally fall into two forces, welfare or abolition. Welfare is a seductive strategy as it gives the illusion of changing the situation now, with the promise of more radical change down the road. The drawbacks of this strategy are that it keeps the system of oppression in place, whilst marginally improving conditions for the beings who are legally chattel property. We have to ask ourselves if any “humane” treatment can come about whilst some of us are owned by others of us. The conclusion based on 300 years of welfare legislation is no. The first welfare laws in the United States for animals were at the time of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Given the lack of any substantial progress for animals, the majority of whom are bred to be murdered for food, we then have to wonder why we continue to follow this strategy? The answer to that is more complex, and for any analysis the root is economic.  Animals are political. They exist in the political realm but as represented by the meat industrial complex and pharmaceutical corporations et al. The interests and rights of the animals themselves as beings under the yoke of chattel property are not represented.  The most that their advocates can achieve is bigger cages or bigger sheds or other tampering with “treatment” on their journey to be murdered; “murder” as in taking a life, for no other reason, other than for the pleasure for profit or taste buds of the killer. Indeed, in most cases the welfare of animals has deteriorated immensely since the time of the 19th century.

MCR:  That statement would likely shock those mindfully spending more for cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef and so on.

SC: In recent times the push for Animal Rights based on the works of philosopher Tom Reagan has been waylaid, hijacked into happy exploitation under the ideology of Singer’s Utilitarianism. Corporate welfare charities have focused on “treatment” not liberation. If humans are presented with an easy way out of any conundrum, they take it. The struggle has been reframed from a social justice struggle with all its fraught difficulties and contradictions to consumer choice. The compassionate (and wealthy) shopper in Whole Foods is assured by the label that the animal died happy. This is a falsehood that benefits everyone except the animals. In other words, capitalism purchased a social justice movement, which in turn sold out the animals.

MCR:  And yet you remain undaunted in your advocacy. What keeps you going?

SC: Well, here is the good news. We can create a Vegan World, a world of non violence by a simple bold step. No “Donate Now” buttons are needed to pay someone else to do our activism for us. We can do it ourselves, educate others, and from that platform, engage with power.  This simple step is not promoted because there is no profit in it. We can go vegan and we can do it today.

I have drawn in approximately 40 slaughterhouses around the world and can tell you that animals make eye contact and want to know why they are being punished.  They want to know what can they change in their behaviors to stop this. They are speaking to us, billions of them are crying to us to hear them. We can listen, we have that ability. They are living beings with their own memories and dreams and friends and family. Even though they exist in tattered remnants of any true social life, they have a sense of the injustice of what is happening to their bodies.  The most poignant sight to me in a slaughterhouse is that animals are social beings and if they misbehave in their own families and groups they get a nip or a kick and it’s how all animals survive as families, including the human animal. Animals are being hurt in the slaughterhouse with the cattle prods, the noise, the harsh words, the falling of the steel door of the restraining pen on their backs and they look around wondering, “Why am I being treated like this? What did I do wrong?” If I pay Wendy to murder Paul, I am as legally and morally responsible for Paul’s death as is Wendy. Someone is doing our dirty work for us in the slaughterhouse.  We keep our hands clean.

MCR:  Most Americans probably consume animal products at every meal. There is a strong belief that meat and dairy are needed for strong health.

SC: No American needs to consume animal products to be healthy, quite the reverse.  We are locked into this propaganda because of an economic system that benefits from our ignorance and puts profit before all life. The bold step to a vegan lifestyle is more urgent now than ever in history, as animal agriculture is the number one contributor to climate change.

MCR: I’m so glad you brought up climate change. It is incredible to me that environmental organizations and the media rarely mention the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. I hear well-meaning people fret over the future of the Amazon rainforest without any understanding of how their meat consumption is driving the destruction. Very few environmentalists I know are vegetarian, let alone vegan, and that shocks me. What specifically do you have to say to environmentalist omnivores?

