Sue Coe’s art is stark, polemical, and gruesome—and beautiful in spite of itself.
Me Drawing in a Slaughterhouse, from Sue Coe’s new book, Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation
shocking as Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle 90 years earlier. Both capturedthe horror of the slaughterhouse while critiquing the underlying barbarity ofcapitalism. This month, OR Books is publishing an update called Cruel: BearingWitness to Animal Exploitation ($25), which draws on Coe’s “life” inslaughterhouses and stockyards, tackling subjects that she didn’t feelqualified to deal with earlier—such as the infectious diseases that are nowsystemic in industrialized food and can spread globally in a matter of days. Iasked Coe to discuss the artistic, aesthetic, and moral implications of a
subject that has occupied more than 20 years of her life.
Since the publication of the original book, do you believe you’ve made a marked impact on behavior? You’ve turned me off red meat forever.Absolutely. My art has made thousands of people vegetarian or vegan. It is saidthat one needs to hear the truth ten times before one can change, and my workmay have been lucky and been that tenth time. More important, my inspiration isother animal-rights activists, so I consider myself part of a team that is muchlarger than any one painting or drawing. The people I know are trulycourageous. I am just an artist standing behind them, part of a team that will
never give up, never stop working, a team that the meat industry and its paidlobbyist lackeys fear very much.
You’ve used your art toexamine and illuminate very difficult issues—AIDS treatment in the thirdworld is another. And you put yourself into the situations you address. Howdo you prepare? The majority of humans in this world are forced to witnesswithout power. When I enter a place where there is killing, I am powerless tochange anything in that moment. People only want to witness when they feelthey have the power to change something, or else they do not want to play. Itis a very Western view. At the very heart of oppression is the desire forpower and control. Animals and poor people are the unwanted and powerless. Idrew people with full-blown AIDS in the early days of the pandemic, becauseone of my friends was a doctor on the front lines. It was a time when nearlyeveryone died. I was scared, not of contracting HIV, but of watching anyhuman being dying. Dying is privatized—along with everything else—yet Iwitnessed people’s courage and strength and all those who helped them on thisjourney. A few years ago, in a Texas prison, I drew women who were HIVpositive. The prison was so frightening: It was all white, and the lightswere the brightest, reflecting off the white walls, and the uniforms were allwhite; there was nowhere to rest the eyes, no shadows of quiet—the noise of the orders over the loudspeaker. The women had to walk in single fileagainst a wall and be counted over and over again. It was terrible statecruelty inflicted on human beings, who were “guilty” of being poor anduneducated, some mentally ill, and physically sick. The women said the worstpart of prison was that there is never any rest; they sleep in beds with alow partition between them, and young women, new to the prison system, wouldbe screaming all night from drugs or mental-health disorders. I don’t knowhow to prepare for any of it, to step in another’s shoes; whatever I feel ismagnified a thousand times by a person or animal in that situation. I clingto the idea that maybe the art will help change it.
How do you stomach being inthe midst of a killing floor? Does making the images help you cope? Or do you
become numb after a while? The images are about me retraumatizing you, the viewer. Trauma is like having acid thrown onto your brain:Like an etching plate, it eats into it, and you are compelled to keepimprinting it onto other people, until they feel it too. It’s not my stomachI worry about; it’s my mind, or wherever my soul is located, because it getsbroken every time animals suffer. When I make art, I make more witnesses, andwhen there are enough witnesses, the horror stops. Insanity comes fromisolation, feeling you are alone in seeing what most do not. Manyanimal-protection activists suffer immensely, because they have opened a
of consciousness that enables them to see a reality that very few want tosee. Tactically, rather than stressing the moment of personal transformation,and its subsequent isolation, the animal-rights debate must enter publicpolicy, enter the realm of political debate—this is happening, with manybills being introduced. The animal-rights movement is global and it isgrowing.
How so? An example is my
congressman, Maurice Hinchey, an animal-rights activist; he says so veryclearly and directly when he cosponsors animal-protection legislation. Thisis so different from even a decade ago. There will come a day when eatingmeat will be illegal.
