Art <> Activism An Interview with Sue Coe
By Elin Slavick
In the tradition of Kathe Kollwitz, Goya, and Daumier, Sue Coe makes art about horrible realities: AIDS, homelessness, slaughterhouses, war, laboratory testing and rape. Coe’s art is a call to action, demanding a radical transformation of how we treat each other and animals. During her recent lecture at the University of North Carolina, where she agreed to do this interview with me via e-mail, she told this story: When the Dalai Lama was asked, "How do we change the world?" he answered, "By teaching our children to be kind to insects."
Sue Coe has exhibited her work in museums and galleries all over the world. She has contributed illustrations to Entertainment Weekly, The Progressive, The New Yorker (which she calls "a dentist’s magazine"), The Nation, and The New York Times, and is the author of four books, including Dead Meat and Pit’s Letter, both on Four Walls Eight Windows.
Sue Coe is one of the artists who has most influenced me — not only as a fellow artist, but as an educator, a political activist and a hungry individual. There is no other artist that I know of who is as generous, sincere, real, politically effective and consistent. She is committed to her beliefs and to the artistic process as the means of exposing realities in a way that stops us dead in our tracks. Sue Coe’s powerful spine and her own claim that "every dollar I get drips with blood too" gives me hope.
- elin slavick
MR: I know you have made work about US Foreign Policy, AIDS, homelessness and many other sociopolitical issues. Is your recent focus on the meat industry and animal rights due to a shift in political consciousness? Does the issue of animal rights have a broader political implication to you?
Farm animals suffer such horrendous cruelty, which is totally denied by the American meat industry, and fully acknowledged by the European meat industry. The latter, based on independent scientific study, has learned enough to start phasing in new laws and phasing out factory farming over the next 11 years. We are looking at the global consequences of mad cow disease and pollution of our ground water, by-products of factory farming.
MR: As my friend was coming into your lecture, an animal rights activist told her she shouldn’t come in because "Sue Coe is in there." My friend was wearing an old thrift shop coat I had given her with a real fur collar. It’s not so much if you think the activist’s strategy was a constructive or exclusive one that I’m interested in (although I DO wonder what you think about it), but more about how to handle contradictions in our lives. I think you wear a leather coat. I know you smoke. How do you reconcile the daily contradictions, living in this late-capitalist world, between making art and surviving?
Sue Coe: I would never judge another human being individually (in the scenario you suggested). We are all in different stages of awareness and growth. I am extremely critical of illogical economic systems that put profit over any and all other considerations, especially life. Personally I do not wear leather in any form, neither shoes nor jackets or coats. (The jacket you saw was some industrial by-product!) I rarely smoke, around a pack a year, that is about it, when I give lectures. This is not a personal justification, just setting the record straight. Gave up chain-smoking around four years ago. The phrase I would use for myself is ‘aspiring vegan,’ as I use film for a camera and also drive an automobile, which I assume has animal parts in it somewhere. So, it comes down to doing the best one can, avoiding products that are made by slave labor, or where human and animal rights are violated. The consumer will dictate how the market changes and it may mean we have to pay more for food and clothing that is cruelty free. Americans spend less that 11% of their disposable income on food, the cheapest in the world. That has come at great expense in terms of suffering. When polled, the American consumer said that they were willing to pay more for more humane farming methods—for example, no battery cages for hens, no veal crates, and no gestation crates for sows.
MR: I’m sure you are “accused of” being a “propagandist.” What have been some of your responses to that accusation? I personally love the aesthetics of lots of propaganda, from Russian and American to German and Italian. Do you like “the look” of propaganda even if you disagree with the ideology? Do you think there is a difference between being a propagandist and being an artist?
Sue Coe: The word 'Propaganda' comes from the Roman Catholic Church. In the 15th Century, they had 'Offices of Propaganda'. The word merely means to propagate ideas. It fell on evil days during the First World War, when the cannon fodder (the masses) heard how many young men were dying in the trenches and started to object. The government retaliated by saying they were being affected by ‘enemy propaganda.’ I think propaganda (let us say political satire, etc.) has its place, and I have done my share of it, but as an artist, apart from the aesthetic, it’s quite tedious to do.
After a while, the Bushes and Thatchers and Reagans are all the same—just good puppets. For the politician, it’s more ‘face time’ for them, and they usually want to own the artwork. It appeals to their ego. So not only are they not crushed, they are quite pleased with the attention. Therefore, I do not plan to waste the next four years making portraits of George W. Art is anything that the onlooker takes into their heart; it could be a billboard, or a cartoon, or a fresco.
MR: During your lecture you said “When I do PhotoShop it’s like swimming the Atlantic in a wheelchair.” Is it the process that’s so difficult or the product that’s unsatisfactory?
Sue Coe: I am sure the product is a work of genius. For me personally, the process is clumsy and not intuitive. The larger issue, I think, is the expense of the product and the expense to update the product, and the assumption that not owning the product places one at a disadvantage. A pencil is very inexpensive. Practically anyone on the planet can have one and in the right hands it can be a powerful witnessing tool. When we learn to draw, we learn how to think and see. Art is about slowing down time, not speeding it up—although I have noticed that a painting made with a computer takes me around ten times longer than actually painting it from scratch!
MR: While I know you sell your prints “cheap, cheap, cheap,” often for only twenty dollars after your lectures, with all proceeds going to Farm Sanctuary, I also know you have a very serious uptown West 57th Street gallery in New York City, Galerie St. Etienne. Are you the only contemporary artist with Galerie St. Etienne? (I usually see Egon Schiele, George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Oskar Kokoshka when I’m there.) Is Galerie St. Etienne your primary connection to the art world?
