There is a longstanding debate among philosophers, aesthetes, and artists about the relative beauty of human art versus natural wonders and – even more broadly – between the relative merits of human artefacts and natural phenomena. Nature and art have been defined and redefined against each other, generally as two more or less isolated and mutually exclusive terms. In his collection of essays on the aesthetic appreciation of nature, for example, Malcolm Budd argues that any aesthetic experience of nature depends on an “appreciation of nature as what nature actually is,” that is, nature is appreciated as nature in contrast to a human-crafted artefact. And for an appreciation of nature to be “pure,” the nature in question must be devoid of any imposed design, particularly any design imposed for artistic or aesthetic effect.
The design and intention in the making of things lies at the heart of most distinctions between art and nature. As T. J. Diffey notes, the crucial difference in the experience of art and of nature is that nature “permits or invites” an experience whereas a work of art “is the intentional object of experience.” That is, taxidermy can be critiqued as well or badly made, lifelike or wooden, but living animals just are.A spontaneous encounter with a wild animal, unplanned and unchoreographed, stands in sharp contrast to the rows of animals in natural history museums. Intention and artistry pervades every inch of taxidermy, from choosing which creature to kill through to posing and arranging its skins. No one could ever mistake a breathing creature for its taxidermic reconstruction.
Technically speaking, considering the skinning, tanning, sewing, and stuffing involved in both taxidermy and upholstery, a leather chair is not so very different than a piece of taxidermy. But of course they are different. Anyone who has ever stepped into a room with leather furniture and hunting trophy can attest to that inescapable fact – taxidermy is not mere upholstery. Good taxidermy can capture some sense of the creature’s former liveliness and character; exceptional taxidermy may even achieve that uncanny spark of animation which gives viewers the tingling sensation that the hawk might any moment leave its perch or the lion spring through the glass. But even bad taxidermy and old, poorly crafted mounts will evoke a visceral realization that this thing is not just a human-made artefact no different than any sort of product made from animal skins. If aesthetic encounters of preserved animals are distinguished from encounters with living animals, they are also markedly different than encounters with leather chairs. So what sort of objects are taxidermied animals: nature, artifice, or something in between?
Landscape design and environmental art potential suggest a similar blurring. The marriage of natural phenomena (plants, trees, rocks, lands and water) and artistic or political intent engenders something that stands apart of Budd’s “pure” nature by harmonising design and organic matter into a symbiotic relationship. Such manipulations respond sensuously to the features of a site, emphasizing or shaping natural features in ways that make viewers contemplate their own relationship to particular pieces of nature. Yet while lawns and flowers may be planted, trees pruned, and landscapes managed, the organic materials persist in realising the necessity of their natures; they grow and reshape themselves despite all human intrusions and interferences. Gardens are created with living things. In contrast, while taxidermy similarly blends nature and art, the relationship is hardly symbiotic. The animal is dead. Dead, but not gone.
The best avenue for explaining the emotive intensity of “dead but not gone” is to consider the perception of preserved human remains. In the Church of All Saints in the little town of Sedlec in the Czech Republic hangs a chandelier made exclusively from human bones and said to hold at least one of every bone in the human body. The candelabras in the ossuary are made of skulls. Femurs and more skulls line the walls. Over 40,000 skeletons were used to decorate the church. The objects seize our attention with an intensity no other material could do because they still speak to us, human to human, friend to friend through their immortality. The bones are human no matter how ornately these are used, no matter how strange the decoration. Mummies, scalps and shrunken heads, medical collections of anatomical normalities and deformities, all still impact us as human.
Why should an animal’s death diminish its animalness? Or, more to the point, why should a dead animal, stuffed and reanimated, lose its natural essence as something beyond human creation and fade into mere human mimicry of natural beauty? If the humanness of humans remains solid through death, why should animal parts be any difference? Taxidermy is more than a queasy species of trompe-d’oeil. Despite the artistic re-interpretation, the visceral impact of animals remains. The animal continues to exert itself. In short, taxidermy is neither not nature nor not art: it is a bit of both and neither. By straddling the nature-culture binary, taxidermy obliterates (or at least renders uninteresting) any division between the aesthetics of nature and the aesthetics of art. And in doing so taxidermy requires its own aesthetic vocabulary.