 SC: Animal agriculture is by far the primary driver of Amazon destruction, but another culprit is the production of palm oil used in rubbish processed foods like candy and cookies, because it’s cheap and tasteless. What a trade off –destruction of all the creatures and plants of the forest for an additive to make peanut butter spread easier. The same question applies to those who eat animal products and define themselves as feminists. Nothing exploits female non-humans like the meat industry.  It commodifies female reproductive processes and tears babies from their mothers.  90% of farmed animals are female. Male baby chicks, dairy calves, and lambs are destroyed at birth or a few weeks or months after birth.  For almost any social justice cause, it makes sense to go vegan. There is no downside.  Very slowly the word is getting out that animal agriculture is the secret sickening of the world. It hangs like an evil pall over the oceans and rivers and streams and crushes the soft roots of other lives. Even the very soil has become chemical, trammeled dust. Animal Agriculture will end us before we end it. If animals were capable of irony, they would appreciate that.  We exist within a panorama of slaughter that is inconceivable for the human mind to grasp.  The unending human wars, and then the war on the natural world, creating deserts where there had been so much life, and all coming from a broken species that is not even capable of regulating its own reproduction or functioning without guns. Through the lens and laws of economics, international monopoly capitalism dominates the narrative. In its death throes, it will be much more dangerous. It’s not the 1930’s anymore. There is no bouncing back from this crash because it’s not only an economic crash created by over-production, banks, and corporations this time, but the crash of nature herself.

 MCR:  In the wake of the 2008 economic crash many politicians urged the stripping of regulations (particularly environmental ones) to spur economic growth and the stock markets pay close attention to quarterly economic reports but are totally unmoved by dire environmental forecasts. Are the short-term interests of capitalism completely incompatible with the long-term interests of a healthy planet? You mentioned earlier the ethical comfort sought by the Whole Foods shopper and it made me think of how that corporation’s CEO John Mackey wrote a book called Conscious Capitalism. Is such a thing possible?

SC: Just knowing that Mackey is an acolyte of Margaret Thatcher and is against a single payer health plan for his employees is quite enough information as to his ideas of compassionate capitalism.  He is a meat merchant who makes millions of dollars in profit by telling the public that meat is happy.  When the history of the struggle for animal rights is written, it will be interesting to find out how Mackey managed to sell animal bodies and be on the board of the Human Society of the United States, which stands for protecting animal bodies.  It stretches all credulity.

MCR:  Needless to say, you do not recommend Mackey’s book. Are there any books on the subject of animal rights that you do endorse?

SC: I have been honored to create covers for books by the founder of the animal rights movement Tom Regan and and Gary Francione, founder of the Abolitionist approach to animal rights. Both of these books, Empty Cages and Animal Rights the Abolitionist Approach respectively, are critical to understanding the struggle for animals in America. Along with theory and strategy and philosophy, my chosen form of interaction with ideas, is by making art.  Recording what I see, making some sense of it and asking people to look through my eyes at the scene, not at my eyes.

MCR:  Have your art and your activism always been intertwined or did your interest in one follow your interest in the other?

SC: Much of my work is done for activist purposes, to help the animals out. I am using printmaking as a fundraiser and educational tool. I did an image for a friend who is an animal rights lawyer who was very concerned with a drug that was being used on hogs. He provided the information and I made a simple linocut to communicate what he wanted to say. There are several examples of this kind of work in the Porkopolis exhibition. For this kind of work, where I am visually communicating someone else’s ideas, I have to consider what images activate people and make them feel curious to know more. These strategies change all the time. It is not a constant. The Porkopolis exhibition also contains a lot of work that is more about visual journalism where I draw in places I am not supposed to be. A record of the times. This work is the source of everything else.

MCR:  The Porkopolis: Animals and Industry exhibition is composed entirely of prints. Were you drawn to printmaking more for the power of the multiple as a means of distributing your ideas or for the graphic, gritty mark-making inherent to etching and woodcut that match the content of the imagery?

