Tag Archives: Desmond Morris

Persons of Interest

Persons of Interest was a series of blog posts about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact. I wanted to write a personal history of art, telling it from my own view, to examine how the art and biographical details have influenced my own critical judgements. It was not an easy process and the posts did not attract many readers; maybe it was too self-indulgent or my choose of persons too obvious. Maybe, the posts didn’t come with enough images; anyway, I don’t think that I will continue it.

Who to include and who to leave out? This is always the question in making such lists. Influences come and go in waves of interest by the public and at various times in your life you get caught up in that wave of general interest. As a kid I must have been reading Robert Hughes in Time Magazine as my parents subscribed to it but I wouldn’t want to count Hughes as an influence or a person of interest. I played on synthesisers and so I was interested in Brian Eno. I am not claiming that I am major fan of Eno but Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World has been on high rotation for decades.

Here are all my Persons of Interests posts. They were written roughly in the order that they started to influence me.

Jan #1 – Desmond Morris

Feb #2 – Andy Warhol

March #3 – Salvador Dali

April #4 – Marcel Duchamp

May #5 – Laurie Anderson

July #6 – Various, Notes from the Pop Underground 

July #7 – Keith Haring

August #8 – William Burroughs

September #9 – Philosophers

December #10  – Hunter S. Thompson

It is not surprising that I am interested in influences when the subject of my thesis was the influence of Max Stirner’s philosophy on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. I started reading Max Stirner because of one remark by Marcel Duchamp but as I was investigating his relationship to philosophy, both the influence on and the influence of, I felt I had to read him.

“When he (Duchamp) was asked later in life to identify a specific philosopher or philosophical theory that was of specific significance to his work, he cited Stirner’s  only major book – Der Einzige und sein Eignetum…” (Francis M. Naumann “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites”  p.29)



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.)?

Person of Interest – Desmond Morris

This is the first entry for a monthly series about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life.


This starts with the cover of Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976) because of the cover the book stood out amongst the rest of the books on my father’s bookshelf. I was eleven years old; I liked the colours and the biomorphic creatures. The cover is a reproduction of a painting by Desmond Morris “The Expectant Valley”, 1972.

The painting is a of colourful biomorphic creatures on a strange verdant landscape. The largest of these creatures has a large red body and with a purple head of four soft antlers and a black curl; as a child I identified this as the central character of the narrative. It is like the paintings of Miro; Morris exhibited with Miro in 1950 at the London Gallery in an exhibition organized by the Belgian Surrealist Edouard Mesens.

Biomorphs were invented by Jean Arp in 1915 or 1916 and are influenced by the microscopic animal and plant world. William Rubins observed that biomorphs are “the nearest thing to a common form-language of the painter-poets of the Surrealist generations.” (Rubins, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, p.42)

I really liked the cover of The Selfish Gene and as a child expected that the book would contain a story about these biomorphic creatures on the cover. I was disappointed to find that there were no more images inside the book. In a way Morris’s biomorphic creatures are the perfect illustration for The Selfish Gene and Morris has painted a picture based on Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker, 1986.

Richard Dawkins owns “The Expectant Valley” and another painting by Morris, “The Titillator”. David Attenborough also owns a couple of Morris’s paintings – none of Morris’s paintings are in public collections.

Surrealism was slow to catch on in Anglophone countries and the British Surrealists have largely been ignored in even histories of Surrealism. Desmond Morris was part of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox, Oscar Mellor, Emmy Bridgwater, John Melville and William Gear. The interest in Surrealism by eminent British scientists (Morris, Dawkins and Attenborough) continues to renew my interest in the art and philosophy of Surrealism. Surrealism was profoundly influenced by the sciences (physics and biology) in more ways than any of the other modern art movements.

Desmond Morris never really decided between a career as an artist, as a scientist, a science writer or a television presenter. Morris even managed to combine his interests studying and exhibiting “picture-making behaviour of the great apes”. This diversity of activities makes Morris an interesting person – his new publication The Evolution of Art will include image-recognition technology that will allow readers to see animations and other extra content.

Morris’s painting “The Expectant Valley” was one my earliest taste of Surrealism; I will following up my interest in Surrealism in other posts about persons of interest. Following up on my interest in his painting I read Desmond Morris’s books, The Secret Surrealist (Phaidon, Oxford, 1987), The Naked Ape (1967) and Peoplewatching (1978) and this is why I am recommending Desmond Morris as a person of interest.

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