Taxidermy in Trouble, Part 3

A moral conviction, in taxidermy or other matters, leads more often to orthodoxy than clarity.

From that Cleveland Plain Dealer article on one boutique’s taxidermy class, mentioned in Part 1:

“Having a young designer doing taxidermy made me think of the cute mice in the movie ‘Dinner for Schmucks’ and not animals hunted for the purpose of stuffing them,” [shop owner] Squire said. “That does not appeal to me in any way.”

Squire’s giving voice to a recurrent bit of sanctimony among new, urban taxidermists: that one’s material come from “ethically sourced” animals (i.e., roadkill, deceased pets, pets killed at the vet’s, pets frozen into food for other pets). It’s like buying meat at Whole Foods, and it’s about reassurance. Taxidermy isn’t about dominion necessarily, but it’s a display of our dominion over the animal kingdom. Like it or not, animals have yet to find a way to skin us and pose us in zoomorphic tableaux. It’s icky and gross, this realization, but not half as gross as working rhetorically hard to convince yourself otherwise.

From that Jezebel article also mentioned:

If you ever taxidermized a thing before, you know where the “X-eyes” of death in cartoons come from, and you’re familiar with that feeling you have by time you actually get to them, when you poke around the socket and squeeze them out and replace them with a bead or pushpin or other tiny human-created nugget, which is that you actually feel like you’re doing the thing a favor because it looks approximately one thousand percent less dead, and then you realize you’ve just landed in the Venn Diagram overlap of funeral home embalmers and serial killers. Oops!

Cheers to her proper verbing. Jeers to “approximately one thousand percent.” And neither cheers nor jeers to her warmly embraced act of dominion here. It’s very hard to argue that any animal is done a favor by being skinned and posed for our visual pleasure. Trust me, I tried. But it’s an available lie to tell ourselves as a way to justify the work we do as taxidermists, and so let’s all repeat it: taxidermy is a way to honor a dead animal.

An erotics of the animal has taken over what in taxidermy has been more simply a bucolics of it. It’s an inevitability once taxidermy drifts to an urban center, and it’s good. Everyone wants to see an artform grow and complicate its messages. If rogue taxidermy, or all taxidermy for that matter, involved the kind of stuffed animals you see in the work of Robert Marbury, we’d have no problem. No trouble worth covering in three prolix posts. But it involves dead animals, which seem to warrant a different treatment than do charcoal, oil, bronze, or polyester.

What’s happened as a result of this shift from rural to urban has been that the animal taxidermized has gone from subject to object. I’ve come to find traditional taxidermy much better at handling its inherent acts of dominion, honoring the animal not as species representative (though for sure this was the goal of museum collections), but as individual. Non-hunters cringe at the notion of a hunter wanting to capture an animal precisely the way it looked the moment before the kill, but this is a way to honor the animal as it was: a subject. I don’t see this as much in rogue taxidermy (though to be fair, some artists work with or on dead pets by way of commemoration). There, the animal is no longer itself, but rather a fetish object to get at some grander subject. Namely the artist’s vision.

It’s grosser. Not more macabre, but more vain. Here’s how that Jezebel article ends:

The next day, while drinking with a friend, I told him what I’d made and how I couldn’t wait to hang it up on my wall.

“That might be a boner killer,” he said.

I was drunk and replied “I don’t give a fuck.” I’m sober now. Still don’t!

I can’t tell you why women predominate the world of rogue taxidermy, except to lump the artform into the rise of crafting that’s happened concurrent with the rise of digital culture. This is an adolescent argument, I know. Why it is may not be as important as that it is. In my years of talking with traditional taxidermists, I met two who were women. There are many others out there, but men predominate that field. Ditto the field of hunting. To go back to Squire’s disdain for hunted animals, it’s worth noting that most traditional taxidermists don’t kill the animals they work on. Those animals are delivered to them dead, often already skinned, by hunters who kill for all kinds of honorable and bullshit reasons. (One study put the number of hunters who kill for meat and other supplies at 43.8 percent of the total.)

It’s wrong to assert that mounting a mouse that has been gassed to death in a lab for snakefood is somehow more humane or ethical than mounting a deer that has been shot in the head by a rifle. (Or roadkill. I mean: it’s roadkill. It’s been killed by a person.) The difference is that a deer mounted as a trophy has most often been killed by a man, and a man with the intent to kill. Snakefood’s killed by an ungendered lab worker as some weird human intervention into the food chain so’s to keep alive an animal caged for human enjoyment.

Human enjoyment. Artists’ visions. The vision of the rogue taxidermist goes not to nature but to the self. What else might this animal be? Might it be used to look more like me? It’s, like all taxidermy, an act of utter domination and control. You are not for me, you’re of me. Turning a cat into a horned cat-fish-eagle hybrid monster is heralded for its vision and not what, on the bald surface, it is: turning a pet into a monster. Taxidermy was improved and perfected over centuries to better serve the animal in, sure, the interests of the human. These days, taxidermy serves only the human, and that’s why we’re in trouble.

3 thoughts on “Taxidermy in Trouble, Part 3”

  1. Just letting you know that I read and enjoyed all three parts of this series.

    Also, I’d quibble with your argument that there’s no ethical difference between different animal-killing scenarios. A mouse killed for pet food is killed for a purpose, at least, meaning its death was not entirely in vain (not to mention that snakes eat mice in nature, making the scenario a manipulation of the normal food chain). A sport hunter who goes to Africa to shoot a lion that’s been released from a cage kills for no purpose other than enjoyment and/or self-aggrandizement. Those two scenarios are not ethically equivalent.

  2. Thank you for the excellent article.

    Regarding mice killed for snake food: At what point does it become mice killed for taxidermy? Especially in light of the now rampantly trendy mouse taxidermy classes? Personally, I don’t see an ethical difference but am irritated but the lame excuse for claims of moral superiority.

    Perhaps you will do a part 4 to ponder the ironies of Vegan Taxidermy and Cruelty Free Taxidermy?

    One thing I would like to point out: “Rogue Taxidermy” was just a contemporary phrase concocted as a marketing device. I shudder when I hear it the phrase “legitimized” by common acceptance and use.

  3. I think there’s an ethical difference in killing, but not in mounting. The existence of taxidermists doesn’t lead people to hunt. Does it lead them to go after big game, because the trophies they can get are more glamorous? I don’t think so. The photograph of the kill in the field is usually all the hunter wants, and hunters have been going after big game before trophy taxidermy was a thing.

    My complaint is with this notion that taxidermists who use only ethically killed animals can claim a moral superiority over taxidermists who mount hunted animals. And my concern is that underlying this claim is a sense of class superiority, too.

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