Unforgiving, Compassionate Eye
Book Review by Cat Clyne
Pictures and text used by
permission of Four Walls Eight Windows.An Unforgiving Compassionate
Sheep bleat after their throats are cut. They writhe.
Every part of my being says to stop it, save them, which is impossible.
I think of "art" and how I am going to draw it all. Will anything
change when people see? This "art" thought comes so quickly
after the failed rescue thought, as an attempt to comfort myself, like
the idea of the "spirit" of the animal going on to another
place. I feel sick and my legs are shaking.
The downer is too heavy to get up. She cries as a chain is attached
to her leg, and a winch drags her along the ground to a truck. I can
see her skin rubbing off, and her bones grinding into the pavement.
I can see the white of exposed bone and blood. She can’t lift
her head up, so her head, ear, and eye start to tear on the stone. I
watch the man operating the winch, and he looks impatient. I start to
think of school songs, so my eyes still see but my brain is occupied...As
she reaches the truck, the cow rolls over, exposing her udders, which
are full of milk. This is the total degradation of a life.
Dead Meat by Sue Coe (Four Walls Eight Windows) 192 pages.
$22.00 paperback; $45 cloth. Black and white and color illustrations
Dead Meat is a record of the blood, sweat and tears that artist Sue
Coe experienced and witnessed over the past decade. Coe took it upon
herself to embark upon a project where she gained access to slaughterhouses
and meatpacking plants throughout North America and her native England,
drawing and writing down what she saw, heard and experienced. Back in
the studio, Coe blended together her drawings and notes to produce intense,
horrific and stunningly moving images of factory farming reality. Dead
Meat incorporates reproductions of this artwork interspersed almost
randomly with narratives written by the artist. The treasure of Dead
Meat, perhaps, is the reproductions of selected pages from Coe’s
actual journals, where one has a rare look at the mind and perspective
of the artist. Coe, currently a resident of New York, has been a regular
contributor of politically conscious illustrations to the New York Times,
the New Yorker, and The Nation. In 1994 she had major solo exhibitions
at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and at Galerie St. Etienne
in New York City.
Although much of the art in Dead Meat is in dark tones of black, brown,
gray and white, with shocks of bloody red, there is no easy black and
white. The theme throughout is complexity. To be sure, Coe’s art
reflects the immense suffering of the animals — cows, horses,
pigs, sheep, goats and chickens — and their fate as animals destined
for slaughter: the fear, the misery, the sheer horror. But also addressed
is the pain of the humans involved, their faces — sad, tired,
frustrated, and angry. Confronted by such painful images, one is drawn
to wonder: why do we do this to each other? What does this do to the
doer? And what has brought us all to this point? In a most subtle way,
Coe’s images beckon the viewer to always keep in mind the challenging
question of the responsibility of society as a whole for the horror
Let’s take as an example the piece "Debeaking."
In a dark room, a man crouches at a long table over a weird machine.
On the floor to his left is a wire garbage basket filled with white
fluffy chicks, their black eyes opened wide. On his right is a garbage
basket with a few chicks with red splotches on their faces. A single
light bulb illuminates his gnarled hands. In his right he holds the
head of a chick to the machine which cuts off her beak, her feet tense
with pain. In his left he holds poised another chick to immediately
follow. On the floor just to his right a little chick stumbles, her
head bent while blood gushes to the floor. Little bits of orange beak
are scattered about the table in front of the machine and in the man’s
lap. In the background sits a radio partially in view (blaring Led Zeppelin,
perhaps). Two circular images are superimposed: at the bottom, a close-up
of a debeaked chick, her mouth beginning and ending in a bloody stub,
her eye half closed in agony; at the top, a portrait of two grown hens,
with mutilated snouts, their eyes gleaming wild and angry.
This scene is horrible enough for the hens, but on closer inspection,
the viewer is drawn to reflect on the man. He’s a large dark figure,
his humped back to us. All we see of his face is a closed, tired eye.
The rest is obscured by a hulking shoulder and baseball cap. We begin
to wonder how it feels to do that all day long — crouched over
a machine, grabbing helpless baby birds and crunching off their beaks?
Even the loudest music could not drown out the misery.
Coe is an important artist because in her art there is a sense of urgency,
almost desperation, that something very real is at stake here. She is
a prophet trying to "wake us up." "My quest — to
be a witness to understanding collusion — has become like a mirror
facing a mirror," she explains. "I require witnesses. Reality
has to be shared for it to be understood. Yet it is a contradiction:
to witness what is concealed forces one into more isolation and solitude."
What is at stake in Dead Meat is not only the very lives of the animals,
but also our naiveté. By revealing the daily horror that goes
on behind the forbidding walls of stockyards and slaughterhouses, Coe’s
art bears witness to the unseen, the unheard — making it finally
known. The images give voice to the voiceless, thus ripping away the
fragile levels of denial that we as a society operate under. The art
itself bears witness to the travesty that is the entire business of
meat, suddenly making us responsible for an everyday "norm"
in our society — factory farming. But we are dissociated from
the very source of food. Through neat little packages in supermarkets
and an enormous meat and dairy industry that understands the power of
silence, all the animals are removed from sight and sound, rendered
Coe’s work recalls the best of the German Expressionists, in her
social and political awareness. The expressions on the faces of the
slaughterhouse and stockyard workers evoke the twisted figures in the
works of George Grosz and Otto Dix. In Coe’s "Electrocution,"
a man looks up, caught in the act of electrocution, while holding two
prongs to the base of the neck of a pig lying helpless on the floor.
