I read a fascinating article over the weekend about portraiture in the Italian Renaissance. A distinguishing feature of this seminal artistic moment was the intensified focus on the individual. Before the emergence of Renaissance values, western society was conceptualized as a hierarchical stack of broad categories. Individuals were subsumed under the rigid rubrics of serf, peasant, slave, noble, gentleman, nobility, royalty, whatever. Women were virtually invisible. It is in the portraiture of the Italian Renaissance, however, that we see a movement away from this solidified ethos. It was during this period that everyday people began to peek under the cloak of the collective and, however tentatively, demand recognition as individuals.
What happened in the Renaissance was the start of trend that’s only intensified with time. Today western culture veritably fetishizes the individual. The individual is the gold standard of identity. In so many ways the social history of the United States is about the expansion of individualism to groups previously identified exclusively in collective terms: slaves, laborers, women, and gays, to name a few. Consciously or not, the strategy employed by crusaders to break the oppressive barrier of the “generalized other” has been to tell stories. Stories of individuals. From Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, from the dark closet to the open activism of Harvey Milk, and from the suffragists to Betty Friedan, oppressed groups in the twentieth century clamored to define group identity through heroic individuality. Only then did rights ensue.
So it will go with animals. We speak casually of pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep. Much of our collectivist language derives from necessity—we simply must, most of the time, speak in these terms. That said, the more we are able to individualize animals the better. In many contexts—as the above image suggests—we instinctively individualize animals. The man in the above picture–taken in the aftermath of a recent tornado that blew through Alabama– is assuredly holding a animal whom he considers to be an individual. The poignant expression on his face–he was stunned to find his dog standing proud inside the shell of his destroyed home– tells it all.
Animal ethologists are routinely discovering how adept farm animals are at distinguishing the identities of many different handlers. They see us as persons. Shouldn’t we do the same for them? Shouldn’t we grant animals their Renaissance? Shouldn’t we embrace them, literally, as unique and beautiful individuals?