Fourteen writers, all addressing not just our fascination with cat videos, but also how we decide what is good or bad art, or art at all; how taste develops, how that can change, and why we love or hate something. It’s about people and technology and just what it is about cats that makes them the internet’s cutest despots.
Huffington Post, “20 Notable Non-Fiction Books You Might’ve Missed This Year”
“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 magic of Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong is that its audience is all-inclusive. . . . Enjoying the book is in no way contingent upon an art background or owning a cat.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This clever collection is highly recommended for people who watch cat videos, which is apparently nearly everyone.”—Publishers Weekly
“The essays have an eclectic and joyful appeal . . . Cat lovers will adore these creative reflections on the frivolity and the necessity of pets and the Web videos many believe to be ‘the ice cream of moving imagery. ’” —Kirkus Reviews
“There’s something perverse about making a traditional paper book about Internet ephemera . . . [and] it’s precisely this kind of ambivalent-yet-appealing perversity that makes the anthology Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, an entire book of essays dedicated to cat videos, such a delight.” —Chicago Tribune
“Readers should expect to find more awe than ‘aw’ in this book, a shift that signals Coffee House Books has maintained the line of inquiry first embarked upon by the Walker Art Center and the lineage of artists whose works precipitated the event in the first place. In this collection, the focus rightly returns to the ancient impulse to pay cat obeisance and the realization that this obeisance (which is sometimes called art) has been sustained for nearly all of the Holocene.” —The Rumpus
“More than a mere affirmation of cats, this collection asks us to delve deeper into what it is about cats that draws us to them, what our collective obsession with felines says about our relationship with them and the animal kingdom in general, and even explore non-cat-related topics like who owns YouTube content?” —San Francisco Book Review
“Cats have a hold on us—even those of us who do not consider ourselves a ‘cat person.’ And now cat videos do too. All it takes is a click of a mouse, or, in the case of Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, the turn of a page, to find out why.” —AV Club
“Fourteen writers take on perhaps the most important cultural issue of our time: figure out what we’re talking about when we’re talking about cat videos.” —New York Magazine
“It’s not just about cats, it’s about this internet phenomena and what it says about humanity. The pieces range from philosophical to deeply personal stories. . . If you’re interested in internet culture, don’t miss this book.” —BookRiot
“14 funny, fascinating essays by noted writers.” —Star Tribune
“What’s behind the cat video phenomenon? Local publisher Coffee House Press attempts to answer that question in the new book, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong.” —MPR
“The festival inspired a forthcoming collection of essays, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, with references to Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant and, naturellement, semiotician Jacques Derrida—diffident cats tending to bring out the French in admirers.” —Washington Post
“With [this] new book, Minneapolis publisher makes the case that cat videos are a form of, yes, art.” —MinnPost
“Contributors provide surprising insights about what our impulse to watch YouTube clips of felines says about them and us.” —The Week
“Those upset by the [outcome of the CatVidFest contest] need only to read Maria Bustillos’s ‘Hope Is the Thing with Fur,’ her contribution to the Coffee House Press cat video essay collection, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong. She writes: ‘Cat videos are the crystallization of all that human beings love about cats, the crux of which is centered in the fact that cats are both beautiful and absurd.’” —City Pages
“Finally, I get to Write About Cats.” —Bookmobile Blog
“A lot of fun and one to store away for the holidays for someone who loves cat videos.” —BookRiot
From “The Internet Is a Cat Video Library” by Ander Monson
Maybe all mail, even email, is a secular faith that a Reader exists on The Other Side.
—Albert Goldbarth, “To the Munger Station”
From 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, you may check out an animal for a week from the Sulphur Creek Nature Center’s Small Animal Lending Library, part of the Hayward Area Recreation & Park District in California’s Bay Area. It’s one of the few of its ilk, and probably the only animal lending library currently extant. No, they inform you when you ask, you can’t renew your guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, or rats. For twenty dollars, you may “find out about the responsibilities and enjoyment of having a pet—feeding, cleaning, grooming, handling, and exercising—without the long-term expense and commitment of purchasing an animal.”
Isn’t long-term commitment what we want a pet for? Don’t we want an amiable ghost to haunt our house, a beast to sop up our care and desires and prove itself a companion for more than just the week? Don’t we want a creature with enough there there to address as “who,” not as “that”? Isn’t what we want connection? I don’t think a week will cut it, but it’s a start.
The director doesn’t know exactly how or when the library originated, but it’s not the first. Several popped up in midcentury America, including one run by the Wisconsin Humane Society and one in Sacramento, created by John Ripley Forbes and made famous by an article in Life. It lent blackbirds, magpies, rabbits, rats, hamsters, mice, turtles, lizards, snakes, and porcupines, just to name a few. Skunks too.
“A child’s response to any living thing is emotional,” said Forbes. Let’s remember that. It’s harder to ignore a purring cat, even a boring one, than it is to slip a dull book back on the shelf. Blame Forbes for that midcentury boom in lending animals. Though conservation was his life’s work, it often manifested itself in animal lending libraries and “nature museums.” His thought: get living things into kids’ hands and watch them come alive. And so they did.
