My favorite cat video is called “Kitten Surprise (How to Break Up a Cat Fight).”
It is a mere 39 seconds long. In it, two kittens roll around, play fighting on the floor. Another kitten saunters into the frame, causing the tussling pair to stop and stare. The new kitten vomits.
The video has 32 million views on YouTube. Like great cinema, it contains action, drama, suspense and a twist ending.
But is it art?
That is the central question that “Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong” tries to solve over the course of 14 funny, fascinating essays by noted writers.
The book is a collaboration between Walker Art Center and publisher Coffee House Press, both in Minneapolis. Its seed was planted in 2012 when the museum’s inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival drew 10,000 people. The latest CatVidFest (as its called), in August, sold out the shiny new St. Paul Saints ballpark with 13,000 curious cat lovers.
Clearly, this is a phenomenon that needs explaining.
The book amounts to a lot of really smart people trying to make sense of why we obsess over videos of cats falling off counters, jumping into small boxes and surprise vomiting. The resulting essays prove to be a little too precious, but also profound.
Art critic Jillian Steinhauer attempts to explain the art of these videos by quoting several famed, long-dead German cultural philosophers. Some freshman art theory major is going to have a blast ripping off her chapter. In another, the theory of cuteness is thoroughly deconstructed to the point that a passage makes an analogy to antebellum slavery. Dog lovers will surely throw their hands up at this point.
The late David Carr shows up in typical acerbic fashion, bringing the reader back down to reality. Cats are just cats, he says. They eat songbirds and would probably eat you if they had bigger teeth. Carr’s essay is creatively placed next to Stephen Burt’s, in which he begins his dive into the cat-as-art question by quoting the likes of Keats and Baudelaire.
Burt also asks the question: Why aren’t dog videos as popular? Dogs are too much like us, he theorizes. We can’t laugh at the folly of dogs, because we see ourselves in dogs. “Cats don’t care whether we laugh at their failures, which stops us feeling guilty when we do,” he writes.
Ander Monson explains the explosion of cat videos like this: Dog lovers love to meet other dog lovers, and love it when their dogs meet other dogs. That’s why there are dog parks. Cat owners do not want their cats to meet other cats because it would be a disaster. Thus, the Internet has become a virtual cat park.
Joyce Carol Oates famously tweeted, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by kitten videos.” This proclamation dons the back jacket of the book. With a wink-wink, “Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong” seeks to upend this sentiment. Does it succeed? Maybe, maybe not. But the book succeeds wholeheartedly in one way: It’ll make you want to watch more cat videos.
Start with “Kitten Surprise.”
Tom Horgen is a features editor and writer at the Star Tribune.