Art Animal?

Is art unique to humans? Art-like activities practiced by animals other than humans include: birds and humpback whales sing, bowerbirds build displays, and chimpanzees and elephants paint. The last two chimpanzees and elephants painting, only occurs with the intervention of humans and the other activities are generally instinctual and unchanging affairs. The only changes that could occur in the instinctual art-like behaviour of animals are due to either an accidental discovery or availability of a material for production – Bowerbird’s bowers became more elaborate after blue plastic milk bottle caps were introduced.

I have been reading Stephen Davies The Artful Species (Oxford, 2012); in it Davies examines if aesthetics is an evolutionary or a cultural development. It is a very detailed examination of what might be the evolution of aesthetics, examining the evidence from biology, paelontonlogy and the various arguments around the issue. I’m not convinced, I think that aesthetics might be more of an issue of semiotics rather than evolution but I don’t want to make this a philosophy essay nor a book review (as I’m still reading Davies) and I’m not paid enough to do professional philosophy, like Davies, so I’ll just kick a few more ideas about art and animals around in this blog post.

The art-like activities of chimpanzees are introduced into the media cycle of sensationalism for reasons more of publicity and money rather than science. Theories are not proven, improved or even disproved by getting chimpanzees to paint or take photographs. There is always some zoo somewhere in the world raising money with animal painting – it is not bad zoo practice but it is not art.

(See “Chimpanzee’s Polaroids Expected to Fetch Big Money at Auction” by Allison Meier in Hyperallergic 16/5/2013 for the latest example.)

Chimpanzees appear to have aesthetic purpose in their creations, in that they show an interest in balance, composition and completion. Male chimpanzees have been recorded becoming sexual excited when painting and destroying the work on completion. Desmond Morris, who studied chimpanzee painting for many years, expresses his opinion of chimpanzee aesthetic taste succinctly: “They show compositional control, but a minimum of it; they show calligraphic development, but a minimum of it, they show aesthetic variation, but again at a minimal level.” There is the suggestion that chimpanzees are more intent in disrupting the blank space that they are presented with rather than the results, as chimpanzees are no more or less interested in their own work than paintings by anyone else.

I remember an Ivor Cutler story about listening to a thrush singing. The thrush stops to ask Ivor what he thought of the song. “Pretty good thrush music” Ivor replies, but the thrush wanted to know about the song’s chart potential. (Ivor Cutler, A Bird?)

If there were an artist that was of another species would we be able to understand or appreciate their work? Could you make a work of art that would be appreciated as aesthetically by another animal (as opposed to just appreciated for its comfort, curiosity, etc.)?

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

3 responses to “Art Animal?

  • ninadf

    “There is the suggestion that chimpanzees are more intent in disrupting the blank space that they are presented with rather than the results…” surely there’s something poetic in that. Saying the chimp artistic taste was minimal is a value judgement: could be the next Pollock?

    • Mark Holsworth

      There is some individual poetry to the disruption of the black space but I was thinking that it was more like tagging.

    • ninadf

      I hadn’t considered the comparison with tagging. Good point though. To me tagging is uglier, a mark of ownership as well as disruption. It’s easier to romanticise when animals do it rather than youths wielding spray cans!

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