Sunday, 9 November 2008

Can animals create art?

This blog has of necessity compared humans and animals several times in tracing the course of our evolution, and has concluded that art is a human activity. Before we proceed, we should address the question of whether animals can create art.

Some animals, particularly our anthropoid near relatives, seem capable of artistic sensibility. Biologists have handed pencils and paintbrushes to elephants, primates and other animals, and the resulting images seem to display an awareness of aesthetic properties such as balance, emotion and form, to the extent that it has proved possible to fool art experts into thinking they are the work of human artists [1]. Humans find their work beautiful, and ape paintings were owned by Miró and Picasso. Are these animals creating art? And why can their work give humans aesthetic pleasure?

The aesthetic abilities of animals

Aside from early experiments such as those of Nadjeta Kohts, the first systematic investigation of animals’ aesthetic abilities took place in the 1940s, when the American psychologist Paul Schiller gave paper marked with outlined figures to a chimpanzee named Alpha to test her drawing skills. Alpha tended to draw within the marked lines and would even finish off incomplete patterns, demonstrating “a tendency to produce a symmetry or balance of masses on the page”.[2]

The real pioneer in the study of art by animals was Desmond Morris, the anthropologist — and artist — who has spent his life comparing humans with other animals. Over a two-year period starting in 1956, Morris experimented with introducing drawing and painting to primates, in particular his chimpanzee protégé Congo. Morris was not trying to prove that apes were the equals of human artists — his hope was that studying painting in animals might cast light upon the biological origins of the artistic impulse. Congo surprised him with forceful compositions that were interesting enough to exhibit at the ICA in 1957. More recently, the gorillas Koko and Michael in California [3] had work exhibited in 1997–8 and, because they had been taught sign language, could even give names to their paintings.

Bird, by Koko the gorilla‘Bird’, by Koko the gorilla

What researchers like Schiller and Morris found was that apes recognise the limits of the paper area (the ‘field’). Morris found that if he drew a shape on one side of a piece of paper, Congo would draw another on the opposite side, suggesting a sense of composition. They show awareness of pre-marked shapes and their own markings have rhythm, symmetry and balance. Their style of marking even changes depending upon the media used. While working, they become increasingly involved and excited, even becoming upset if they aren’t allowed to complete what they are doing. “Both man and the apes,” Morris concluded in his book The Biology of Art, “have an inherent need to express themselves aesthetically.”[4]

It is also possible that species of the Homo genus prior to our own created art objects. Is art, then, not unique to Homo sapiens?

The distinction between animals and humans

This blog has already discussed some of the distinction between humans and animals. Marx recognises that human beings are animals and that they have animal needs, such as ‘eating, drinking, and procreating’. But he also points out:

It is obvious that the human eye enjoys things in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc.[5]

Humans crucially have a non-animal need, namely to find fulfilment through social creative labour. Through the skill of tool-making we discovered intellectual complexities unknown to other animals and became the first and only species to acquire language, i.e. symbolic communication. Refining these skills over 2 million years, we learnt to separate the utilitarian and spiritual functions of our objects. Finally modern humans appeared, and only then did art flourish. Art was the result of a long process of development that no other animal has undergone. As Marx wrote:

The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, although existing in the germ among certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labour process.[6]

Some animal species use tools, and recently evidence has even been found of tool-making among animals (for example Kanzi the bonobo or Betty the crow). This suggests that they are more sophisticated beings than Marx and his contemporaries recognised. But animals’ tool use is not comparable to humans’. No animal transforms the raw material of nature to premeditated ends except in a rudimentary fashion. Such achievements in animals, although their discovery is accompanied by grand statements that ‘humans are no longer unique’, illustrate the low level of their skills in these areas compared to our own.

Some ‘aesthetic’ activity in animals in the wild does not involve tool use at all. No discussion of animals and art is complete without mentioning the male bower bird, who builds remarkable structures from leaves and twigs, which he decorates with collected objects ranging from shells and flowers to pieces of glass. Each bird spends hours perfecting his individual creation, moving items around until he is satisfied. This certainly has the appearance of aesthetic activity.

