Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, and Sarah Schultz

Reviewed By

Hamsterdance may have been the first guilty pleasure the Internet afforded us; since then, though, we have been saturated with thousands of online cat videos. It is an entire generation’s preferred confluence of leisure and technology. The essayists of Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong attend to the sources of guilt in this pleasure, and when appropriate, they forgive them too. By retroactively transforming our compulsive searching and scrolling and clicking and aw-ing into something culturally productive, this collection is a license to catvid binge. Writers, scholars, and famous cat owners tap the wellspring of cultural felinity—analyzing the aesthetic and symbolic artifacts Felidae has unwittingly contributed to our sociocultural landscape—to unravel the ethos of this contemporary phenomenon.

The impetus for this Coffee House Books project was the inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival at the Walker Art Center’s Open Field in Minneapolis. Coffee House editors took a field trip to the beguiling festival and returned, wanting to compile an essay collection about “cat videos and poetics and politics,” a bona fide discourse about the “boundaries of… art… about spectacle and the communal and the personal.” Depending on who you ask, the festival was a feat of cultural democracy or an affront to the institution of the museum. The authors and financiers of this book (368 enthusiastic backers of Coffee House’s KickCatstarter) would argue for the former.

In a self-aware moment, Sasha Archibald points out that “certain gatekeepers of high culture,” herself undoubtedly included, “have no qualms contributing to the schmaltzy genre of cat books and cat arts” because (she goes on to convincingly demonstrate) cat lingers in the psyche of modern art. The gatekeepers of this cat book—Ander Monson, Jillian Steinhauer, Maria Bustillos, Carl Wilson, and Elena Passarello, to name a few—frame the tableau vivant of celebricats with their idiosyncratic research and reflection.

In Ander Monson’s melancholic “The Internet Is a Cat Video Library,” an essay about technological disjunction, he borrows from Scott Stulen’s suggestion that “the Internet is a cat park.” Monson pegs cat video watching as “the least immersive interaction you can have with a cat.” Admittedly, cat videos register somewhere between the sterility of Tamagotchi and the odiousness of the litter box. Monson writes, “like nostalgia or consuming porn, it’s not an interaction at all, but a kind of loop: it plugs you back into your own predictable desire.” As he considers all the deceased cats that will jounce in digital perpetuity, he alternately strolls through the International Wildlife Museum, reaching for the pelage of taxidermied animals, an analog sensation with which the Internet cannot (yet) compete. This dichotomy—John Berger’s “animals of the mind” vs. Carolee Schneeman’s “meat joy”—is a persistent, if oblique, tension in this collection.

Jillian Steinhauer’s essay is most direct in its grappling with the collection’s inciting question. She draws upon art and cultural critics who have helpfully generalized that “all art is entertainment but not all entertainment is art” (Pauline Kael) and cat videos are “fundamentally amateur” (Mark Greif). Steinhauer, like her colleagues, gracefully avoids the mantle of the pedantic troll; rather than bristle at the amateur production of YouTube cat videos, she offers a broader critique of the platform itself. Because YouTube is “a system lacking a meaningful shape,” she argues, the user’s relationship with online cats can be casual or fanatical, or both. Steinhauer taps film theorist Sigfried Kracauer’s “Cult of Distraction” to renew his nearly century-old caution about how platforms like YouTube “raise distraction to the level of culture.” If Kracauer’s evaluation of Berlin’s movie palace shows had political reverberations in 1926 (they were “aimed at the masses,” Kracauer asserted), then YouTube is relatively inoffensive due to its public accessibility (now, We do the aiming). As a result of this democratic platform, amateur is the prevailing affect of the online cat video and perhaps what most compromises its artistic merit. YouTube “allows us to create our own spectacle,” Steinhauer says, even if that spectacle is “empty… a painful visualization of how far cats have fallen.”

While some essayists are keen to point out the way we’ve relegated cats to involuntary spectacle, Maria Bustillos salves the conscience in writing about our common ground with cats. In capturing a cat in a “dignity-impaired moment,” Bustillos suggests we are actually capturing a form of satire: the cat enacts “our central predicament,” she says, which is underscored by “beauty and panic, laziness, and the potential for real idiocy.” Bustillos’s peculiar brand of felinocentrism (she begins her essay recounting a dream in which she was a cat and then awoke, certain of cats’ superiority) usurps the thinly-veiled anthropomorphism that manifests elsewhere in the collection.

