To kill like pets? Sharon Crosbie

Why Cats Paint: a theory of feline aesthetics
Heather Busch and Burton Silver
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, $34.95
ISBN 0 297 83351 0


Never mind the theory, for heaven’s sake, do cats need a reason? Do we need to know? More important, cutting to the chase, why do we want them to paint? That is the crux of it.

The book is a fantastic spoof. Busch and Silver are not as other people. Their seminal works on the interpretation of bird droppings and the art of paper penis covers (with character) have shown us that. This latest collaboration is smart and clever, beautifully produced, quality paper, classy illustrations blah blah blah. No, really!

But the questions raised by the book’s success are potentially far more interesting than the book itself. The reaction of lonely American cat lovers who wanted it to be true, the heavy‑handed television interviews in which we all pretended it might be, culminating in the latest absurd competition on TV3’s Animals and Us in which viewers were asked to guess if the book was for real all force us to confront challenging issues about our relationships with cats.

According to The New Republic, cats have become more popular than dogs in the United States: “In the stressful rush of the 90s, cats requiring less attention time yet emotionally responsive to humans have become the purr‑fect pet”.

But the article’s author, Richard Klein, sounds a note of warning, he argues that the growing importance of pets in our lives “and the anthropomorphic qualities with which we endow them may signal a troubling tendency to blur the distinction” between us and them with ethical and political consequences we may not welcome. “If pets are assumed to be civilised like humans, then humans may be presumed to kill like pets. If sweet little things … can kill without compunction or remorse, in high spirits, with good conscience and conscious delight, then why not the rest of us so much less good‑natured or refined?” Klein says it is necessary to stop humanising animals for fear that we start predicating animal attributes on humans. Ants and bees and wasps, after all, have well‑ordered societies but they are hierarchical, caste‑ridden and nasty for the majority.

So while Busch and Silver are stretching their joke like elastic, determined not to tell all in a hurry, the devoted cat lover might ponder the more troubling reading that could be had. (In the States pet superstores now offer poultry-flavoured toothpaste or sparkling water for pets in Tangy Fish and Crispy Beef flavours, according to Klein.)

In fact, the authors are determined to stay focused on feline aesthetics, taking sideswipes at the impenetrability of art criticism and catalogue‑speak all the while. They also manage to do this as well as reproduce that wonderfully cloying style beloved of some feature writers and dodgy biographers which reaches its pinnacle in Hello magazine:

“Over the last few years Wong Wong and LuLu (Siamese cats) have developed a close association with two horses, Alessandro and Lolita. The association is at once symbiotic and aesthetic. On cold mornings the cats will… spring up onto the generous rumps of the quietly grazing horses. There they perch, receiving and imparting warmth. On balmy afternoons they may take long, slow meandering wanders over the rolling hills, where high above the ground they can survey the land and discover new points of resonance. Each cat “owns” a horse and each is tonally attuned. Wong Wong to Alessandro. LuLu to Lolita, brown with brown, cream with cream, male with female, young with old.”

Puh‑lease! But it gets better.

“But all is not harmonious. There is a subtle power play here. To ride the high horse, to maintain the equilibrium of feline dignity and independence, the cat must remain poised. The horse also has its pride to maintain. It chooses who will sit on its back and who will not. Both cat and horse have positions to defend. The horse can remove the cat from its rump (the most comfortable, least slippery spot for the cat) with one flick of its tail. But if the cat is not ready to leave, if taken by surprise and unable to remain poised, its claws will instinctively bite in. To avoid this discomfort, the horse must warn the cat and that removes its power of surprise ‑ its ultimate control. The interplay is delicate, the relationship both delightful and unsettling. The resulting painting is acute and at times profound.”

GALLOPING 1993, painted on a green corrugated iron fence is such a work. “The evenly rippled iron provides its own topography, imbuing the painting with an immediate sense of place. The undulating corrugations are at once suggestive of rolling hills ‑ brightly lit tops and soft shallow valleys… It is on to this richly ambiguous surface that the paint is applied” … and on it goes.

Robert Hughes would recognise the style and have plenty to say about it, and he probably has, and about the spoof, too ‑ through clenched teeth.

Busch and Silver have pulled off a dazzling bit of high burlesque and legerdemain. But cats are fastidious creatures and I can’t believe they would tolerate the paws‑in‑the-paint routine. Of course, Silver, being the animal lover that he is, must have relied on computer graphics, rather than catsploitation. He’d hardly risk the shudder that went round the world when it was rumoured that Mr Ed the talking horse had his lips wired. (Was that true?)

So readers, gullible or cynical can have a good time. But the reason for the passion some of us feel for warm furry bodies is still a mystery. The cats won’t tell us but Dunedin writer Molly Anderson has had a go. Her book, Household Gods a series of interviews with otherwise sensible people in responsible jobs, in which she attempts to discover why they are ga‑ga about their mogs (I declare an interest here), will be published this year by Hazard Press and should at least give psychology a starting point.

Sharon Crosbie likes cats and is chief executive of New Zealand Public Radio.

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