bioephemera

Can animals create art?

Zooillogix posted this video of an elephant that paints “realistic paintings of other elephants:”

It’s a fluff piece, granted, but it gestures towards credibility by bringing in an “art expert” (and, I’m guessing, cutting 98% of her comments). The genial narrator, anticipating our astonishment that an elephant could learn to paint portraits, reassures us that it is indeed possible, and that “what makes it possible is the trunk.” Uh, no. The trunk is what makes it possible for the elephant to grasp a human-style brush and execute fine motor movements. The brain is what makes any artist an artist.


Elephants are extremely intelligent. They have complex societies and display behaviors that are provocatively similar to our own, including elaborate burial rituals, and perhaps even stress-induced psychosis (this is an amazing story – go read it if you haven’t already). If other species do start producing fine art, I’d expect elephants to be at the front of the line. But we have no idea what’s going on in this elephant’s brain, because the narrator doesn’t ask any of the right questions – the most salient being does the elephant intend to represent anything?

Given that the elephant has a very limited repertoire, does not seem to paint from life or references, and uses a stereotyped series of motions that could easily have been entrained, this appears to be no more than a dexterous novelty act. As far as we can tell, the cartoonish painting produced in this video clip doesn’t symbolize anything in the elephant’s mind, except attention and rewards from a trainer. Ergo, it’s not art (unless you want to argue that art can be inadvertently created in the absence of artistic intent on the part of the creator – which could be a valid position, I just don’t agree with it.)

Now, the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project is raising funds to conserve elephants by selling “elephant art,” and I see nothing wrong with that goal. Much more commercially exploitative and arguably less interesting art is created by human beings (as always, I refer to Thomas Kinkade).

Many of AEACP’s elephant paintings are abstractions, which raises a thorny question: what motivates the elephant to choose colors or shapes in an abstract piece? Is it random, or is the elephant moved to create something genuinely reflective of its emotions? If the expression of emotion is involved, we begin to trespass on a grey area that may well be considered art. But it’s difficult to get any artist to clearly express what he or she intended when creating a piece, and animals are among the least communicative of “artists.” We can’t just ask. Or can we?

This article by Gisela Kaplan and Leslie Rogers gives a fair overview of whether animals in general, not just elephants, may indeed have an “aesthetic sense”:

If signing apes can tell us what they have drawn or painted and if the picture shows any hint of the object, or emotion, that they say it is, we might be convinced that they have indeed created a representation. At least some such examples exist. The chimpanzee Moja, raised and taught to sign by Beatrix Gardner, Ph.D., and Allen Gardner, Ph.D., sketched what she said was a bird, and it did show a likeness, with a body and wings.

You can read more about Moja’s bird drawing here, and here it is:

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I have to admit that I quite like it. It reminds me of a Brancusi. But is it a bird? Did it really symbolize “bird” to Moja? And is it art? I don’t know. Moja and other chimps protest when interrupted in the process of creating, and refuse to add more when they consider a work to be “done.” But whether this is because they have some plan for their creation, or just that the activity interests them for a certain length of time, is unclear.

In short, there are many examples of animal “art,” and it’s fascinating to suppose that chimps, elephants, birds, and other animals really do have a creative impulse in common with humanity. But it’s also important to view such claims with skepticism and test them scientifically, as best we can. Kaplan and Rogers summarize the implications well:

Does it matter whether animals have an aesthetic sense or may be motivated to create art? And if animals do have an aesthetic sense and produce art, are there any implications for research, for our scientiļ¬c theories, or for the way we treat them? Because scientists have traditionally assumed that the ability to create and enjoy art does not exist in animals, researchers still know next to nothing about what such an ability might be like. But we would answer all of these questions with a cautious yes.

Because the answer matters deeply to our understanding of what is to be “human” and what it is to be “animal” (not to mention what it is to be “art”), I’d ask that we be careful how we talk about this. I’d love for the evidence to support an aesthetic sense in elephants, chimps, birds, even cephalopods (who can, after all, use legos). But I’d like it to be real evidence, not unscientific fluff.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrew
    March 6, 2008

    The real question is, do these guys consider themselves abstract expressionists or surrealists?

