Thursday, 1 March 2012

Chimpanzee Paintings and the Concept of Art (2012)

From The Philosopher, Volume 100 No. 1
Centenary Special 1913-2012

and the Concept of Art

By John Valentine

Can animals not only paint - but produce works of 'art'?

In recent years, a proliferation of Internet sites dealing with animal art has suddenly appeared. Along with them, many claims have been made about the ability to create art for an incredible variety of non-human animals, ranging not only from the higher primates but on to elephants and dolphins too. The Belgian philosopher, Thierry Lenain, however has drawn a line in the sand arguing, (with regard to chimpanzees in particular) that the paintings are nothing more than examples of 'paint play' whose sole purpose is the disruption of a pictorial field. They are not art, in other words (he says), in any significant sense of the word.

To understand why he this might be, we need to explore the concept of aesthetic properties from a more fundamental perspective than Lenain allows. In doing so, I believe it can be shown that chimpanzees are, in fact, capable of making art in a prototypical way. Whether this conclusion could be extended to other primates or non-primates I leave as an open question. We shall consider only the intriguing case of chimpanzee paintings.

A quick look back at the biologist, Desmond Morris, can help us begin to formulate an approach to these intriguing examples of 'animal artists'. In his book, The Biology of Art, Morris explains that Congo - the most prolific chimpanzee painter at the London Zoo - consistently demonstrated the following behaviours during various drawing and painting experiments.
A. A noticeable degree of intense focus on the blank sheets of paper presented to him and especially the markings per se he produced.

B. An aversion to being interrupted while drawing or painting.

C. Restricting his mark-making to the blank paper itself.

D. Periodically marking blank paper with a fan pattern that underwent numerous repetitions over time.

E. Balancing offset figures on the papers handed to him. For example, a square figure presented to him just to the right of center on the paper was balanced by mark-making an equal distance to the left of center.

F. A quantifiable progression in the styles of his compositional and calligraphic skills. (Although Congo never reached the representational stage, he went through numerous scribbling and diagrammatic stages that seem to be precursors to representational drawing, and that are found in human children.)

G. Finding his drawing or painting to be a rewarding activity in itself without any connection to outside positive reinforcement.

H. Exhibiting behavior seemingly intended to show when Congo was finished with a given painting and either ready for another blank sheet or ready to re-perceive the next situation as a different sort of play time or 'time to do something else.' (Often he was observed to play on the high chair and tray that was used to seat him when he was painting. In this way, Congo seemed to treat painting as a special kind of activity that held a different value for him than regular play or roughhousing.)
And finally, Congo reliably demonstrated a resistance to any direct positive reinforcement that was used to make him paint. In this last sense, Congo was similar to another chimpanzee who was once subjected to bribery with a food reward to encourage him to draw more intensely. He quickly learned to associate drawing with getting the reward but as soon as this condition had been established he took less and less interest in the lines he was drawing. As Morris notes: 'Any old scribble would do and then he would immediately hold out his hand for the reward. The careful attention he had paid previously to design, rhythm, balance, and composition was gone and the worst kind of commercial art was born!'

Which brings us firmly back to the need for a definition of art. Thierry Lenain offers that a work of art 'is a thing created by a process whose aim is to confer on it a special aesthetic presence.' In the case of paintings, what he means by this [statement] is explained indirectly by everything he believes chimpanzees do not do. That is:
* Chimpanzees do not create painting equipment and the pictorial field on their own (these are obviously presented to them by humans);

* Chimpanzees rarely, if ever, return to a painting once it is finished; they do not have a developed sense of aesthetic forms as such or the cultural/symbolic implications of such forms;

* Chimpanzee paint-making behavior is solely connected with play and the making of marks just as marks; and their aim in paint play is not to confer on a surface any special aesthetic presence or sense of order, but rather to disrupt the surface by any and all means available.
In more positive terms, true art- at least for Lenain, looking at, in this case, true painting -
Involves a deliberate process of choosing or creating appropriate painting equipment, creating and transforming the pictorial field into a symbolic or imaginary space for the development of forms that have a specific idea, and creating balance, rhythm, composition, and harmony (et cetera) by means of a purposeful sense of order. Lenain thinks that chimpanzee paintings can be deceptive in the sense that they often look like examples of human gestural painting, but on closer analysis, he says, they lack the precise conceptual characteristics of the latter.

Let's pause though to examine for a moment Lenain's understanding of the concept of aesthetic properties. As we've seen he cites values such as balance, composition, and harmony as paradigms of aesthetic form. He implies that these values are, if you will, second order or higher-end values that are superimposed upon first order sensory phenomena such as line, color, shape, and form. It is precisely such a superimposition, he says, of which chimpanzees are incapable. This sort of distinction between first order phenomena, which are presumably themselves non-aesthetic, and second order aesthetic values or interpretations is common enough in the field of aesthetics. Consider the following short list.

The American philosopher, Kendall Walton, argues that high-end properties of this sort are emergent attributes of artworks that are based on non-aesthetic attributes such as colours and shapes, modulation of notes, and pitches and rhythms. In order to correctly perceive such high-end properties, he says the viewer must have a prior knowledge of and training in a variety of artistic categories. Yet perhaps what is missing, however, in this account is an attempt to describe what it means to experience lines, shapes, colours, tones, and forms - or the holistic groupings of these properties - as themselves intrinsically aesthetic.

Recall here that the Greek root-words for the term aesthetics are aisthenasthai (to perceive), aisth-ta (perceptible things), and aisth-tikos (pertaining to sense perception). When one is drawn to the gestalt of line, shape, colour, et cetera, as such, one is perceiving aesthetically. The nature of the 'drawnness' is often non-reflective and immediate.

