Although many avant-garde artists in our century have espoused radical political views, only a handful have dared to consistently critique the capitalist socio-economic system, not so much biting their feeders as seeking succor from sources beyond the dominant power structure. In addition to being lured by the rewards that society dangles before the talented--money and celebrity foremost among them--politically inclined artists often succumb to the conservative tug of middle age. Storming the barricades, after all, is a youthful activity, and one can hardly fault an artist like Otto Dix for yielding to the financial imperatives of marriage and fatherhood. Then, too, reality can offer a strong "corrective" to one's youthful enthusiasms, as Hitler did in the case of Dix and his left-leaning contemporaries, and as the fall of the Soviet empire did for many who believed in a Marxist alternative to the capitalist machine.
In our time, Sue Coe is one of those rare artists who not only have sustained their original political passions, but have grown and developed with the passing years. The work with which she first made her mark on the East-Village scene in the 1980s is very reminiscent of early Dix and also George Grosz: burning with righteous anger and polemicism. Then, as later, Coe had an unerring instinct for anticipating significant issues well ahead of the public: her book How to Commit Suicide in South Africa (1983) became an anti-apartheid organizing tool on college campuses, and X (published in 1986) prefigured by many years the resurgence of popular interest in Malcolm X.
However, it was undoubtedly her Porkopolis series, begun in 1986 and finally published ten years later under the title Dead Meat, that provided for the most complex synthesis of political issues as well as for Coe's transformation as an artist. In this in-depth analysis of the meat industry, the artist went well beyond conventional animal-rights concerns to expose the corruption of an entire system, its exploitation of workers, its destruction of the environment and its contamination of the food chain. The message was simply that the animals are us, just as surely as we are animals, and that a system which chews up living beings will finally not draw a line between the human and the nonhuman.
Porkopolis was a relatively quiet group of pictures compared to Coe's earlier body of work. While Dead Meat contained a number of poster-like images that could (and did) rally animal-rights activists, the series as a whole was most powerful when it spoke subtly, through example and indirection. Coe had learned that simply bearing witness is sometimes more effective than shouting invectives. With Porkopolis, she reached maturity in both artistic and human terms. Rather than rushing to judgment, she endeavored to understand and explain; rather than blaming, she endeavored to practice compassion.
Coe's latest picture cycle, The Pit, begun approximately three years ago, represents a logical step forward from Porkopolis. Inspired by William Hogarth's allegorical series The Four Stages of Cruelty, The Pit attempts to examine the very origins of evil. Hogarth's four engravings, executed in 1750, follow the story of one Thomas Nero from boyhood (where he is seen torturing animals) to adulthood (where he murders his pregnant lover) and finally death (where he himself becomes the subject of a vicious autopsy in the name of "science"). Though packed with symbolic vignettes that require decoding for a modern audience, The Four Stages of Cruelty is clear in its equation of animal abuse with human degradation. The institutionalization of cruelty in play, sport, work and science exists as a continuum, and those who practice abusive behavior in its seemingly more benign forms will eventually fall prey to evil's basest manifestations.
As suggested by its subtitle, "The Tragical Tale of the Rise and Fall of a Vivisector," The Pit tells a biographical story roughly parallel to that recounted in Hogarth's prototype. However, The Pit, consisting of over thirty mixed-media drawings (including three mural-sized allegories that set off the smaller descriptive works), is a far more nuanced and complex narrative. It invites sympathy for its doomed protagonist, Pat Watson, plots his demise in poignant detail, and even finds room for cogent digressions on animal shelters and primate research. And while The Pit, like Hogarth's cycle, is unquestionably a morality tale, its tone is gentler and less preachy.
The key humanizing element in Coe's narrative is the eponymous Pit (a Pit Bulldog), who represents Pat's better instincts while at the same time establishing an unequivocal emotional link with the animal kingdom. Coe had originally considered focusing on primates (who are our closest genetic kin, and, like dogs, are frequently used in laboratory experiments), but she felt that her audience would identify much more fully with a dog, which after all is the most completely domesticated subspecies. Like Tom Nero, Pat Watson begins his journey down the road to destruction by tormenting helpless animals and then progresses to human beings (a homeless woman, a mentally handicapped girl) before landing his plum assignment as a vivisector at Eden Biotechnologies Ltd. Yet at the same time, loyalty to his dog Pit prevents Pat from succumbing entirely to his worst temptations (he will not shoot deer or let the dog fight other Pit Bulls). It is only after Pit is taken from him that Pat completely loses his moral compass and, goaded by banal ambition, allows himself to become fodder for the biotechnology lab. When Pat himself, having contracted a deadly disease at the lab, is subjected to scientific experimentation, the circle is completed.
The Pit is essentially a study in the nature of collusion. Why, Coe wants to know, do people ignore their better natures to abet evil? In The Pit, she offers a number of possible answers: because church and state have for millennia conspired to enforce a hierarchy of being in which men have dominion over all weaker creatures; because the institutionalization of cruelty progressively inures people to pain; because those who go along with the system are rewarded and those who refuse are punished or simply passed over. The corporate marketplace, in Coe's view, cannibalizes everything for the sake of short-term profit, and those who collude are its choicest victims. The Pat Watsons of the world are in this sense subjects of the ultimate scientific experiment: they have taken the bait and abandoned their integrity for the sake of a system that will use and then discard them. The Pit does not provide any reassuring ideological solutions to Pat's dilemma, for society at present does not offer any. Coe rather asks us each as individuals to question why we acquiesce in an economic scheme which appears to serve us while at the same time robbing us of our most basic rights.