Example of a bower bird’s bowerExample of a bower bird’s bower. Photo: bdonald (flickr)

Labour in animals however is instinctive, governed by the genetics of survival. I don’t mean that animals have zero consciousness, or may be dismissed as automatons. But an animal seeks to find a mate and pass on its genes by having offspring. The bower bird creates his bower purely because he wishes to attract a female: the bower is his species’ equivalent of a peacock’s gaudy feathers or the ‘dance’ of the wolf spider. The forms of the bowers always fall within very limited parameters — there is no creative exploration of materials, properties, etc, only the recreation, again and again, of a similar inherited pattern.

Or we may take the example of birdsong. It often sounds musical to the human ear, can be highly complex, and in some species even has dialects. This doesn’t make birdsong art. It is a functional behaviour usually practised by the male, either for territorial reasons or as a means of attracting a female. However beautiful we may find the dawn chorus, it probably arises for two reasons: firstly, so males can advertise their having survived the night, and thus their ability to feed young; secondly, because females often lay eggs at first light and are at their most fertile in the early morning. The males accordingly burst into competitive song. The dawn chorus is about birds’ struggle to promote their genes, not the joy of music.

Even if we agree that the aesthetic brilliance of male sexual displays are motivated by reproduction, does this not imply that females show a sense of beauty when they choose a particularly magnificent male as a mate? Presented with a range of seductive techniques such as dances, plumes, songs and so forth, are they not making an aesthetic choice? Darwin believed they were:

When we behold a male bird elaborately displaying his graceful plumes or splendid colours before the female, whilst other birds, not thus decorated, make no such display, it is impossible to doubt that she admires the beauty of her male partner.[7]

There is a difference however between a sense of beauty and a response to reproductive stimuli. Let us take the peacock’s tail as an example. Darwin once wrote that “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” — it was a mystery to him how this extraordinary but totally impractical display could have evolved. Only later did he realise that it was an indicator of sexual fitness. The peacock’s feathers advertise it as a mate, precisely because it must survive the costs in terms of energy required, hampering of flight, and attraction of predators. Experiments have shown that when the length of a peacock’s feathers is clipped, it receives less response from females. To our eyes, the feathers are not any less beautiful because they are slightly shorter. But the female is not choosing according to a human idea of beauty; it is choosing according to evolutionary stimuli which communicate that longer plumes are a signal of greater fitness. There is a huge difference between such judgements and an appreciation of beauty, or a sensitivity to art. We will look at this again when we examine ‘beauty’ as such in a dedicated article.

Humans create aesthetic objects even under conditions of extreme hardship, but art as such is never necessary for our survival (which is not to say that objects produced out of necessity never have aesthetic qualities). As we have discussed before, the specific forms taken by art are a learned cultural behaviour and the skills are lost if they are not handed on to new generations. Songbirds, in contrast to other bird species, do actually pass on their songs as learned rather than genetic behaviour. This exception to the rule does not alter the fact that their songs are functional in purpose — songbirds only learn the songs of their own species.

To reduce art to this functional, instinctive level is to deny that it is art at all. The consequence of animals never mastering tool-making is that they have never become aware of themselves as subjects in an objective world, have never experienced a separation from nature, and therefore never sought to assert their species character upon that objective world to try and bring it under their control. Marx observed:

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity.[8]

Humans are uniquely alienated from their animal being, and enter into a subject-object relationship with nature. An animal is one-sided and immediate, a human is universal. Human beings are not limited to one particular environment, to one narrow pattern of behaviour. We may think rationally upon any subject; we may exert our powers upon any aspect of the material world. Thus there is a profound qualitative difference between instinctive behaviour and the relatively autonomous creative labour of art. Because of our rich, dialectical relationship with external reality, humans need to objectify themselves in their labour in order to realise themselves as humans.

The painting apes

Even allowing that animals do not create art in their natural state, apes in particular have a demonstrable ability to draw and paint when encouraged to do so. Aren’t their pictures evidence of artistic ability?