Cover for Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation (left); You Consume Their Terror (right),
Perhaps. But for now, I cansee from your work that butchery has become more efficient but not morehumane. Is this ever possible? Should it be? This is a serious question andone that is debated constantly. No, it is never possible to make slaughtermore humane. The process of breeding animals only to murder them at a veryyoung age for no reason other than to make money is cruel and immoral.Slaughter can be made more efficient, and animal scientists can debatewhether or not decompression or gassing involves less suffering to the animalthan electrocution or “exsanguination,” with or without stun. But these arebizarre and delusional mental gymnastics. The meat industry does not careabout animals. It cares about making the most profit in the fastest way. Onceyou, the person who cares about animals, enter their world in an attempt to
negotiate gradations of suffering, then you have got seriously lost andfucked up. There is legislation that is important as it pertains to food andanimal protection—downed animals must be euthanized immediately and not dragged intoslaughterhouses in chains or left to die by the side of the road; tail
docking must be made illegal; cameras need to be in all slaughterhouses—butdebating with the meat industry about cage sizes and slaughtering methodology is indirectly enabling the industry to sell the idea of happy meat to a moremiddle-class customer.
Happier meat is more expensive meat. It is expanding their business, not reducing it. It hasalways been this way in any social-justice movement: people’s compassion andgood intentions are used as a weapon against them by the dominant class. Itcan be legitimately argued that discussion of these issues brings to theattention of consumers that their food had a mother who was torn away from them, food who felt pain in a tiny cage, food whose leg was torn out whenthey were dragged from that cage, food who suffocated to death in a net or on a hook—but given limited time and resources, promotion of a plant-based dietover humane animal slaughter saves more animals.
Do we actually need to eatmeat to stay alive? None of us needs animal products to be healthy and well fed. That is atotal and complete lie. The meat industry states, as though they have acrystal ball, that by 2050 meat production will have doubled. My crystal ball, which is morevalid than theirs, because it’s not smeared with blood money, says that bythe year 2050 the mass of humanity will be vegan.
“The highest quality I can aim for is: ‘This drawing killsthe animal-exploitation industry.’ ”
In your experience, how doesworking in a slaughterhouse impact the workers? Are they numb off the killingfloors? The staff I have met on the kill floor are usually fully aware of how the animals suffer. They see this up close more than anyone. They eitherdespise the job, and leave at the earliest opportunity (the majority); orjustify the work as providing “food”; or they are numbed and feel powerlessin their own lives and enjoy inflicting more pain on the helpless animal. It is the same process with farmed animals. The farmer justifies the taildocking, the rape of cows, the sow-gestation crates, the debeaking of hens,the chaining of replacement heifers with well-memorized science babble andtalking points pushed at them by industry publications, and they can get awaywith blatant cruelty, because animals are just property. The irony is thatthose slaughterhouse workers and farmers are themselves the property of theglobal meat industry, which funded them for all the equipment of factoryfarming. Humans are becoming the factory farmed, trained to look away andjust consume, never question, live in fear and debt, and die quietly andefficiently, be that docile animal body in the capitalist labor process. Yetquite a few of the animals are fighting back. They are not going quietly.
As an artist, do you feelyou’ve achieved the quality of work that you’ve wanted to achieve? As a female, I am socialized to be depreciating and humble and nonthreatening, but I’m afraid that programming did not work too well. My work speaks for itself.If I have doubts, I would never reveal them, as I exist in a very hostilecensorious environment. Making direct social-political art, devoid of irony and money, with no postmodernist greaseto oil the art-world wheels, takes strength and persistence. I hope the killers of animals choke on my work, spit it out, regret they ever saw it,regret me—that is my idea of quality in art. Art does not become art until the viewer makes it so; they decide. Woody Guthrie carved “This machine killsfascists” into his guitar; the highest quality I can aim for is: “Thisdrawing kills the animal-exploitation industry.”
Is your art entirely in theservice of the message? Or do
you allow yourself certain aesthetic pleasures? A few years ago, oil painting seduced me. It was a confusing time. I wentover to the dark side and discovered color. Hours would go by, and I wouldgaze at glazes of a palette loaded with squeezable colors and realized I washappy; this was fun! Art had become fun! The clouds in the sky, the lightingeffects, became very important—and so many choices with the colors, all mustbe tried. Of course I thought I could control it, be sparing with the color,only paint on the side, but then it became every day. Artists understand whatI am talking about. Yet the ghosts started to speak to me, whispers at first,and they appeared as ghosts always do, in black-and-white, garbed in acertain graphic elegance. They all had those eyes, of all the animals I haveseen suffer, which say, “Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong?”It is the injustice—that is what their eyes say. My pleasure is that theghosts are still in contact, never that far away.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →