Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong is a playful and unpredictable elevator ride between high and low, between Derrida and Grumpy Cat, between Baudrillard and a feline dressed as a shark that likes to ride a vacuum cleaner. The collection of essays features disparate musings that shed light on the cultural preoccupation with cat videos.
It was the Walker Center’s Internet Cat Video Festival, launched in 2012 in Minneapolis, that inspired the anthology. More than 10,000 people showed up to the event, which garnered international press and praise from even the most skeptical. “Its sincerity, populism, cuteness, and frivolity, ran against every sentiment one normally associates with the art world,” says co-editor and contributor Sarah Schultz. No one knew whether watching, for example, Japanese feline sensation Maru jump into a box was something people would enjoy in a pubic sphere, though it’s garnered over 200 million views online. For Schultz, an independent curator and former director of public programming for the Walker Center, it was “one of the most joyful and well-attended projects” to come out of the museum. The Walker Center and Coffee House Press realized a book could help explain its overwhelming success. Kismet was in their favor.
“We were at a party at BEA talking to people about doing a Kickstarter campaign [for the book], and a guy said, ‘You should call it a Catstarter,’ ” recalls Caroline Casey, the managing director of Coffee House and a co-editor. “I was like, ‘That’s so clever, who are you?’ ” The guy turned out to be the CEO of Kickstarter and an early supporter of the book.
Understandably, the cover of the book features cats, lots of them. For this Kirkus writer—a single, female cat owner—reading it on the subway might feel like wearing a Morris sweatshirt on a date. However, the book jacket points to only one of the genres in which the collection would comfortably fit. Philosophy, art history, social anthropology, poetry, humor, and pop culture are also all apt descriptors.
In her essay “Jeoffrey,” actor and writer Elena Passarello offers an ode to virtual cats in the form of an addendum to “My Cat Jeoffrey,” the 74 lines in Christopher Smart’s Jubilante Agno that are about his cat and were written in the 1760s while Smart was in an insane asylum. Part of the pleasure of the collection is that the contributors were not given thematic or stylistic parameters. “Elena’s piece was probably the most unexpected outcome,” says Casey, “but Elena is also working on a book of essays that are biographies of famous animals, so this is certainly her wheelhouse.”
Critic and writer Maria Bustillos takes readers back to the pre-broadband dark ages and forward through the creation of Northern Kittens, Gay Bar Kittens, and Sweary Kittens. She summons Waugh and Wodehouse and her cat, Sam, while extolling their popularity’s philosophical implications. Her piece is a celebration while Ander Monson’s “The Internet Is a Cat Video Library” is a reality check, reminding readers that “only a handful of these animals will outlive their lives as memes.”
Sentences throughout the book contain what appear to be antipodes on the intellectual spectrum. “It's not high or low; it’s high and low,” says Schultz of the unusual conflations. “For some reason there's this push to keep those things separate when actually they never are.” Casey is quick with an example: “I mean, all you really have to do is go on Yelp and see how many really long, serious comment posts there are about some sort of terrible Arby's product to know that people are thinking all the time about everything.”
While Sasha Archibald’s essay “Feline Darlings and the Anti-Cute” offers a treasure of some twisted art and cat history, there is plenty of lighthearted commentary throughout the collection on the differences between cats and dogs. The writers share (at least a reluctant) affinity for cat videos. But not all of them love cats.
“I like only one,” writes David Carr, in his essay “Cats.” That Carr, who passed away in February, contributed his signature candor to the book is not wholly unexpected. He is a native of Minneapolis and addressed the festival’s popularity on his culture podcast. “He talked about whether it means the demise of culture,” laughs Schultz. “We thought he would be the perfect person to write for this.”
It is good to hear Carr’s literary voice here. His casual acerbity is strangely uplifting, even if he uses it to shame those with an inclination to anthropomorphize. “You cat’s brain weighs under an ounce,” he writes. “It is the size of an avocado pit, and contains just as many deep thoughts.”
The magic of Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong is that its audience is all-inclusive. Even with the esoteric references, a Ph.D. is not required. Enjoying the book is in no way contingent upon an art background or owning a cat (none of the editors own one). Even if all else disinterests, for anyone with a computer and a penchant for procrastination, it will be an indulgent rabbit hole of You Tube videos to see again or for the first time. “My favorite cat video is Boots and Cats,” admits Casey. “It's just this terrible chanting: boots and cats, boots and cats….It's pictures of cats and boots. It makes you insane.” The mention is a call to the internet and the beginning of a long and mindless afternoon.
Tobin Levy is a writer living in Austin, Texas.