SC: Though I have created about a thousand images for prints, I don’t consider myself a printmaker because I don’t work on the production aspect. I carve the blocks and draw on the stones or plates but have no patience or skill for printing anything and have never taken a printmaking class. Woodcuts are like a puzzle, a different language, it’s not like other forms of printmaking where it’s a continuance of the artist’s technique and supplements painting and drawing.

A gas pipeline, a federal project, came through my land and they cut down thousands of trees. They said they could take the trees away but I thought they would be better piled up as homes for the animals. I did, however, have some of the trees cut into slices to make woodblocks. A Japanese woodcut artist said to ink and print the wood before carving it. Look at the grain and knots, and the bark, see what the wood wants to tell you and if the artist cannot think of anything better to say, not cut into the wood at all. Woodcut is very immediate and raw and I have always loved prints in terms of the strongest social political art. In Mexico City there are still portable presses that are wheeled out into the medieval squares and the customer gives the printers an order in the morning and by evening the job is all printed up. There is a good selection of political printmaking through history on   Museums have fetishized paintings because the artists and art were the rich man’s property, chosen to go with the sofa to pad rich bums, whereas works on paper are people’s art. They were the illustrations in newspapers and magazines, the cartoons and penny dreadfuls and broadsides and posters and postcards. Affordable, good for the day, aged fast, cast off and then another image was created. Plus, works on paper can escape over borders faster than a huge stretched canvas with wet oil paint catching the wind like a sail. I never felt like a real artist until I saw my illustration for a London Times job, wrapping up some chips and watched as the vinegar and pickled onions soaked through the newsprint.  Art has many functions and wrapping up fried food is not the least.

MCR:  Your unwavering commitment to content-driven work is one of the things I admire so much about you. Political art goes in and out of fashion but you never lose your edge. Have you ever been tempted to take a break from narrative work and let form drive the boat?

SC: Nope.  Form and content always chase each other around. In the best of times they are in balance, but when in doubt let content create the form. As Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” There is a lot of joy in making social political work. There are victories. It is not drudgery.  I have met so many activists from all over the world, with the bridge, the commonality, being art. Art can speak to people across walls and boundaries.

 MCR:   I am interested in how your work scales walls and crosses boundaries because while you have addressed many social justice concerns in your work that might attract a broad base of support, the one you are most identified with is animal rights in which you are swimming very much against the current of the dominant society. Still, your work emphasizing animal rights is what you are most identified with. Why do you think that is?

 SC: The work on HIV /AIDS was not popular at the time I did it, as people were ignorant of how the disease was transmitted.   Not popular either were the rape paintings and anti-apartheid work I made. The work I did against Monetarism/the first Bush regime went completely off the charts in not being popular. Before that, the miner’s strike and Greenham Common anti-nuclear work. In every one of those series I was asked by activists working on the front lines to cover the situation and bring exposure to the issue, which I did. It has all been unpopular. It was only last year that I went to the Whitney (Museum) and saw some of my AIDS-themed work hanging, and once MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) did hang my painting Woman Walks into Bar – Is Raped by Four Men on the Pool Table – While 20 Watch, and the anti-Apartheid drawing Peoples Republic. It was lovely to see my work hanging in a museum, but that came so long after the struggle. That work was made in the early 1980s. It took a long time for that work to gain widespread acceptance. The animal rights movement is in its first phase, which is education. Eventually there will be Abolition of all animal use. Art goes alongside any social justice struggle, absorbing like a sponge the push and pull of stepping forward and backward. My gallery, Galerie St. Etienne, understands the animal work is completely unpopular in terms of the art world (market) yet they persist in representing it because they understand that art history is a larger world. Private obsessions become public preoccupations. Censorship is mainly economic; not funding artists who go against the grain, in an attempt to silence them, but I have never been contained in one area of art, to be so controlled. I cover more than one side of the street. This agility was forced on me by having to earn a living, yet not being for sale.  My obsession is the animals and their freedom. There are many people like me all over the world.

