People + Art + Wildlife

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

You can see the elk a mile away. Headed north out of Jackson, the lead cow tripping her way down, the bull perched atop the rock, gazing across the valley; three others following. On a daily basis dozens of people stop their cars and take snapshots of this monumental sculpture by Bart Walter in front of the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Some picture-takers lean out the window of the car; at other times whole families emerge to pose in front of the sculpture, or a well-equipped shutterbug hauls out a tripod.

Are people fascinated by the art or the elk? Ironically, during the summer few actual elk appear in the immediate area. Once the snows come, however, thousands gather for feeding just across the road on the National Elk Refuge. Even then, people take photographs of the sculpture.


In a funny way, this activity represents something fundamental about people, art, and animals. The energy, time, and expense that humans devote to portrayals of wildlife hardly weighs in when compared to other artistic subjects, much less the wholesale investments we make in leisure activities such as sporting events, movies, and other mass entertainments. Nevertheless wildlife art touches people in a personal way, people who may never have studied art, biology, or animal sociology.

Around the world people stop to take pictures adjacent to buildings, natural wonders, tourist features, and every kind of marker. In 1976 a scholar named Dean MacCannell published a book titled The Tourist. He analyzed people's behavior at tourist sites, noting that going out to see a plaque on a stone in a remote cornfield is a special way that people identify having an authentic experience, being in the "real" place where something occurred. So when I see people stopping to take photographs of wildlife sculpture, I think about the authentic experience that it provides and the expression of wonder that it represents -- and I do not feel that the tourists are people who are satisfied with shallow, inauthentic experiences. Someone who goes out from home, travels a great distance, and records the things he or she observes makes a personal connection that testifies to human curiosity and a hunger for experience.

Seekers after art and wildlife constantly create testimonials -- watch for them.