  2. #2 tbell
    March 6, 2008

    the bird actually looks more like a schematic elephant to me. Trunk on the left, 2 eyes, and some ears more centrally. All salient features for an elephant i suppose. But that’s just my take on this rorschach. too bad it was painted by a chimp.

  3. #3 Bee
    March 7, 2008

    Moja’s bird drawing is intriging. I spent many years as a preschool art teacher (a couple thousand children 2 to 5, over 25 years), and my favourite book on the subject was a 1960s study by Rhoda Kellogg. Toddlers go through a pretty standard development in drawing style, partly dependent on their motor skills development, starting with scribbling drawn using a whole arm movement from the shoulder, progressing to circular scribbles as they become better able to control movement from elbow and wrist.

    At some point they ‘see’ the circle, and will start drawing single circles, and the theory is that the child recognizes a ‘face’ (Mommy’s) in the circular scribble. Certainly, shortly after this, children begin adding marks that are indicators of features, and when asked will tell you it is Mommy, or another person. Adding limbs comes next, but in every instance, the limbs are marked right off the ‘face’, long before the child adds a torso. (Adults often identify this stage as a ‘sun’ drawing, but a child will only identify it as such after they are told it is a ‘sun’.)

    Moja’s drawing, with a closed shape and other markings, is very reminiscent of what I would expect from many two and a half to three year old humans, asked to draw a bird.

  4. #4 bioephemera
    March 7, 2008

    Andrew: I bet that those artists you reference deliberately eschew identification with any monolithic art philosophy in order to avoid artificially constraining their dorsal nerve cords’ organic creative output.

    tbell: I wonder what elephants and chimps see when they look at rorschachs? People?

    Bee: I see exactly what you mean. Given that chimps are frequently assigned mental abilities in the range of a human toddler, as imprecise at that kind of comparison is, it’s quite possible that the drawing really is the equivalent of a three-year-old human child’s. Then the question becomes, can a three year old child make “art”? I’d argue not yet, because they are still developing the capabilities needed to represent what they see in a purposeful manner and anticipate how it will be seen by others. But I’d be very interested to know what your opinion is on this, based on your own experience. At what age does a drawing start to become “art”? (that question begs so many other questions, it’s probably unanswerable!)

  5. #5 marc
    March 8, 2008

    Localizing an elephant’s ability to create art in its trunk is analagous to saying Dostoevsky wrote well because he had good hands for it. It’s hard for me to consider what I saw in the above video as art, at least based on what my understanding of what art is. Art must involve some sort of self-expression, even if that is in the form of replication of a scene, etc. These elephants seem to be drawing extremely similar pictures over and over again, and it is more reminiscent of an intricately trained behavior than anything else. If the elephant were engaging in an artistic act, it might turn to another object and attempt to draw it, but instead it is simply recreating the same basic shapes. I went to the link on Moja, the chimp, and that picture of a bird (according to that website) was actually a banana drawn by a person, which Moja added only the wings to, then called it a bird. One could question if she added wings with the intent of drawing a bird, or simply scribbled some lines in then noticed a likeness to a bird, which she then pointed out. Regardless, though, her story seems to represent an example of some artistic activity as she was purported to love to paint. Although the paintings were nonsensical, it suggests she may have had an aesthetic sense and painted in a way she found pleasing. Who knows the dynamic, though, as there could have been a lot of rewarding going on for her painting behavior since it was so unusual.
    Whether or not non-human animals have the capacity for artistic expression is an interesting discussion. I’m more inclined to say no, simply because I don’t see an opportunity for it to evolve the way it has in humans.