 MCR:  Wow, of course you are completely right. I was thinking of the popularity of your previous work in terms of where public opinion stands today regarding AIDS research and compassion, the evil of apartheid, etc. The positions you strongly advocated in your work were often not only unpopular but dangerous when you made them, but have in many cases gained significant support since. How much progress have we made as a society concerning the ethical treatment of animals since you began the Porkopolis body of work?

SC: Progress is uneven and difficult to measure. There is a much greater awareness of animal suffering today, many more vegan dietary choices, many more minor victories in “treatment” of animals as units of production and commodities. Anything that does not threaten profit and the allotted function of animals as commodities, like car parts, that have been manipulated into this or that product, is chugging along very well on the “Compassionate Capitalism Express.”  Greater awareness, however, does not lead naturally to less animal suffering.  At some point, animal agriculture will be against the law and eating animals will be seen like smoking, something sad and semi-illegal, because there will be no choice. Animals are not property, they belong to themselves. Darwin understood that we are all literally genetic brothers and sisters of fur, fin and feather. We don’t need to breed animals just to murder them.

MCR:  It was stunning to me that animal agriculture was barely addressed in the recent Paris Agreement climate negotiations. When I heard no mention of it in the reporting that followed I mostly disregarded the entire agreement. Sadly, I can’t name one single political leader who is making a strong argument against animal agriculture. I don’t know if it’s because they’re scared of the meat and dairy lobbies or they can’t confront their own consumption. It is very disappointing. Former congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich is vegan but I don’t ever recall him talking about animal agriculture as a political issue.

SC: Same with me, disregarded it.  I think Kucinich is vegan for health reasons, but New Jersey Senator Corey Booker is an ethical vegan. Still, animals and nature have no representation in Congress.  This is my point about political animals. Animals exist within politics in the form of meat and dairy, as commodities, but not as persons. In that sense, they are chattel property and cannot ever see justice.  We must engage with power and put the pressure on, so Congress deals with us as a voting block, not as individual consumers.  Easier said than done.

MCR:  How did you come to see art as a tool for activism?

SC: I was always political since I could think, therefore was attracted to political art with strong content. That became my own work, making Op Ed art in newspapers and I slowly learned what worked in terms of activism/change and what didn’t, what resonated with the reader/viewer –  and it’s not always what the artist thinks will resonate.

MCR:  Can you give an example of what you’ve learned in terms of messages and images that resonate with your audience? Do you find yourself sometimes having to sacrifice what you want as an artist for what the work of art needs to succeed as activism?

SC: I don’t think one has to sacrifice their art to do social political work.  Ideally content and form should work together in tandem.  Being curious is the key to being effective and witnessing without power, as animals and artist tend to do.  To create change, one has to prepare to be changed.  Going into slaughterhouses to draw, or any structure like that, a prison, hospice, is the recognition that one has no power whatsoever, but what can come from the witnessing work, can create change.

MCR: Who are some of your art heroes?

SC: One of my artist heroes was possibly the most ignored artist in his own lifetime, William Blake. He never sold more than a few copies of his books. He was a revolutionary and wore the Communards cap to show he aligned himself with the French Revolution. He was a writer/poet, illustrator, book maker, broke all rules of printmaking, and existed in dire poverty. He was considered mad, yet worked with Mary Wollstonecroft. He created key images for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and understood that animals had rights. He was admired within a tiny group of intelligentsia.  He is reinvented and reinterpreted for every subsequent generation that needs him.