Painting by Congo the chimpanzeePainting by Congo the chimpanzee, in his typical ‘fan’ composition

There is clear evidence that apes have a degree of graphical intelligence. It is not remarkable that some animals share behaviours with us that we would call ‘aesthetic’. Like us, apes communicate, play, have social organisation, have emotions, practice deception, and so on — they even have culture. Chimpanzees are our nearest surviving relative. However, we need to interpret that fact carefully. Chimpanzees and humans diverged from a common ancestor (which has yet to be identified for certain) approximately 6 million years ago. This is an immense amount of time, even in evolutionary terms, within which the two species have taken fundamentally different paths. Just as there is clear variation between the aesthetic abilities of different animal species (we can get paintings out of apes, but none out of dung beetles), there is a quantitative and qualitative difference between human and non-human practice.

The Belgian art theorist Thierry Lenain pointed out that apes in the wild who found deposits of white clay would probably play with it and smear it all over the surrounding trees, but after that would lose interest and do something else [9]. Only when presented with an enclosed field upon which to make markings, in a captive environment when there is little stimulation elsewhere, can apes become absorbed in painting. To train Congo how to paint, Desmond Morris sat him in a child’s chair with the paper in front of him on a table, and if he hadn’t controlled Congo’s access to the colours the chimp would simply have mixed them all together into a kind of mud.

Because they have never mastered tool-making, animals have never developed the means — paints and brushes, musical instruments, etc — by which their species-being may be objectified, nor have they developed a consciousness that wants to be objectified. A chimpanzee can be taught how to use a paintbrush because anthropoid physionomy is similar to ours, but a brush in its hand is an alien thing because it is not of chimpanzee provenance. The history of human production is what Marx called the ‘open book of man’s essential powers[10] — evidence of our need to objectify ourselves through labour. By contrast, chimps in nature don’t draw or paint, and nor does any other species of animal: their need for play has plenty of outlets for expression. Even though primates possess enough graphical awareness to make paintings, they are only creating images because of human intervention, using human tools, for human assessment. It is the human agent who presents the ape with painting equipment, chooses which paintings are worth displaying, and attaches value to the work. The animal therefore is becoming an extension of human artistic activity.

The one participant who attaches no value whatsoever to an animal’s paintings is the animal itself — primates will sometimes tear a painting up once their interest in the immediate act of making marks is exhausted. One might argue, like the psychologist Frans de Waal, that animals, not being human, do not share our attitudes to art: ‘their goal is not to create an enduring visual image that will please, inspire, provoke, shock, or produce whatever effect it is that the human painter seeks to achieve.’[11] But it is unlikely that animal painters have any preconceived ‘goal’ at all. Marx’s opinion was clear:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.[12]

Lenain proposed that the painting ape is simply engaged in play, enjoying breaking up spaces with marks. The marks with which it fills the available field are structured partly by the field and partly by the instruments used, both of which are determined by a human, not the ape. Once an area of colour has been applied, this becomes a secondary field in relation to which another colour can be applied. Thus a ‘composition’ is built up.

If each stroke blooms spontaneously on the page, with no thought other than to provoke clearly visible marks within the outline of that page, the succession of marks will automatically pay tribute to and echo its structure. This is the way in which monkey painting produces ordered forms and rhythmical compositions: by playing totally innocently at the game of visible disruption of a regular image field... The aesthetic properties of ape painting are generated in a very significant measure by the whole painting equipment rather than by the ape himself.[13]

The apes have no purpose beyond the immediate enjoyment of making marks. They do not adapt their materials (e.g. by mixing colours to make desired new ones), nor do they conceive of the field as an imaginative space. Through symbolic communication, humans enter into a relationship with the world in which their aesthetic behaviours gain an imaginative autonomy; an ape’s gestures exist functionally and for themselves, a kind of visual game devoid of concepts or values.

Desmond Morris saw parallels between the development of infant apes and children. Both enjoy experimenting with lines and shapes until the age of three, where the child takes a conceptual step the ape cannot: it draws a circle, adds two dots, and realises that it has created a face. The child has crossed the threshold into symbolic representation, where very few animals can follow. Whatever glimpses we may think we see of aesthetics in the bower bird’s restless bower-making or an ape’s painting, the animal can rarely step beyond an immediate relationship with nature because it does not have our capacity for symbolic communication. The existence of a rudimentary aesthetic sense in apes is not enough to make their paintings art, any more than their various vocalisations mean they are singing or performing poetry.

