The 1976 film Network tells the story of Howard Beale, a television newscaster who rebels against the debasement of his profession. The plot foreshadows much that has since become commonplace in the media: the concentration of control in huge global conglomerates such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation; the transformation of news into “infotainment”; and even the advent of “reality” television. On the verge of being fired for an excess of integrity, Beale recognizes that his network platform nonetheless gives him enormous leverage, and he instructs his audience to go to their windows and scream into the streets, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!” The image of hundreds of citizens doing just that is the film’s climactic moment, an explosive evocation of individual empowerment.
Sue Coe arrived in the United States from her native England in 1972, four years before Network was released. Trained as an illustrator at the Royal College of Art, she went straight to The New York Times, where she immediately landed her first assignment. The print media at the time still commanded enormous power and respect. Cable television was in its infancy, and the Internet did not yet exist. The Times was riding a moral high that began in 1971 with its publication of the Pentagon Papers and continued with its coverage of the Watergate scandal. At the same time, the paper’s revamped op-ed page, launched in 1970, gave editorial illustrators an unprecedented opportunity to publish politically trenchant work.
Though Coe found steady work doing illustrations for the Times, Time Magazine, The New Yorker and other prominent publications, she was no more comfortable in her media niche than the fictional Howard Beale. There were constant arguments with editors, constant demands to tone down her work, and the underlying fact that she could not set her own assignments. Being a “fine” artist was an economic luxury Coe did not think she could afford, but in her spare time she began to create work on topics of her own devising. Relishing the freedom to explore subjects in depth, she produced series on the Ku Klux Klan, apartheid and Malcolm X. By 1983, she had enough work for a solo exhibition at PPOW, a recently founded gallery in the newly trendy East Village. That same year Coe’s first book, How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, was published.
Influenced by feminism, gay rights, the AIDS epidemic and opposition to the right-wing policies of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, the ‘80s art world was exceptionally hospitable to work with a political agenda. Sue Coe became something of an “art star,” collected by major players like Elaine Dannheiser, Eli Broad and Jerry Speyer, and featured on the cover of ARTnews. Coe continued the activist tradition of artists like Daumier and Goya, melding the polemicism of George Grosz with the poignant realism of Käthe Kollwitz. Coe’s work was very different from the more conceptually oriented art of contemporaries like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger or Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Steeped in rarified postmodern theory, much contemporary political art delivered its message in the form of metaphorical one-liners that affirmed the viewer’s sense of moral superiority without disturbing his or her complacency.
Over a hundred years ago, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos observed that art is not an armchair. The latter is made for comfort, the former, ideally, should provoke discomfort. This belief inspired many of the Austrian and German Expressionists, and found its ultimate outlet in the politicized art produced during the Weimar era and the Great Depression. The Cold War period, however, saw a deliberate tamping down of such political (and for the most part left-wing) art. The revered British art historian Kenneth Clark went so far as to equate political art with pornography. “To my mind art exists in the realm of contemplation,” he declared. “The moment art becomes an incentive to action, it loses its true character.” Even in the relatively activist 1980s, the art world’s overriding agenda remained contemplative and divorced from visceral reality.
Sue Coe pictures a reality so discomfiting that the viewer feels compelled either to act or to withdraw in shame. Her artistic and political goals are deeply intertwined, resting on the belief that capitalism’s single-minded pursuit of profit is profoundly and ineradicably hostile to life. By exposing capitalism’s hidden costs, Coe’s work endeavors to undermine the denial that permits this toxic system to survive. Racism and slavery, encapsulating the reduction of human beings to their commodity value, were thus central issues in her early work. War, both in its grisly specifics and its generic ubiquity, is another example of human sacrifice in service to the profit motive. A further leitmotif in Coe’s work has been the industrial degradation of the natural environment: sometimes dramatic, but often so incremental as to be barely perceptible.
By the late 1980s, Coe faced an artistic and political crossroads. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were busily dismantling the systemic brakes on capitalism that had been imposed in the wake of the Great Depression, but it was difficult to find effective visual correlatives for the economic theories of Milton Friedman. Coe also recognized that there were limits to how far she could go in depicting subjects, such as South African apartheid, of which she had no actual personal experience. Instead, she turned to a topic that had haunted her ever since, as a child, she’d witnessed a pig’s terrified escape from a nearby slaughterhouse. The horrors hidden within that seemingly innocuous building perfectly expressed, literally and metaphorically, the concealed horrors of capitalism. The more she looked into it, the more Coe realized that the modern meat industry epitomizes capitalism’s worst moral failings. She saw parallels to war and slavery in the torture and killing of sentient creatures, and untold environmental costs in the means and methods of animal agriculture. Moreover, the meat industry was neither remote nor theoretical. Coe here found an injustice she could directly confront and attempt to eliminate.
Coe’s meat work was first exhibited, under the title “Porkopolis,” at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1989. The artist’s coverage of the industry gradually expanded from hogs to cows to chickens, and was ultimately compiled in her award-winning 1996 book, Dead Meat. A subsequent book, Pit’s Letter (2002), explores our conflicted relationship with animals through the fictional story of Pat, a bench-tech at a lab conducting animal experiments, who discovers his beloved childhood pet among the lab’s victims. In 2005, Coe shifted her focus to the globalization of the meat industry. Sheep of Fools, her next book, chronicled the transport of live sheep from Australia to the Halal slaughterhouses of the Middle East, under conditions that recall the slave galleys of yore. Around this time, Coe also began publishing shorter pictorial essays in the comix quarterly Blab! Some of the sheep work initially appeared here, as did examinations of avian influenza and the plight of circus elephants. Over time, Coe developed channels parallel to the mainstream art world—through independent publication, lectures, guest-teaching, exhibitions and collaboration with animal rights activists—that allowed her to engage directly with a broad audience.
