Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why do chimps paint?

(Video link) In his Big Think lecture, "What is Art?" Bard College president Leon Botstein makes the assertion that art is a distinctly human activity, unique to our species. This is a rather antiquated notion, one that scientists began to disprove 50 years ago.

It turns out that several kinds of animals make art. And their art-making behavior fits the definitions of art that Mr. Botstein proposes. These species range from birds, elephants, cetaceans, and most particularly, gorillas and chimpanzees.

One of the pioneering scientists in this field is Desmond Morris (born 1928), who wrote the 1963 book "The Biology of Art: A Study of the Picture-Making Behavior of the Great Apes and its Relationship to Human Art."  

Morris worked with a chimpanzee named Congo from the London Zoo. Congo picked up some art supplies and rapidly became obsessed with the experience, favoring it over eating or sex. 

Congo's artistic behavior appeared strangely human. Many of the design motifs he used were similar to those used by human artists. Morris said, "To put it simply, the position of one line influenced the position of the next line, and so on, until the drawing was considered (by the ape) to be finished."

Congo got angry when Morris tried to take away a painting before he was finished working on it. Morris says: “In tests with Congo it was repeatedly clear that he had a very distinct concept of when a drawing or painting was finished. On the rare occasions when attempts were made to encourage him to continue working on a picture that he considered ‘finished’, rather than on a new one, he lost his temper, whimpered, screamed, or, if actually persuaded to go on, proceeded to wreck the picture with meaningless or obliterative lines.” 

When Congo was “paid” with a treat for doing a painting, he started to lose interest in the work. This paradoxical behavior mirrors what happens with human children and adults. Rewards and praise have been shown to have a chilling effect on creativity and output. 

Morris summarized his observations into the six "biological principles of picture making."

1. The principle of Self-rewarding Activation The act of painting yields satisfaction apart from materialistic rewards.

2. The principle of Compositional Control When faced with a choice, chimps (and also capuchin monkeys and birds like jackdaws and crows) will select a more orderly arrangement of shapes. Given the tools to make marks, their pictures follow classic principles of balance and rhythmic repetition.

3. The principle of Calligraphic Differentiation Chimps develop increasingly complex shapes and marks, developed over time.

4. The principle of Thematic Variation Visual themes such as fan patterns emerge and go through variations, later to be replaced by different themes.

5. The principle of Optimum Heterogeneity There seems to be a preferred optimum between maximum simplicity and maximum complexity (a mass of random, fussy detail)

6. The principle of Universal Imagery Drawings of chimps seem to resemble humanoid faces not unlike those made by human children. In children from around the world, there are universal features to their initial and most basic drawings of houses and figures. 

Congo did over 400 paintings. His work was noted by art critics such as Waldemar Januszczak. Picasso collected his work. One of Congo's paintings sold for US$25,000. Salvador Dali declared: ''The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!"

Since Congo's heyday, other chimpanzees have taken an interest in artwork. One of them, named Cheeta, did a lot of paintings during his Palm Springs retirement from acting in the Tarzan movies. He took pride in his work, signing it with a fingerprint. 

Further reading
More about Cheeta at this link (scroll way down).   
Previously on GurneyJourney: 
Thanks, Richard Roth


Kelleewynne said...

I often say that art is what makes us human - what separates us from machine and animal....I guess now I must rethink my declaration! This is fascinating!

SletchbookLP said...

I have been arguing that art isn't uniquely human in my arts appreciation class, but they equate any animal painting as a Pavlov's Dog experiment.

Robert J. Simone said...

Guess Morris' experiments prove that art "just flows out of us". No advanced cognition or training is necessary. All those rules and principles just get in the way of "true expression" anyway. That didn't sound too snarkey, did it?

James Gurney said...

Lucas, yes, the debate about animal art as a conditioned behavior often centers around the elephants in Thailand who are trained to paint as a performance for tourists. But Morris's chimp studies seem to prove that the motivation is exactly the reverse of classical conditioning. Congo picked up the pencil on his own and drew his first line without any suggestion, and once he got into it, treats or rewards actually had the reverse effect.