MCR: Your mention of Blake’s concern for the abolition of slavery and also the welfare of animals reminds me of a recent conversation I had with peace activist Paul Chappell. In it he drew several parallels between the institution of slavery and animal agriculture and believes that some day we will look back on our treatment of animals with a similar horror that we view slavery today. His own conversion was the result of an exercise he takes audiences through in his peace education lectures. He demonstrates how difficult it can be for many to recognize what contemporary behavior is morally wrong by asking the audience to argue with people throughout history who advocated positions we now consider unacceptable, such as refusing the right to vote to all white men in 18th century England, or the right of women to attend Harvard in the early 19th century, or the owning of slaves. After his lecture an audience member asked if he thought that factory farming and consumption of animals was the issue we are so wrong about right now and it was the first time he really considered the issue. After looking at it through the lens he had provided the audience he realized he had to be vegan in order not to be a hypocritical peace advocate.

SC: Yes, to be vegan is the bare minimum we owe animals.  There is nothing new in this debate. In the 1880’s there were debates about universal suffrage and Abolition of  Vivisection, and in that stew of revolution and new ideas lived Paine and Karl Marx and Darwin and Wollstonecroft, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Shelley and many others. All assumptions were being challenged, including that animals were of a ‘lower’ order.  Today we do need a new diet, but more importantly we need a new social order, that is fair, and this time around, Nature and Animals are not going to be shoved aside for human priorities. They can’t be.

MCR: Are you disheartened that the debate has been raging for more than 130 years and yet advocacy for animal suffrage is still considered a radical position? Or do you think that the new social order needed might come suddenly as a consequence of climate change? We’ve known about the seriousness of climate change for some time now, so it seems that it will take something cataclysmic for people to change their eating habits and drop pork futures from their 401K.

SC: No, I’m not disheartened, I’m angry. The holocaust against all animals continues unabated.  Our society always deals with the back end of the problem like adding more prisons while cutting back on education.  More guns instead of expanding mental health care.  We can’t outrun viruses and climate change. Our choice is either change or perish.

 MCR:  If your career as an artist was starting right now, would you still choose drawing, painting and printmaking as your primary mediums or would you be tempted by the reach of video and internet-based advocacy?

SC: No, not tempted. I love a cheap old pencil and a piece of paper, any scraps will do, and ink and paint and chisels and wood and how it all smells like wet dogs.  I don’t mind scanning and sending out digital files. Reaching so many people all over the world, and seeing their work in return, is nice.  Besides, if I use a search engine for the words Factory Farming, I find myself on page 2. Someone has to go outside, to probe for original material and not cannibalize digital stuff. If I were starting out now, I would avoid computers like the plague and learn how to survive off the grid.

MCR: What advice would you give to artists just starting out who want to do the kind of work you do and be the visual advocates for a new social order?

SC: Do forensic research. Be curious, observe and get the facts.  Be a visual journalist in your own unique way.

MCR: How about the young artist who wants to create with passion, but hasn’t found an issue they are passionate about?

SC: If you are alive you are passionate about something. Rather than search for the something, let the subject reveal itself to you.  If you let go of trying to be different, the difference you already represent will become apparent.  Orwell wrote a brilliant essay about being poor and having to washes dishes in restaurants. It is devastating in its simplicity and power.  Was he passionate about washing up? No. He was passionate about the injustice and poverty and low wages, but he detailed the work very precisely.

MCR: Finally, I am interested in your suggestion of living off the grid because it conjures images of frontier living with hunting, fishing, and trapping. If, or perhaps I should say when, climate change brings the kind of disasters that ultimately lead to a reordering of the way we live, how would you like it to look? Could you accept hunting as part of food gathering if it meant the end of factory farming?

SC: I do live off the grid, solar.  It’s not necessary to murder others to survive when you have the three sisters of corn, squash and beans.  Plants provide all the nutrients we need. If humans are included in the world of the future, let’s hope we have laws protecting other species from us. The Japanese woodcut artist Shiko Munakata did a print of hunters on horses, and if we look closely they have no bows or arrows because Munakata said they are hunting flowers with their hearts.

MCR: I love that. And I greatly admire you. Thank you very much for sharing your work and your thoughts. I hope you’ve planted some positive seeds of change here.

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