During these past twenty-five years, Coe’s work has undergone a number of stylistic changes. Concealing her political agenda and instead citing the precedents of Rembrandt and Soutine (who both painted carcasses), the artist gained access to slaughterhouses, where she was confronted by a hellish parallel universe: a cacophony of machinery and animals’ shrieks; an overwhelming stench; omnipresent blood. These personal experiences imbued Coe’s work with a new level of realism. “Porkopolis” included mural-sized pieces that, recalling the labyrinthine architecture of Piranesi, function like autonomous environments, as well as small-scale drawings that provide intimate glimpses of the animals’ and workers’ worlds. While Coe continued to make polemical works, scrawled with slogans in support of animal rights, she was chiefly interested in the process of witnessing. “Yo lo vi” (I saw this), Goya wrote on one of the plates in his Disasters of War series. The artist’s presence at the scene lends the image a reportorial authority that makes it difficult to ignore.
Except for an occasional jolt of flamboyant red, Coe’s initial meat work was largely devoid of color. She grew out of the tradition described by the German artist Max Klinger, who believed that social and political themes are best expressed in black and white. Nonetheless, Coe was intrigued by the ability of color to augment a subject’s realism and emotional resonance, to convey both objectivity and subjectivity. She had always been interested in visual narratives, and she found that color helped her conjure nightmarish scenarios reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch or Breughel. Long a master of gouache and graphite, Coe began to experiment with oil. Her series on elephants (2007-08) was the first to include a number of canvases. While Coe’s paintings can be grandly dramatic, some of the most successful are relatively intimate, such as a recent sequence depicting fish and fish markets.
Much of what Coe told us in “Porkopolis” and Dead Meat is today common knowledge: Torturously tiny quarters, like battery cages for hens and gestation crates for veal, are the norm in animal agriculture. Close confinement fosters disease, requiring that the animals be heavily dosed with antibiotics, which enter the human food chain and there help breed resistant bacteria. Furthermore, mutations in animal diseases, like the swine and bird flus, permit deadly viruses to jump the species barrier and infect humans. Not only is animal agriculture a massive source of fecal matter and other pollutants, but the industry is tremendously inefficient. It takes 16 pounds of grain and over 12,000 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. Also well documented are the adverse health effects—in terms of cholesterol, coronary artery disease and obesity—of a diet too rich in animal protein and fat.
Sue Coe’s latest book, Cruel (published in April by OR Books), attempts to take these arguments to the next level. The artist sees a stark choice between accommodation and abolition. She is dismayed that leaders of the animal protection movement have begun collaborating with the meat industry to incrementally improve the conditions of food animals. In her view, such halfway measures do not address the inherent injustice of a system that breeds, tortures and kills living creatures for human consumption. Nor do labels like “cage-free,” “free-range” and “organic” have any impact on the lives of most farm animals. The “locavore” and “happy meat” movements merely add another, premium level to the food industry’s existing market. For Coe, the core issue is the human desire for power and control over other living creatures. “Humans are at war with animals,” she explains, “and unlike other wars, where there is an eventual ceasefire and release of prisoners, this is a holocaust that will end with the extermination of all life. We are experiencing the sixth biggest die-off of species in the planet's history.” Both ethically and practically, in Coe’s view, the only solution is to end the production and slaughter of food animals. “All social justice movements ultimately strive for abolition,” she declares.
The current exhibition juxtaposes work from Cruel and “Porkopolis” with a selection of paintings and drawings on other subjects, in the process tracing Coe’s artistic development from the start of her career in the 1980s and situating the meat work in the broader context of capitalism. Overall, the presentation offers a scathing indictment of the exploitation by the strong of the weak, from the battlefield to the farmyard, from Johannesburg to the American heartland. Many of the earliest works employ a collage technique, in which provocative texts are pasted, like ransom notes, into the images. The art in Cruel adopts a similar tone, often combining graphic, horrific images with incendiary slogans. The artist’s anger is palpable.
Yet the evident anger of Sue Coe’s work belies a fundamental optimism: that the process of witnessing is enough to inspire change; that if people only knew the truth, they would change. Certainly these past twenty-five years have not been easy for critics of capitalism, which has lacked any effective ideological opposition since the fall of the Soviet empire. During the Cold War era, capitalism and democracy were considered the inseparable twinned foes of totalitarian Communism. But the Great Recession has made it abundantly clear that unrestrained free-market capitalism stifles democracy by creating unequal access to wealth and power. Coe, who recently became an American citizen, places great faith in grassroots democracy. “You have to communicate with your elected representatives at least once a day,” she declares. “It’s like cleaning your teeth; it’s good mental hygiene.” The animal rights movement is gradually progressing from its first phase, education, to its second, involving legislation and public policy. The Internet provides a fantastic organizing tool, making it possible to reach a global audience in seconds and acting as an effective counter to media titans like Rupert Murdoch. “For everything the corporate machine can do to us,” says Coe, “we still have the power combat it. The present situation is very, very hopeful.”
Copies of Sue Coe’s new book, Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation (208 pages, with color illustrations throughout), may be purchased from the gallery for $25.00 in paperback or $75.00 for the deluxe, signed hardcover edition. Please add $8.00 to cover postage and handling; New York residents, please also add sales tax.