Kelleewynne, I know what you mean. I have had to rewire my brain as a result of this, too. Botstein seems to exclude children's painting as art-making, and I really disagree with him there.

One animal activity that seems to be on the boundary line between "play" and "art" is the way dolphins create bubble rings. Is it a form of dance? Does it have an aesthetic component? Is it art? Or just goofing around? See for yourself:

James Gurney said...

Simone, I totally sympathize with your point. In this post, I'm not ranking what's "true" or "pure" or "good art." I'm just challenging the claim that art-making is uniquely human. Modernists, notably Picasso, have suggested that in their adult work they were trying to capture the spirit of children's art, or even animal "fauvist" art. For me, Picasso's wish is valid only for emulating a child's enthusiastic and pure hearted zeal for the doing of it, but not for the outward form of the art, which seems to me like a pointless and impossible goal. As a child, I remember being hungry to learn how to draw accurately, so that my art looked real. I didn't want praise from adults; I wanted practical guidance.

Anonymous said...

In every video I have seen, even though a palette of various colors is set before the animal, they have to be prompted by humans to make variations in color. Doesn't that interference in the process greatly influence our perception that it is "art"?

How do you know the animal isn't simply enjoying the exercising of its motor skills (which in and of itself could explain the tendency to shapes and patterns), especially in a situation where it is removed from its normal and natural habitat? The all important aesthetic factor could be nonexistent

There really seems to be no attempt whatsoever at critical analysis here.

James Gurney said...

Etc, those are reasonable objections. Are the chimps really doing art spontaneously; is the activity really self-reinforcing; and are there any discernable formal principles at work— or is it just random movement? Morris's book addresses those points pretty thoroughly. His "six biological principles" (which I paraphrased as best I could in the post) are sort of his broad conclusions, but one would have to read the whole book to evaluate his experimental parameters and critical analysis.

Unknown said...

I guess when someone looks at a painting and says "a chimp could paint better than that" They might be right.

JonInFrance said...

"...obsessed with the experience, favoring it over eating or sex"

"was repeatedly clear that he had a very distinct concept of when a drawing or painting was finished"

Well, the Chimps got a lead on me with those!

krystal said...

what a coincidence! I was talking about Desmond Morris last week. One of the most instrumental books I read when I was growing up (that my dad took from him when he did his Master's in Bradford) was "ManWatching". I LOVE that book and have read it cover to cover several times in my life! Thank you for this post! :) Oh, and Happy Pi day!

Craig Banholzer said...

If we lower the bar on the definition of art far enough, as has been the case in the past century or so, then it should come as no surprise that chimps and elephants can make art according to that definition. Congo's paintings are as good or better than any by Cy Twombly I've ever seen. Also, human beings are mammals, and it should not be too surprising that other mammals of high intelligence are receptive to using brush and paints much the same way we do. On the other hand, I agree with Simone's suggestion that art is not just the innate urge towards creativity, but something much larger.

James Gurney said...

Craig, good point. So much effort has been put into "de-defining" art that trying to define it nowadays is practically impossible. But "art" is such a nice, short, punchy word that I would hate to see it rendered meaningless. And what about the word "artist"? It has been co-opted by musicians. Let's take it back, folks!

Seriously, although no definition is perfect, the one I keep coming back to is Tolstoy's, which goes something like this: "Art is an activity consisting in this: that one person consciously, by means of certain external signs, transmits to others feelings he has experienced, and by means of the artwork, that other people are infected by those feelings and also experience them.”

Nathaniel Gold said...

James great post I'm currently collaberating with a group of chimps that live in sanctuary in Florida on some paintings and a gallery show. I made a quick film about it.

James Gurney said...

Nathaniel, fascinating video, and what an amazing collaboration. Have you been able to watch the chimpanzees doing their art, or have they watched you? I have always wondered what they see when they look at a human-created representational picture, or perhaps better yet, what might come from an interaction with a human artist whom they can watch painting representationally.

Nathaniel Gold said...

Thanks so much James! I have only seen these chimps painting on film but the same week the show opens I will be headed down to Florida to meet them.

James Gurney said...

Nathaniel, awesome. Keep me posted about the experience.