Josh Tiessen's animals and the end of civilization
Have you ever noticed how many animals there are in Scripture? Animals are all over the place—and not just because most of the Bible takes place in a pastoral context. The animals of the Bible are agents in the story sometimes—think of the serpent in the garden of Eden, Balaam’s donkey, or the fish that swallowed Jonah. Animals, of course, are also very metaphorical, and the Bible uses animal metaphors with regularity to illustrate spiritual truths or as symbols of a higher reality. But animals also just exist in the biblical milieu—as they do in our own world. Those of us who live in cities might not encounter real animals with any kind of frequency, but animals are still there, lurking in the background.
One of Josh Tiessen’s stated aims in painting animals while being part of the western art tradition is to “reinterpret this tradition through a zoological lens, liberating the Judeo-Christian worldview from its perversion at the hands of anthropocentric Greek philosophy.” Additionally, he states that
In studying Greek mythology and Platonic philosophy, one quickly gathers that anthropocentrism colours the entire cosmogony. This is evident in marble statues, where sculptors strove to depict the idealized man. Later, Neoplatonic philosophy articulated and inserted the concept of the “Great Chain of Being” into western thought. In this schematic, animals are relegated to the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, void of intrinsic value due to their lack of a rational mind.
It is certainly telling to compare the Bible, which is full of animals, with Greek philosophy, which only has room for people. And in the history of western art, animals surely do not have a very prominent position. There are good animals here and there, such as are found in Rubens’ Tiger Hunt or Millet’s Death of a Pig—but frequently, animals are given the roles of grotesques, sentimentalists, or even worse, details with which the painter fills boring places.
Tiessen self-consciously places his animals outside of these limitations. His animals are unique in the corpus of western art. They are not portraits of individual animals the way that George Stubbs’ horse portraits are; neither are they allegories or symbols such as Jan Asselijn’s Threatened Swan. His animals are inhabitants of their world, fully alive in their setting but not deliberately drawing attention to themselves. Their closest antecedents in art history are the people in Edward Hopper’s paintings.
His Streams in the Wasteland series of paintings (some of which illustrate this essay) consist mostly of animals inhabiting human built spaces. Tiessen takes inspiration from several biblical passages, such as this one from the book of Isaiah; regarding the aftermath of the destruction of the city of Babylon, Isaiah writes that
Wild beasts of the desert will lie there, And their houses will be full of owls; Ostriches will dwell there, And wild goats will caper there. The hyenas will howl in their citadels, And jackals in their pleasant palaces.
This specific passage inspires several of Tiessen’s most memorable images. And in contrast to the view presented by anthropocentric observations of ruins, such as the Saxon poem The Ruin or Shelley’s Ozymandias, the animals of Isaiah—and Tiessen—are rather indifferent to the crumbling legacy of human presence which they occupy.
Tiessen calls his style “narrative hyper-surrealism,” but his surrealism is more akin to the surrealism of Salvador Dalí than the surrealism of André Breton and Max Ernst. Tiessen isn’t really toying with conceptuality like Magritte or Duchamp, either—his art is well within the confines of the historically-understood methods of artistic communication, and there is nothing self-referential or meta about it. But there is a surrealist element in his juxtaposition of the familiar—animals and nature—with the unthinkably bizarre—the downfall of global civilization. Animals wandering around in the remains of the human built environment is an image as emotionally jarring as Breton’s train engine overtaken by jungle vines. A future in which we do not exist, where all our works are forgotten, is a situation which most people simply don’t want to allow into their minds; it is as disturbing as the traumatic scenes of war which inspired Ernst, Masson, and Dalí.
But there have been times when artists have imagined this state of affairs. Consider this passage from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows:
“Very long ago [said the Badger], on the spot where the Wild Wood waves now, before ever it had planted itself and grown up to what it now is, there was a city—a city of people, you know. Here, where we are standing, they lived, and walked, and talked, and slept, and carried on their business. Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight and drove out to trade. They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever.”
“But what has become of them all?” asked the Mole.
“Who can tell?” said the Badger. “People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.”
There is simply no assurance that our current civilization won’t end in ruins. Francis Fukuyama got it all wrong; we have not reached an “end of history”, and any eschatology which sees the current situation as perfected or solved is severely misguided. There are serious problems in the world—problems which could utterly destroy the civilization we call home. It has happened before, with other societies; our current civilization is not qualitatively different. I am persuaded that the human species will never be completely exterminated, but I have no certainty about this iteration of society. If we poison this earth enough, will we have to move to a different planet?
But Tiessen’s art is not so much about what will happen to us if we destroy the natural environment. He does not offer a pragmatic reason for avoiding ecological catastrophe—he wants us to care for the earth as a matter of principle. In his artist statement, he asks,
Could the ecological crisis of our day be a sign of judgment from the Creator for our disregard of the earth? Are not the animals still calling us to faithful stewardship of the planet we’ve been entrusted with? And presuppositionally: What worldview coherently undergirds and substantiates ecological ethics?
That last question is partly rhetorical; it should be evident that a belief system which considers the earth as belonging to God, and people as the delegated stewards of the earth, should also motivate its adherents to care for that world more than other worldviews which consider the earth and humanity as simply accidents of history. Josh Tiessen’s art is pointing at Christians and saying “on this issue, we could do better than we are doing right now.”
The animals—who have no propensity to sin, and who are fundamentally obedient to the mandates God has given them—will be witnesses to whatever answer we give to Tiessen’s questions.