Sue Coe: All the profit goes to Farm Sanctuary. My printer takes money for paper and ink and for printing them. He kindly donates most of his labor. Yes, the gallery is serious. It is serious about the integrity of the work that is shown, and how and to whom that work is marketed. The address of the gallery was never an issue for me. The reason I chose St. Etienne was because they represent Kathe Kollwitz, with whom they and I feel there is an organic relationship. I believe I am the only contemporary (as in currently alive) artist they represent at this time. Of course, they knew many of the other artists when they were alive! The gallery fosters a type of dignity and respect for art that I admire, and goes beyond the merchandising seen in most galleries. In economic terms ‘the art world’ does not support this type of work, and I have managed to devise ways to live on small amounts of money and still be a working artist.
MR: Do you survive on the work you do for magazines, like Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and The Progressive?
Sue Coe: I do not work for The Progressive anymore, and cannot remember when I last worked for Rolling Stone…years ago. Yes, I have always earned a living from working for magazines and newspapers, since age 17. It’s my bread and margarine money.
MR: During your lecture you also said, “If art doesn’t change anything, I’ll be a full-time activist.” Do you think your art HAS changed things? Do you believe that art CAN change the world? Can you imagine a time when you won’t make art?
Sue Coe: It is not for me to say if my work has changed things. It is for others to say. People have told me that they have been changed. People change the world all the time. They do it in many ways. We are the changes we want to see.
MR: What do you think of contemporary art, specifically those artists considered to be “political artists,” like Alfredo Jaar, Salbastio Salgado, Hans Haacke, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Carrie Mae Weems, Shirin Nishat, and Mona Hatoum. Do you feel part of an artistic community or just an activist one? Are these two split for you?
Sue Coe: I love all art and artists whose work has content, and who stay committed. As life is short and time is short, especially if one is focused on doing work, the people I feel are my community (family) are animal rights activists, and in terms of art, more in the printmaking/illustration/cartooning community. I like the collaborative comix of a group called World War 3.
MR: I see your work in the spirit of John Heartfield and Honore Daumier. Do you feel more of an affinity with those long-ago artists than you do with contemporary artists?
Sue Coe: Well, yes and no. I am primarily an artist for the printed page, thus the affinity with the above, and of course the content, but the social conditions were so different for those artists. As for contemporary artists whom I respect: Bouvais Lyons, Jean Quick to See Smith, Eric Drooker, Eric Avery, and a lot of girl gang comix artists like Fly. These are all artists of the printed page, or they make prints.
MR: While you are a self-proclaimed feminist and activist-artist, you do not like to be categorized as a “feminist artist” or as a “political artist.” Why?
Sue Coe: Because the most political art is the art of ambiguity. If that is categorized first, then I can be categorized last.
MR: Why did you leave England? Do you plan to stay in the United States? Are you a U.S. citizen? Did you vote? Do you think there is much of a difference between Blair’s New Labour Party and Clinton’s Democratic Party, or between Bush and Gore?
MR: You ended your lecture with a story of the joy you felt watching freed and de-beaked chickens take their first steps and spread their wings. Do you think that joy is possible for the majority of living things in our world?
Sue Coe: Well, I don’t know if joy is possible for every living being, but every living being does their utmost to avoid suffering and pain.
MR: How would you define yourself politically? Are you a Marxist, a Socialist, an Anarchist, or something else?
Sue Coe: I don’t define myself politically. I will leave that to others. When I meet anyone or look at their work, I want to see and hear clearly what they are saying, the essence of what they wish to communicate. Political definitions are a way people distance themselves from the content. Ideologies can interfere with listening, and it is not useful to label oneself in a vacuum. As an artist, I desire that the viewer look through my eyes, see what I have seen, not look at the color of my eyes.
MR: One thing everybody comments on after your lectures is how hilarious you are, even though you’re talking about such unbelievable levels of cruelty, tragedy, death, and truth—like the fact that they throw baby male chicks into the dumpsters alive, people dying of AIDS, your mother’s death, or mad cow disease. The whole audience is laughing between tears. Is humor your strategy for survival and for communication? Or could you have been a stand-up comedian?
Sue Coe: I am fearful of boring people. With all these paintings of horror (reality), I try and show that we are human, and can be really silly, despite the horror.
MR: You have a lot of hope that the laws regarding the way animals die in slaughterhouses will change within the next ten years. How does this feel like a possible victory to you? The animals would still die. People would still be killing and eating them and going mad. It makes me think of that movie "Dr. Death," about the Holocaust revisionist man who designs electric chairs to be more humane.
There are no farm animal cruelty laws, no regulations controlling their transportation to slaughter, or laws governing cage sizes. I wish people could wake up tomorrow and not eat meat, and there would be no more factory farms, but that is the reality. With mad cow disease looming on the horizon, I think people will be eating much less meat than before.
MR: You said, "All saints are gay." Do you think that gay and lesbian, animal, civil, and human rights are all linked in the same struggle?
Sue Coe: Yes. They are all interconnected, although animal issues are different, because the subject of the oppression is mute. Humans, given free speech, can vocalize the terms of their own liberation.
MR: Is there anything else you would like to say that I didn’t touch upon in my questions?
Sue Coe: I would like to ask people to go to www.farmsanctuary.org to investigate farm animal cruelty, see vidMR and documentation of downed animals and the conditions in factory farms, and what we can do to change it. People can visit rescued farm animals at two Farm Sanctuaries—one in New York State and one in California. Or visit www.graphicwitness.org to look at art of witness from artists past and present.
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this interview in Russian / это интервью на русском языке