Because it’s a small animal lending library, it’s easier to disregard the creepy equation at its heart. Do we believe animals are ours to lend? Are they here for us, to instruct or entertain, to do with as we will? What does it say that animal lending libraries don’t lend dogs or cats or horses, or chimpanzees, animals with longer lives and more complicated brains? It’s not just logistics that get in the way. Evidently we believe hamsters suffer less and get less attached, that they’re less likely to mind being lent or moved, to have a theory of mind—that they are less there, less potentially themselves—than, say, cats. Thus it doesn’t bother us to reduce them to the equivalent of a book, something to be lent and returned without much thought to the preferences of the beast. I’ll be straight with you: I believe this too. I’m not just saying it to troll you here. Yet I find myself uneasily weighing the relative disposability—or lendability—of different animals. If there is a line between the lendable and not, where you locate it is in part a matter of your own comfort with ethical ambiguity.
Even if we are not dog enthusiasts, for most of us, dogs are not disposable, though when my neighbors’ hound yowls out its apostrophe to the night, I wish they were. Dog lovers love each other’s dogs. They want to talk to others who love their dogs. They want to socialize their dogs. They want to socialize with others who want to socialize with the sort of people who want to socialize their dogs. To accomplish this, dog lovers congregate at the dog park, where their animals cavort and check each other out, as do the humans, if with less obvious sniffing. But where do cat lovers go to connect? Cats do not relish opportunities to meet new, strange animals, even if their caretakers might want to prick their own lonelinesses with a pin of shared light. Thus Scott Stulen, Internet Cat Video Festival producer, theorizes, “The internet is a cat park.” So instead of going out, we go to YouTube to check out videos of cats and check out each other in the comments sections.
I don’t use the idiom “check out” idly. Or, like most idioms, at first I use it idly, but then, thinking about it, I get excited at its permutations. It can refer to acquiring a circulating something from a library or assessing a potential sexual or intellectual partner. It can also mean to leave, say, a hospital, or life itself. Yet it accrues more meaning: to seek out and investigate a phenomenon, like a trending cat video a friend mentioned in passing. And on top of that, it also means to absent your brain from an irritating pastime (such as disambiguating idioms). You can start to see connections, right? Each of these instances involves some sort of circulation, a departure from a place or train of thought (we won’t even get into disambiguating “train of thought”), an entrance into another state.
Asterisk: some cats do like to circulate. I think here of Three, my neighbor’s unimaginatively named three-legged cat, and how he would jauntily make his rounds about the neighborhood, collecting food and affection at each stop. He was a good-natured, well-fed animal who just died this year. Now he’s only here in the hall of memory.
Most cats do not want to be lent or circulated, but posting a video’s not so hard. It’s really an exchange without losing anything (except perhaps your self-respect): I have a cat. It does something fun. You evidently want to see a cat doing fun things. I post a video. You watch the video. You have fun. You experience an emotional response. In this you are again like a child (a rare pleasure, this kind of occasional disarming). Maybe it’s enough that you laugh out loud and show or send it to a friend. The database registers your click and the span of your attention and punctuates your interest with commercials. The view count goes up. If it goes up enough, I may try to monetize your interest. With each view our territory, such as it is, expands. My cat treads through your bedroom digitally. The cat itself is not aware of this.
Does putting our cats online constitute a loan? Do we retain our clips? Will they or can they be taken from us or returned? Who owns these things: maker, viewer, or intermediary? YouTube says you do own your clip, and while you retain most of your rights, by posting it you grant YouTube nonexclusive rights to do with it whatever it wishes in perpetuity. You still own it, but you no longer retain exclusive control. The medium takes control. We all should know by now that sharing on the internet invites the readers’ participation with or without our say-so in the matter: my sharing courts your remix, not just your clicks. YouTube doesn’t let you download clips, but there are ways around that for those of us who would want to keep these things. (Does anyone download and maintain a library of cat videos? If so, drop me a note; I’d love to talk with you.)
Likewise, there’s no need to return these clips when we’re done with them. They are disposable—or maybe we never acquired them. At most we acquired an emotional experience and a memory of them. We might think they’ll always be here. And some won’t leave us anyway.
Let’s look at the famous Nyan Cat, a lesson in exhaustion: an official selection of the 2014 Internet Cat Video Festival, Nyan Cat is a looped, 8-bit, Pop Tart-bodied, animated cat flying through space, trailing rainbows while an inane sample from a Japanese song plays. It goes on and on and on repeat; inane doesn’t cover it—add an s, and you’re maybe halfway there. Its charm is its reverse: a perversity, it exists to irritate. Conversely, its popularity is immense. The website nyan.cat (and just to hijack this sentence for a little while, nyan.cat hijacks the domain suffix .cat, designed to help spread the Catalan culture and language. Eliding the two, when I load the .cat domain’s registration page, Google Translate renders its first instruction from Catalan to English as “register a cat”— which in a way is what we do when we post our pet to YouTube: we check our cat into the database; now he is no longer only ours) tracks how long you can tolerate Nyan Cat’s numbing song without incurring vertigo.
I’d suggest you check it out, but I can’t recommend the experience. It gets intense real fast. Still, for this anthology—for science—I tried super hard. After several attempts, I must report that I can’t make it past 334 seconds without an intense feeling of having wasted my life. As if to acknowledge the pointlessness of your achievement, the website offers, “Tweet your record!” Sir, I will not. First, I’ll barf.
Read the entire essay at the New Republic.