In the summer of 2012, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosted the world’s first International Cat Video Festival, or CatVidFest for short. Thousands gathered to watch cat videos, honor recipients in categories including best comedy and best drama, and vote for the recipient of a Golden Kitty—“a cross between an Oscar, a People’s Choice Award, and Best in Show,” according to a festival organizer.
It sounds like a punchline, or a satire on academic considerations of low culture. Perhaps it is. But CatVidFest is also the inspiration for Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, a collection of fourteen essays on the allure of cats and the videos they star in.
Here, Fusion editor Alexis Madrigal recounts the adventure of finding a new home for his cat when it didn’t get along with his newborn. Music critic Carl Wilson looks at the history of cats in the arts. The late media critic David Carr, in a lone anti-cat piece, writes that he prefers the unconditional love and loyalty of a dog. “If I wanted another being to take me in with baleful indifference when I come home every night,” he tells us, “I would have stayed married to my first wife.”
In “Feline Darlings and the Anti-Cute,” her exploration of the symbolism attached to cats throughout history, Sasha Archibald writes that the cat’s cuteness is heightened by its resistance to our adoration and pity:
As most cat lovers acknowledge, the cat’s imperviousness is key to its charm. Knowing the object of our attentions will never be subjugated makes its pursuit enjoyable: In chasing the cat’s exquisite not-need, we allow ourselves to need….In a cat-and-mouse game of our own invention, we attempt subjugation, and the cat resists, over and over and over. With the online cat video, however, our attempts at mastery have acquired their most powerful arsenal to date.
A dog doesn’t mind slobbering all over us, but a cat stubbornly tries to keep its dignity, even when dressed in a shark costume and placed on a Roomba. That explains why dog videos haven’t caught on the way cat videos have. (Similar points are made throughout.)
This collection’s implicit thesis—that a cat video festival is a legitimate thing for an art museum to host—rises to the surface in the final essay by festival co-organizer Sara Schultz. “People have idiosyncratic tastes,” she writes, “and they always have; the internet just allows us to indulge them more freely. Cultural institutions should embrace divergent and seemingly contradictory aesthetics and practices…Questioning rather than imposing what is worthy of our attention can only give us a richer experience of who we are and who we might want to become.”
Point taken. But in this case and many others, the answer to the question “is this cultural phenomenon worthy of our attention?” is a resounding “not for long.”
Our relationship with cats reveals something about the human condition, and cat videos are part of that. But the scholar of the cat video can only dig so deep before hitting mewling, furry bedrock.
What rises to the level of an art form, like literature, can provide something new with every encounter. On my second reading of The Sun Also Rises I noticed the extent of the casual anti-Semitism directed at Robert Cohn; on my third I noticed the loneliness of Harris, the Englishman Jake and Mike meet on a fishing trip. In contrast, no matter how many times I watch a video of a cat playing the piano, there will still only be a cat playing the piano.
Does CatVidFest turn a solitary activity (watching cat videos) into a communal one? Yes. Does it bring more attention and funding to the Walker than a gallery of paintings? Probably. (This second issue goes discreetly unmentioned by the writers here.) But is it art?
There’s nothing wrong with partaking in guilty pleasures, like cat videos, thin but thrilling novels, and inane pop music. To raise these pleasures to the level of art makes as much sense as saying we can get our daily serving of fruit from a pack of Skittles. There is still good reason for gatekeepers like art museums to influence culture rather than merely reflect it, to both question and impose.
But I digress. Like its subject, Cat is Art Spelled Wrong feels no need to justify its existence. It is nonetheless lovely and well-constructed, and succeeds in making something compelling out of a rather scanty subject.
Cat is Art Spelled Wrong edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach and Sara Schultz. Published September 15th by Coffee House Press. 208 pages. $16.95