In one of the more rousing essays of Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, cultural critic Carl Wilson (best known for his 331/3 series book about Celine Dion fandom) writes about a specific subgenre of online cat videos: musical cat videos. Wilson analyzes the catalog, from The Boxing Cats to “Chat Écoutant la Musique” to “Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat” to “Cat Slap Joy Division”; in each case, “cats are used to make” [or interact with] “the kind of music humans know and like.” Wilson’s essay calls attention to the predictability of this form of amusement. Their music serves our interests; like the torturous Katsklavier, or “cat organ,” a prepared piano in which cats are arranged according to their pitch and stored in stalls that are designed to crush a cat’s tail when the corresponding piano key is depressed, the resulting songs are composed of the cats’ acute agony. Wilson urges our curiosity to trend toward strangeness (as opposed to staged likenesses), to ask “What kind of ‘music’… do cats make of their own accord?’” If there is such a thing as natural cat music, it is certainly not the stuff of YouTube playlists, which millions of users continue to gravitate towards. Wilson ascribes to cats a necessary autonomy as he reminds us (because somehow we’ve forgotten) “a cat is not our instrument nor our audience.” Wilson’s essay dovetails nicely with Elena Passarello’s lyric essay, which is its own song—or more appropriately, a cover song.

If the other essayists expertly analyze the cat video spectacle, then Elena Passarello (in her essay “Jeoffrey”) insinuates herself into the spectacle itself. In this lyric litany, it feels as if Passarello is trying to adopt a cat through the guise of ars poetica. In the mid-eighteenth century, Christopher Smart wrote the 1,200-line poem, Jubilate Agno. Passarello interacts with Smart’s famous “Fragment B” about his cat Jeoffry, the original celebricat. Passarello introduces us to her process: “I wrote seventy-five ‘Let’ lines that talk to Smart’s ‘Fors,’ like a call and response 250 years in the making.” In Passarello’s lines, Jeoffry appears among the lithe species of Felidae. Through imitative and enigmatic syntax, Passarello’s lines act as a conduit for cat mythology and taxonomy.

702) Let, after this, all kept menagerie Cats praise tenfold their JEOFFRY!

703) Let the Ocelot give her singular kit for Jeoffry to embrace.

704) Let the Lion sneeze as he did on the Ark and bring forth double Jeoffrys.

After her initial parade of permissions, there is a concentrated pleasure in the echoes she forges with Smart, the found rhymes—slant and perfect—that resemble Monson’s melancholy:

767) Let a Cat to a drowning man be love.

767) For he can swim for life

768) Let love be his keep.

768) For he can creep.

Stephen Burt’s literary collage, “Prolegomena to Any Future Poetics of the Cat Video,” interacts with its source texts too, but in an appropriative manner, systematically replacing key words from quotations (“Barthes” or “literature” or “artist” or “music” or “text” or “beautiful thing”) with “cat video” so as to commit a cultural forgery, integrating his subject into these vetted totems of high culture. Elsewhere in this collection, more “cats of the mind” abound—those from Instagram and Google Street View, for instance. The Internet Cat Video Festival is heralded as the apotheosis of cat appreciation; cat owners turn inside jokes out; and industry insiders, Will Braden (writer and director of Henri, le Chat Noir) and Kevin Nguyen (former content manager of I Can Has Cheezburger?) offer glimpses into the private business of going viral.

A late antagonistic essay by not-a-cat person, David Carr, feels too surrounded by the collection’s interested parties to gain any real traction. He reaches for low-hanging fruit (busting jokes about cat ladies and cat people, in general), and in doing so, shows the reader, intentionally or not, what it feels like to be in the minority in this new felinophilic generation. Even at his most reasonable—Carr walks back his disdain for cats, claiming he is just “returning their indifference”—he is underhanded, a voice of dissent against a backdrop of cat apologia.

As Sasha Archibald points out that cute is “the lingua franca of the online cat video,” her deconstruction will not change this fact overnight. Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong is not an attempt to swap the lingua franca, but rather, the collection initiates us in a secondary—and more rigorous—way of speaking about its subject. As a result, it now feels entirely appropriate to discuss online cat videos not just in our downtime, but at all times. 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.


Lawrence Lenhart is the author of the essay collection The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19). He studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an M.F.A. from The University of Arizona. His work appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, BOAAT, Fourth Genre, Greensboro Review, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Terrain.org, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, and climate fiction at Northern Arizona University and is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM. More from this author →