PRINT March 1984


The caryatids
who hold up
what we call
rush about
what to uphold.
as John Crowe
Ransom wrote:
again the ubiquitous
hairy dog,/
like a numerous army
rattling the

USUALLY SNARLING, USUALLY PRETTY much ignored by the people around—like the half-wild mutts ducking into alleyways throughout the world—dogs have been leaping and barking through paintings with conspicuous frequency the last couple of years. Not pets. Not wolves, either. Dogs. Hungry. They snap their jaws. Their flashing teeth have become an emblem of something.

“Oh keep the dog far hence, that’s friend to men,” wrote T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land— meaning that dogs would dig up and eat the newly dead. Maybe he was thinking of the god Anubis of ancient Egypt—the jackal god that led the other jackals digging and devouring in the cemetery. They were worshiped for this: eating and reprocessing.

Some shows are literally full of dogs. Staring into their glowing eyes one day I found myself thinking of Snorri, the Old Icelandic poet. At the end of the world cycle, he wrote, warriors will go out through each of the many doorways of the drinking-hall of Odin, to do final battle against the Wolf of Nonbeing, who comes at his appointed time to devour the world. Their eyes glowed around me from Soho to Noho to 57th-ho.

I can almost remember the day I became so warmly familiar with this friend and confidante of man that, seeing him yet again on a gallery wall, my heart leapt and I thought, “Why, there’s My Dog Neo!”. For a while I only went to shows to see if he was there. Usually he was. Glowing and snarling.

Dogs know us. They knew us before we had our arbitrary complex of activities (metal-working, writing, architecture in durable materials, and so on) called civilization. They remember us before we put on airs. The Cynics of ancient Greece took a vow to live like dogs. Their purpose was to eradicate in themselves all that is named civilization, to drop beneath convention and live by nature’s law alone, as if civilization had never happened. Then one day while walking from gallery to gallery in that plush (in spots) new uptown of Tompkins Square, with Neo’s eyes glowing at me from this wall and that, I said (almost aloud), “Well: what is My Dog Neo?”. And quickly I wrote it in a small memo book. And here it is: “My Dog Neo is the mood of the world today. His raw survival orientation (and I know I say his), his violent and cowardly pursuit of biological advantage, represent the so-called ‘lower’ nature of humans, into which we/they may sink at any moment. With his toothy smile he says, Namoh Sivayah!—Hail to the Coming Doom!”And I walked on, tucking the book in my pocket and wondering about this proposed new Beast of the Apocalypse: where did he come from and what does he want? Hell’s in fashion. Or, could the last howl of the jackal in the corpsefield be the predawn bark that half wakes you from sleep, announcing a new day?

There’s a form of burial in Tibet called Sky Burial. The dead are put out in vulture fields; every scrap of the flesh of the corpse is carried to the sky inside a vulture. The Egyptian goddess Isis was a vulture, too, because of this: reprocessing; rebirthing. When Christianity suppressed the old symbols and qualities of the Goddess and, for example, made Mary a Virgin (all the time!), the old iconography somehow kept popping up in art: look, she’s got wheat on her gown, like Demeter; Cupids crawling on her breasts, like Aphrodite; a baby and a crown, like Isis; stars in her hair, like Ishtar—and so on: Our Lady of the Vultures. Maybe these images from suppressed religions came from old literature. Or maybe this is the moment to go Jungian. But wherever those sheaves of wheat all over the Virgin’s gown came from, that’s where My Dog Neo comes barking from, too.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.