The man’s face is contorted, eyes stressed, mouth agape in a confused
frown. His expression reflects, all at once, guilt, horror and confusion.
One can almost hear him groaning. Another man leans away from the action,
suggesting an accomplice to murder. But then, of course, that is exactly
what it is: murder.
More important, perhaps, is the resonance in Coe’s art of Käthe
Kollwitz. Coe seems to have had a sort of laying-on-of-hands from Kollwitz
in more ways than one. In the exhibition "Sue Coe’s Ship
of Fools" at Galerie St. Etienne last month, there was a series
of drawings of Coe’s dying mother. Like the exquisite charcoal
drawings by Kollwitz in "The Last 11 Days" series, Coe’s
paper seems to emerge out of the dying hands which at the same time
embody the grief of the artist bearing witness to her mother’s
The joy of the exhibition is that it reflected the growth of the artist,
something Dead Meat fails to attempt, even though it reflects a decade
of work. Coe’s early works portrayed a simplistic Marxist black
and white polemic of good and evil. Over the years, her art has shown
a depth and complexity, reflecting broader social issues. Again, like
Kollwitz, Coe uses primarily black and white tones to convey simple
images. But it is within this apparent simplicity that the force of
the art lies.
"Goat Outside Slaughterhouse" portrays the side profile of
a young black goat. Her mouth is turned down in a barely perceptible
frown, her brown eye stares out sadly, nervously. A tag with the number
698 is neatly attached by a hole punched through her ear, like a piece
of merchandise in a store. It is not the number that makes her so precious
and unique; it is her life. This piece invites the viewer to feel the
utter hopelessness of the goat’s situation, the realization that
she is a piece of merchandise.
The shocking images of butchers killing animals with knives and guns,
and distorted bleeding bodies hanging on hooks over an assembly line
brings to Coe’s mind images of the Holocaust. Coe addresses her
ambivalence about the use of this reference. "Is this the comforting
measuring rod by which all horrors are evaluated?" she asks. "My
annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that the suffering I am witnessing
now cannot exist on its own. It has to fall into the hierarchy of a
‘lesser animal suffering.’ " She contends that millions
of murdered humans "deserve to be more than a reference point,"
and admits, "I am annoyed that I don’t have more power in
communicating what I’ve seen apart from stuttering: ‘It’s
like the Holocaust.’ "
The Holocaust is a very important reference, when used carefully and
with great sensitivity. It is a reference which can succinctly bring
Coe’s narrative full circle.
Coe begins the book’s narration by describing her childhood living
near a pig slaughterhouse. "As a child, I thought they would slaughter
all the pigs they had, then stop. I didn’t understand the regularity
of it." The power of the Holocaust as a reference is the undeniable
horror it invokes in people. However, regarding factory farm animals,
the reality of the nightmare lies in the fact that the difference between
factory farming and the Holocaust is that one is a perpetually sustained
industry of mass murder and the other was the planned genocide of a
people with the end result being the "final solution." When
the "boss" of a meatpacking company in New Jersey recollects
an accident in which a truck flipped over, killing 250 goats and sheep,
he moans "All that money...lost." But he smiles and says,
"they still keep coming...How can there be so many?" This
is precisely the crux of the horror: they do keep coming with banal
regularity, to feed an insatiable appetite. There is no final solution,
It is perhaps ironic that an essay by journalist Alexander Cockburn
follows a preface to Dead Meat written by renowned animal advocate Tom
Regan, where we are invited to take responsibility for the suffering
of animals by abstaining from meat. In his essay, Cockburn fires through
an eclectic history of the destruction of the environment of the Americas
by greedy capitalist Europeans; contends that humans are "essentially
vegetarian as a species;" and makes weak connections in a recounting
of animal advocacy during the Nazi regime. Cockburn wraps things up
on a "personal note" by admitting that he eats meat and giving
a genealogy of the corpses he has recently consumed, naming them and
pointing out that they came from a friendly local farm — a flimsy
attempt to justify his complicity in the suffering of animals. This
essay unfortunately undermines the message of Coe’s book and Regan’s
preface which is that meat equals suffering. Cockburn overlooks the
fact that the animals he ate were named by humans and would have opted
for a gentler fate. Coe’s artwork, however, makes up for the weaknesses
of the book. She very well may have intended Cockburn’s essay
as a further reflection of complexity.
I recommend Dead Meat as required reading and viewing for vegetarians
and meat eaters alike, because it attempts to address very complicated
issues. The reasons why non-vegetarians should read it may seem obvious,
since it forces the reader to make connections between animals and meat.
The reasons why vegetarians should read it may seem less obvious. Dead
Meat certainly validates vegetarianism; however, that is not the
most important reason. Coe tries very hard to make connections with
the people involved in the meat industry. She quotes them, gives them
names, faces and personalities. She finds herself concerned for their
wellbeing as well as that of the animals. Coe opens the door not only
to the beginning of a comprehension of the endless nightmare of factory
farming; she also opens the door to vegetarians to develop an understanding
of and a sensitivity for the people involved in the meat industry. In
this, Coe creates the possibility of dialogue. Only through an attempt
at understanding, on both sides, can the situation as a whole be bettered.
Cat Clyne is a long-time vegetarian and animal
advocate. She lives in Manhattan with her feline companion, Leon.