  6. #6 tony
    March 8, 2008

    The comments and article are primarily focused on the “mindset” of the animals. Elephants seem to like scratching lines in the dirt using sticks. Personal amusement? Self expression? Unknowable I imagine. Is the product art? The experience of art is in part culturally determined, subjective to an extent, with perhaps some aesthetic values “hardwired”(symmetry, balance). So do elephants and chimps create art? From what I’ve seen, yes. Do they “know” they are creating “art”? Perhaps, but probably not.
    Years ago NY magazine created a gallery composed of paintings made by 3-5 year olds passed off as works of up and coming college art students. A group of art critics were invited to review the works. Several works were reviewed as “childish” while others were seen as the products of potentially great artists. In a similar vein, do you remember Rudolf Guiliani’s contribution to this discussion? A painting of the Madonna with elephant dung was made into a controversy about city funding of art. There was some discussion of abstract art and the question of “what is art?” came up. Guiliani said “If I can do it, it’s not art.”

  7. #7 bioephemera
    March 8, 2008

    Marc: I think we pretty much agree on this, although I think aesthetics *could* have evolved in animals, even if only as a spandrel.

    Tony: I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Rudy Giuliani, but I do concur that if he can do it, it probably isn’t art.

  8. #8 mdvlist
    March 9, 2008

    Just wanted to let you know that you just added spandrel to my vocab– and, while, I was learning about the architectural reference, I added squinch, corbel and pedentive, too!

  9. #9 Maria Robinson
    March 11, 2008

    I don’t know if this is permissable but I would very much welcome an opportunity to have an email ‘conversation’ with Bee (or anyone else) who is has experience of pre-school drawing. I research early development (humans) and this is all so fascinating.

    Incidentally there are some nice links to be made with the object play in babies and very young children and that of chimps (and I guess other animals too – dogs are a fascinating study group!)

  10. #10 manwai che
    April 10, 2008

    I don’t understand why people questioning if it is art, the only logic question is if it is a “work of art” by elephant. Art is anything, ideas, or other abstract forms or activities comprehended by human being not as achievement but realization related to aesthetic but not bounded by beauty. As long as human being has the primeval impetus and sentient ability to fulfill our artistic desires, either creativity or enjoyment, expressing or perceiving. These that allow us to appreciate, articulate, clarify our aesthetic attention are then well deserve the euonym- art. One’s artistic value changes according one’s preference of value at the time, one can value its artistic “concept, design, performance, inspiration or influence” differently. Once it is a work of art, it is forever a work of art, because history told us that that special work is created with the aesthetic attention of the artist, and that’s unchangeable, whether or not if it can capture everyone else’s aesthetic attention.

  11. #11 Trout Monfalco
    October 18, 2009

    I asked wondered the same sorts of things about this strange dolphin performance, which served no useful purpose. Is this art, animal aesthetics? Why do they do this?
    http://www.arthereandnow.com/2008/02/do-animals-make-art/

    -Trout

  12. #12 Rosemary Lombard
    December 20, 2009

    In the examples and processes of animal art I’ve studied, I’ve noticed a wide range of non-intention through what seems to be clear intention, likewise a wide range of how much assistance and instruction the human provides–and from a human perspective, a wide range of what most would judge artistic quality. One critique does not fit all. Let me give two examples at the intentional end of the spectrum.
    Desmond Morris wrote a sort of memoir cum animals called ANIMAL DAYS back in 1980 (hilarious, by the way). Morris, an artist as well as a zoologist, wrote there about a chimpanzee named Congo, who became well known for working with Morris in BBC television. Congo made a big splash in art circles for the sophistication of his designs. (Miro, among others, was impressed.) The chimp, otherwise rambunctious, was not taught art techniques nor assisted but concentrated at length on the detail of his works, bringing them to a clear conclusion.
    Another example is in my own 30-year-old turtle cognition lab. All of the 16 animals in my lab draw by sliding their beaks over a vertically mounted paper. A person holding them steady traces over their trajectories with a marker. Rarely does a person guess the subject of the drawing until near the end, when the lines are all connected. We have demonstrated the procedure for the last two years at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Subjects include animals, real and imagined, faces, buildings, objects, plants, and abstract designs. My book in progress, working title DIODE’S EXPERIMENT: A BOX TURTLE INVESTIGATES THE HUMAN WORLD, will explain the process more fully and give examples. I expect it will be out in a couple of years.