Visual Arts


I fell for it. I believed, after glancing through the book Why Cats Paint, that the authors had really managed to document the unleashing of feline artistic finesse.

And, indeed, at first blush, this slim volume, which outsold nearly everything last holiday season, seems to explain the little-known phenomenon of cat painting quite thoroughly. New Zealand authors Heather Busch and Burton Silver give historical documentation of cat art extending back to the dawn of civilization. Pictures of cats busily painting were captured on papyrus by early admirers in ancient Egypt, in medieval manuscripts and on Renaissance frescoes. Even an 18th-century needlepoint pillow is adorned with a well-wrought tableau of painting felines. Lavish photographs show cat artists in action, and a bombastic analysis deals with the state of cat art today.

The reader is treated to profiles on cat artists like sultry Italians Wong Wong and Lu Lu, the "spontaneous reductionist" Tiger and the "Romantic ruralist" Smokey, whose owners have all discovered their felines' "aesthetically motivated" needs to express themselves through art. The paintings, all variations of streaks and pawprints, are naive enough to have conceivably been done by a cat.

And it is easy to believe they were, confronted with the image of cat artist Bootsie, doing his best Jackson Pollock impression--jumping, twisting through the air in an ecstatic whirlwind of "self-rewarding" action painting.

It turns out, though, that Why Cats Paint is a parody of both art books and cat books, and a brilliant one at that.

Authors Busch and Silver have art history's pretentious slanguage and the hyped-up jargon of artist myth-making down pat. The tongue-in-cheek text analyzes cat art using the mind-numbing language familiar to anyone who reads ArtForum and FlashArt.

One critic, for example, breathlessly describes the essence of Bootsie's painting "Parrot Time" with the words, "Color! Light! Life! Liberty-within-reach--almost, for now the dominant overlays intrude with dazzling speed to wreak their cruel havoc." Other tip-offs that Why Cats Paint is not a sober study of cat creations lie in the multitude of citations from journals not to be found in any computer search, but with bizarre-enough-to-be-real titles, like the Journal of Non-Primate Art, the Journal of Creative Egyptology and Cat Art Today.

"Yes, it looks fake to me," laughed Arizona State University associate professor of art history Betsy Fahlman, glancing at an alleged "medieval" illustration of a large gray feline hard at work on a canvas. Fahlman, who is also the happy owner of a portly gray cat named Obi, pointed out some of the finer points of the joke.

Talking about the bibliography, she said, "It is all done in a perfect survey form, but some of these publishing houses, like `Varnadoe and Kirk'--Kirk Varnadoe is the chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York--and `Slive and Seymour'--Seymour Slive is a well-known scholar of Franz Hals. Stuff like that.

"This `R. Mutt,' author of `Urinary Embellishment As a Major Problem in the Curation of Feline Art'--R. Mutt was one of Marcel Duchamp's pseudonyms, and he used it on his ready-made urinal. What a sketch!"
Why Cats Paint, says Fahlman, tells as much about the art world as it does about the cats. "The authors obviously know how art is purveyed," she opined, "and the book really spoofs on the idea that what is written about art can become as important as the art. It reminds you that so much of what gets written has so little concreteness, and often very little to do with the artwork." Lisa Ryers, who has been handling the book's media relations at Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, California, bowed out gracefully when asked if certain "artifacts" had been forged, by saying that she was "not sure about the production of certain parts of the book." But Ryers did try to explain the book's massive appeal.

"I think a lot of cat people treat their cats like children. Their cats become these silent containers of creativity. For instance," she said, "when we were beginning promotion on the book, we took out an ad in the SF Weekly. We solicited stories of cat creativity and got a slew of mail. People would say things like `My cat loves to rearrange the Faberg eggs on my shelves' or `My cat can play Schubert on the piano.' It just shows this interest in the whole field of animal creativity."
The book has outsold Ten Speed's wildest dreams, selling close to 300,000 copies from a press which has a normal print run of 10,000-20,000 books.

"This one has flown," Ryers asserts. "One day I was listening to my voice mail and there was this call from Pee-wee Herman. He said his sister sent him the book for his birthday and he ran out immediately and bought ten copies. He mentioned that if he still had his show, he would invite Burton [Silver] on as a guest."
Slightly red-faced that I had fallen for this Kiwi-based ruse, some thought still kept teasing my brain. Then I remembered. Ruby!

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Bettie Rinehart