It was no accident that animal art had to wait until the 1950s for its decade of fame. Given that animals are unable to create representational images (the exceptions that have been observed are both ambiguous and highly exceptional), an interest in art by animals could only be conceived by a society that had ‘discovered’ abstract art, and had revised its definitions of aesthetic value in the wake of abstract expressionism and ‘primitivist’ schools such as Tachism [14]. It was this coincidence of the art scene with psychological research that put paintbrushes into the hands of animals. (The philistine sections of the media did not miss the chance to joke about parallels between modern art and ‘monkey painting’.) Similarly, a revival of interest in ape painting in the 1990s was based upon an overemphasising of biology and a broad movement to break down assumptions about human uniqueness. It was because of a socially conditioned human context that paintings by animals ever came into existence at all.

Why we find animal ‘art’ beautiful

The fact remains that humans can find ape paintings, bird and whale song, and other ‘aesthetic’ activity by animals very beautiful.

Lenain relates the story of the Japanese artist Hokusai, who

unrolled on the ground a long roll of paper and painted it with big blue hoops. Then he took a cock, dipped its feet in red paint and made it walk across the paper. His audience at once recognised a river studded with red maple leaves in autumn.

The cock simply walked across paper — it was the human beings who imposed a meaning on the images that were created. Hokusai had demonstrated that humans are able to anthropomorphise anything. The cockerel had not the slightest intention of producing art and didn’t even know it had done it. What it produced was a pattern of images that resembled art to human eyes.

Drawing by Siri the elephantDrawing by Siri the elephant. Art professor Jerome Watkin said Siri’s drawings were “very, very beautiful. They are so positive and affirmative and tense, the energy is so compact and controlled, it’s just incredible. This piece is so graceful, so delicate, I can’t get most of my students to fill a page like this.”[15] It would be interesting to see the drawings that were not picked out for the public...

Keats, in his famous Ode to a Nightingale, sees the purity of the nightingale’s song as an opportunity to reflect upon human contradictions and mortality. Its song has been transformed through the human imagination into a symbol, a “high requiem” — yet the human condition was certainly no concern of the nightingale’s. There are also many examples of birdsong inspiring feelings in musicians, such as the transcriptions made by Messiaen for his Reveille des Oiseaux (1955).

Humans can see beauty anywhere. That we can find aesthetic pleasure in animal behaviours does not make them art, any more than finding pleasure in a waterfall makes the natural occurrence of falling water art: we are projecting human meaning, forms and purpose into actions by an animal who had no conception of those things. The materials used, the picture frame, the brush strokes, the juxtapositions of colours and forms, mean that animal drawing and painting resembles human art, but it is difficult for us to tell the difference between the two, because our perceptions are governed by our humanised senses. To judge non-human behaviour on the basis of human experience and perception is anthropocentric, and leads to misunderstanding of what animals do.


Human species prior to Homo sapiens exhibited aesthetic and cultural behaviours, which would be no more surprising than that they could make sophisticated tools. But, as with animals, there is no evidence that these cultural behaviours were as consistent and widespread as in our own species. If ape paintings are interesting, it is as gestural reactions to space and context, rather than as insights into how art arises in humans. Upon the evidence we currently have, only with Homo sapiens do we see true art.

Commentators who wish to blur the distinction between humans and animals tend to stress the ways in which animal behaviour is similar to ours, pointing to complex social organisation, tool use, ‘moral’ behaviour, and so on. The New Scientist for example has proposed six areas in which humans are claimed not to be unique as they like to think, and one of them is culture. If one thinks in fixed categories, for toolmaking to be no longer ‘uniquely human’ is indeed epoch-making. But what such arguments cannot overcome is that there is an enormous qualitative difference between a chimp using a twig to catch termites and the achievements of human social labour. Even the Oldowan technology, the crudest and most basic early human tool-making, cannot be learned by chimps. Tool-making is not essential to any animal’s way of life, but is impossible to separate from ours. “To claim that distinctly human mental abilities such as language or mathematics have been demonstrated in rudimentary form in animals does not, as is so often claimed, knock man off his pedestal,” wrote nature writer Stephen Budiansky. “Instead, such claims perpetuate the very idea they seek to challenge: that human minds are the gold standard against which all other minds should be measured.”[16] However technically correct it may prove to say that humans are not ‘unique’ in making tools, having culture, etc, the reality is that we are unique among animal species in our totality, in the sum of our creative and intellectual powers.

