Breeding as art
By Betty White
(Text of talk to be given to the Persian Breakfast, CFA Annual 2005)
What we breeders do is not a "sport;" don't let anybody tell you differently. Sure, we compete at cat shows, but it really has little in common with team sports, where one team hopes to get a ball from one end of a field or court to the other more often than the opposing team. Where's the real value in that, other than entertainment? Or, how about an individual sport such as tennis, where the object is really for one player to hit a ball within the court more accurately than his or her opponent? Shall we talk about the "Sport of Kings?" OK, but thoroughbred racing is still more about getting from one place to another before anybody else, as is track-and-field on an individual basis. One might argue the value of learning sportsmanship, but don't we have to do that as well? If we are to remain in this particular pastime, we had better! No, what we are doing as breeders is attempting to breed a cat as near to its Standard of Perfection as possible, but in such a way that it is a thing of breathtaking beauty that will win honors at cat shows. And, in a larger sense, we are providing that beauty to our fellow human beings as healthy, loving pets to share their lives. The suggestion here is that what we breeders do is a bit more serious than any "sport." It is much more akin to art.
When we talk about balance and refinement, we are speaking in artistic terms. It's a visual thing, and refinement depends upon balance before all else. Put another way, a cat may be balanced and not be refined. As a matter of fact, a cat may be balanced and not essentially approach its standard! Consider the Persian. Some things are easy to appreciate: A cat is heavily boned and short; head and appendages are in proportion; however, the expression leads one to believe it would eat its young. Another cat is short; its salient features are in proportion; its expression is deliciously sweet, yet its bones bring last night's chicken dinner to mind. Neither of these Persians is what is being discussed in the "GENERAL" paragraph of the Persian standard. As I said, this is easily grasped.
Less easily appreciated is the very first sentence in the Persian Standard following the listing of the allotment of points: "Balance and refinement are the essence of the breed, where all parts come together in a harmonious whole, with neither too much nor too little consideration given to any one feature." That statement is a reiteration in summation of Jeanne Singer's Preface to all of the CFA Standards. As a Siamese breeder, Jeanne originally wrote those words for the Siamese standard. Believing that all cats should be bred with those goals in mind, CFA asked Jeanne to allow her words to be used as we now have them. Quite simply, it asks for the kind of reaction to a cat, whether Persian, Siamese, or whatever, that elicits but one response, "What a gorgeous creature!" And that is nothing less than a response to fine art.
If it is possible to have a balanced cat without refinement, yet balance is still incidental to that elusive term - refinement -- then what exactly produces that "Eureka!" cry of artistic triumph? The answer is right before our eyes in the general description of the ideal Persian; there is no secret about it.
GENERAL: the ideal Persian should present an impression of a heavily boned, well-balanced cat with a sweet expression and soft, round lines. The large round eyes set wide apart in a large round head contribute to the overall look and expression. The long thick coat softens the lines of the cat and accentuates the roundness in appearance.
Refinement is all - every single thing - mentioned in that description. Refinement will not be present without total balance, without total roundness unmarred by ear size or shape, without a full coat to soften the silhouette, and most importantly, without a sweet, open expression. The trick is not to emphasize or exaggerate; it is the total package, the complete visual presence of the ideal Persian as it appears before our eyes.
Do color and pattern have anything to do with refinement? Thinking again in artistic terms, we would ask ourselves if color matters in our appreciation of a painting, sculpture, or art glass. Most of us would say that it depends upon the medium. It might not make a lot of difference in a bronze sculpture, certain types of glass, or in etchings. It certainly matters in most oils or watercolors and it certainly matters in most cats. If you question this, then talk to an Oriental breeder who is currently showing a solid blue or solid chestnut in the same color class with whites and ebonies. Or, ask a fellow Persian breeder showing blues, creams, or reds in the class with whites and blacks. We all definitely respond to color, however variously. In our cat world, color response in the case of the Oriental solid colors has a lot to do with preferences. While that is also true to a degree in Persians, the Persian solid colors - particularly the dilutes -- appear to be held to different standards. Again, color matters depending not only upon the breed, but the color or pattern within the breed. In the final analysis, color anchors refinement in that it contributes to the total vision. It either contributes because it is excellent and correct, or it jars the senses because it mars that vision.
The thing about good art is that it is universally celebrated. Excellent composition satisfies our innate sense of balance. Superior technique uses the medium to convey a mood or message. The best-loved works of art in the world are the ones that move us whether we know anything about art or not. Visiting galleries and further study illuminates the reasons for our response so that we no longer wonder why a particular masterpiece speaks to us. We no longer say, "I don't know why I like it; I just do." This being true, education and experience can "refine" and widen our appreciation of our world's great art. (Notice the use of that verb, "refine.")
If refinement is present in a Persian, will it be recognized by most of those who see it? Put another way, is an appreciation of refinement in any cat a natural, God-given ability or is it learned through study and experience? Many -- certainly not all -- cat fanciers will respond to the vision of a drop-dead gorgeous, refined Persian without really understanding why they do so. Study and experience, even in other breeds or other animals, will widen the number of those who do. So far, our analogy to art is holding up pretty well, isn't it?
To refine anything is to remove all that is coarse. This definition of refinement, this approach to breeding, demands that the entire animal be assessed. Anything coarse will mar the whole, because it is the total feline that we strive to produce. We leave it to art critics to analyze brush strokes, composition, and overall technique in a work of art. In other words, experts pick an artwork apart in evaluating it. Our own appreciation is with the finished product. In our small cat world, the so-called experts are the judges who handle and appraise our cats. But, are they really the ultimate critics of all our hard work in producing healthy, beautiful felines? We are right back to the larger world out there, the people who will share their lives with our pets. While we are striving to produce a masterpiece for the show ring, the siblings and relatives of that masterpiece are gracing the lives of Americans with a bit of living art. Nope, we're not engaged in a sport here, folks; this is an artistic endeavor!