Consider the story of Lolabelle, the rat terrier cast by Laurie Anderson—her human companion—in Anderson’s stirring, tender film Heart of a Dog. In extraordinary footage, Anderson reveals her four-legged friend’s remarkable ability to both appreciate and create richly textured musical scores. As we witness Lolabelle’s aptitude for piano—her command of the keyboard, her innate sense of rhythm and her strategic deployment of the pause—we behold the creative potential in every pooch. For Anderson and her fellow artists, dogs represent a vast, untapped audience for creative endeavors.
Anderson is a pioneer in the emerging field of creativity for canines. She has cannily identified a massive wet-nosed population of potential art enthusiasts: dogs live in 44 percent of U.S. homes, which means that there are upwards of 50 million pooches hungry for culture. In 2010, Anderson performed her first dog concert, with several hundred pups in attendance, on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. Anderson has staged several such performances since, including one early this year in New York’s Times Square, conducted in honor of Heart of a Dog. Despite the January evening’s arctic temperature, the canine community was out in force. Dogs clad in sweaters and puffer coats gathered around Anderson as she delivered a violin concert in haunting frequencies that both the canines and their humans enjoyed. In a rousing finale, Anderson called for the dogs to lift their voices in a chorus of barks: From the tiniest Pom to the most formidable Bernese, the assembled spectators created their own sweet music.
It was a remarkable evening, the kind that renews an art lover’s faith in creativity and connection. And it prompted the sort of uncomplicated joy that the art world desperately needs right now.
In these early decades of the twenty-first century, you might imagine that art aficionados would be ecstatic. After all, we are in contact with more creativity than ever: there are art fairs opening every other week on every continent; biennials, triennials, and quinquennials occurring the globe over; images of artworks streaming across our Instagram and Facebook feeds.
And yet, something vital is missing. Somewhere in the incessant flow of pictures we’ve lost the spark that great art gives us—the aha! that shifts our vision, expands our worldview, and enlivens our senses. The profound experiences we crave remain out of reach.
But what to do?
Turns out that one answer is right under our noses—it’s in our lap right now, napping. Our beloved pooches, the ones who protect and obey us and vibrate with excitement when they see us, can liberate us from our suffering.
I can attest to this myself, as my own gallery-going experience has been transformed by Rocky, a spirited Morkie whom I met several years ago in a SoHo shelter. To my surprise, Rocky panted with pleasure each time I suggested a Chelsea gallery crawl, even as I remained wary of the dealers’ overhyped wares. I wondered: What was Rocky’s secret? As we spent more and more time together, it became clear that Rocky had something to teach me—to teach all of us—about finding joy in today’s art world. Among his many skills, I noticed a singular capacity to remain in the moment and to see each artwork with fresh eyes.
Rocky’s fearlessness, his capacity to remain curious, and, most importantly, his indifference to the pronouncements of New York Times reviews, were the inspiration for a talk I gave in February to a group of art world insiders gathered in a gallery in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. The lecture, titled Five Things My Dog Taught Me About Art, not only considered the dog’s capacity to teach us about human ingenuity but also served as the launch event for a radical new exhibition I’m organizing called dOGUMENTA. The premise of dOGUMENTA is this: If canines like Rocky and Lolabelle can teach us so much about human creativity, what if they had a show of their own? How would artists respond to this massive new audience?
Now in development, dOGUMENTA (I) NYC will be the world’s first exhibition of art for dogs. It’s a labor of love, dedicated to my beloved Rocky and canine companions the world over. This will be a show not of or by dogs, but for them. It offers an unprecedented opportunity for the creative community to engage with an entirely new species of art lover, and to consider its concerns, interests, and worldview. Anderson’s explorations in Heart of a Dog and her performances are the first dispatches from the vanguard. I am eager to see how other artists will respond to this mandate.
It’s safe to say that dOGUMENTA is a revolutionary step forward for human creativity, and it is long overdue. After all that dogs have given us, isn’t it time we gave something back?
Jessica Barrow Dawson is a New York City–based arts reporter, critic, and professor. She is currently at work on a memoir.