The demotion of human beings comes from regarding us as just another biological organism. From this perspective, art has the same origins in both apes and humans, and in humans simply takes a more complex form. This approach reduces art to a genetic imprint, denying it its dialectical and relatively autonomous character and failing to recognise the role of labour in our evolution [17]. The difference between human and animal practice is not merely one of quantity but of quality.

We may be accused of ‘species arrogance’ for our conclusion. Yet if we describe animal communication, aesthetic sensibility, grasp of abstraction etc as rudimentary, it is because science shows that they are rudimentary compared to our own. There is no point in regarding animals other than as they are. The academic Lawrence Wilde pointed out that ‘Marx intends no slight against animals when defining human uniqueness’. Animals have their nature and we humans have ours. Our intelligence is greater than theirs, but dogs have superior smell, cheetahs can run faster, sharks can swim better, songbirds have perfect pitch, etc. Referring to the passage from Capital quoted earlier on the instruments of labour existing ‘in the germ’ in animals, Wilde comments:

The fact that the ‘germ’ is present in other animals does not detract in the slightest from the force of Marx’s argument that, according to available empirical evidence, humans and other animals can be distinguished in essence by the way in which they produce. This carries no connotations of deficiency on the part of animals. Indeed his characterisation of the animal as immediately ‘one with its life activity’ suggests a simplicity and integrity which many humans might envy. It is possible to view any comparison of closely related forms in terms of inferiority or superiority, but it is not necessary to do so... To identify a capability in humans by comparing them with animals does not imply a disability in animals; it states merely that they are different in essence.[18]

Compared to humans, animals live according to immediate physical need. This does not mean they are automatons or machines, or that they should not be respected. They are simply a different kind of being. And they are beings that cannot create art.

[1] See for example the case from Sweden of the ape given the nom de plume ‘Pierre Brassau’, reported in Time in February 1964.
[2] Schiller, Paul, & Hartmann, G. W. (1951). ‘Manipulative completion of bisected geometrical figures’, American Journal of Psychology, 64, 238-246.
[3] A gallery of paintings by the gorillas Koko and Michael can be seen at the Gorilla Foundation’s Koko website. The page is headed by the patently absurd claim by Roger Fouts that “it is part of ape nature to paint”.
[4] Desmond Morris, The Biology of Art (1962).
[5] Marx, third manuscript, ‘Private Property and Communism’ from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1844). I have quoted this before, and I’m sure readers will forgive me if I do so again.
[6] Marx, ‘The Labour-Process or the Production of Use-Values’ from Capital, vol 1.
[7] Charles Darwin, from chapter 3 of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).
[8] Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1844).
[9] Thierry Lenain, Monkey Painting (1997, originally in French). Lenain’s book, which uses a dialectical and materialist approach, is an excellent study of ape paintings and why they should not be considered to be art.
[10] Marx, op. cit.
[11] Frans B. M. de Waal, ‘Apes with an Oeuvre’ from The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 1999). De Waal is a Dutch ethologist and primatologist whose work emphasises the similarity between humans and animals.
[12] Marx, ‘The Labour Process or the Production of Use-values’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[13] Lenain, op. cit.
[14] Tachism (or Tachisme) is often seen as the European counterpart to American abstract expressionism. Deriving its name from the French tache or ‘splash’, it was an improvisatory style that drew upon gestural painting, hoping to achieve ‘authentic’ expression through spontaneity.
[15] Cited in David Gucwa and James Ehmann, To Whom It May Concern: An Investigation into the Art of Elephants (1985).
[16] Stephen Budiansky, ‘Cheep imitations of human thought’, Times Educational Supplement (1999).
[17] This flawed perspective can produce some very wild claims. See for example this article, in which chimpanzees are described as having “a culture as rich as humans”.
[18] Lawrence Wilde, ‘“The creatures, too, must become free”: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction’, Capital and Class issue no. 72, Autumn 2000. This blog isn’t the place to discuss Marxism’s position on animal rights — people interested in the topic may find Prof Wilde’s essay rewarding.

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