Of course, the sort of experience I have in mind here is frequently presupposed for us in the art world in terms of an art-object's having already been contextualised: we see it in an art museum, hear it at a concert hall, and so on. But there are unusual cases where the art world may be at a loss in regard to certain objects. Interestingly, Walton himself gives an example of this latter type:
If we are confronted by a work about whose origins we know absolutely nothing (for example, one lifted from the dust at an as yet unexcavated archeological site on Mars), we would simply not be in a position to judge it aesthetically. We could not possibly tell by staring at it, no matter how intently or intelligently, whether it is coherent, or serene, or dynamic, for by staring we cannot tell whether it is to be seen as sculpture…or some other exotic or mundane kind of work of art.
It is no doubt true that we would be at a loss as to how to apply sophisticated, high-end aesthetic terms to such an object. However, surely we could still be drawn to the gestalt of its colours, shapes, forms, and lines as such. In that case, we would be relating to the object as generically aesthetic in a low-end or first order sense. It seems likely that we could do this notwithstanding our lack of specific art categories, as Walton suggests this when he acknowledges that we could attribute aesthetic properties to this strange object the way we do to natural objects, 'which of course does not involve consideration of historical facts about artists or their societies.' But this would mean that, if we could be intrinsically drawn to the gestaltic lines and colors of a sunset, for example, we could be equally drawn to the purely formal properties of a deliberately made object. Tones, shapes, lines, colours, forms, et cetera, can have their hold on us even if we have no further idea as to how to classify them.

A similar issue occurs in Frank Sibley's discussion of the connection between non-aesthetic properties and aesthetic concepts. Sibley claims that certain kinds of factual statements about physical objects reveal to us their non-aesthetic properties, such as type of line or shape, saturation of colour, aspects of tones, and so on. These properties provide a foundation for aesthetic concepts, which he believes to be emergent from non-aesthetic properties, although it is impossible, he says, that any collection of such properties would ever be logically sufficient to justify the application of the appropriate aesthetic terms. But again, what Sibley seems to miss is that we can focus on lines, shapes, colours, tones, et cetera. –or the gestalts comprising them - for their own sake. Such a focus would be 'aesthetically primitive' and would be distinguishable from the high-end aesthetic concepts (such as delicacy, gracefulness, vibrancy, garishness, and so on) that he cites.

Sibley is surely correct in arguing that these latter concepts are complicated matters of taste, but it seems that there is space left for some kind of primary sensory experience of the gestalt of formal elements in terms of the original Greek idea of aisth-tikos.

Now, if it is plausible to argue that line, shape, colour, and form as such can be perceived aesthetically (i.e., for their own sake), it seems equally plausible to argue that chimpanzees are also capable of such perception. In places, Lenain himself admits as much: 'Monkey painting undoubtedly shows characteristic signs of an elementary level of aesthetic sensibility.' Of course, Lenain immediately distinguishes between this elementary level and the higher cultural/symbolic level of aesthetic sensibility he finds solely in the human species. But the important question is whether what's there in monkey paintings and paint play is enough to constitute it as 'art'.

Lenain does not dispute Morris' points A through C, except to note that chimpanzees are not known to create painting equipment and pictorial spaces in the wild, and in captivity they create paintings if and only if humans make such equipment and spaces available to them. (Additionally, Morris had to show Congo how to hold the painting equipment at first and how to move his brush across the pictorial field).

Lenain does, however, dispute points D and E respectively concerning deliberate repetition and balance. He notes other studies of chimpanzee paintings where the fan pattern, noted by Morris, did not appear. He also argues that the fan pattern is not a function of a 'sense of order' (as the term is used by the art theorist E.H. Gombrich), but rather is basically a playful disruption of already existing lines. In the same way, he argues that balancing offset figures is another variant of disruption, resulting from a chimpanzee's sense of creating disorder.

Finally, with regard to Morris' remaining points, Lenain states that Congo was able to go through somewhat more sophisticated stages of mark-making because Morris worked with him for over two years and had a special relationship with him, one that is rare and difficult to reproduce experimentally, and that Congo had no real concept of what he was doing in his paint play, had no ideational aim, and almost never returned to a finished painting (unlike human artists). And so Lenain disputes Morris' suggestion that Congo was making art in any important sense.

Many of these critical points against Morris (and other biologists of art) are nuanced and well-taken; however, the basic fact remains that Congo was intensely interested in his paint-markings as such, notwithstanding doubts as to why (perhaps as to whether a sense of order or some kind of disruption of a pictorial field was the operative causal principle of his behavior). Congo intentionally created a series of lines, shapes, and colours that absorbed his attention, satisfying all the requirements of a first order or low-end aesthetic phenomenon.

Additionally, Lenain recognises some kind of 'dawning awareness' in the work of the chimpanzees. This 'dawning' was evidenced early in Morris' work with Congo when the animal seemed to suddenly grasp that 'this is what can be done with paintbrush, paint, and blank paper.' Instead of the usual sorts of roughhousing and aggressive play, Congo settled quickly into an intense and usually rather quiet absorption with paint play. Indeed, chimpanzees do exhibit such absorptions with other sorts of endeavors, but the duration and depth of focus of Congo's painting phase was impressive.

Let's return now to Lenain's original definition of art: a work of art 'is a thing created by a process whose aim is to confer on it a special aesthetic presence.' If 'special aesthetic presence' is taken only to mean the result of a cognitive and self-aware production of a cultural/symbolic series of meaningful forms in a pictorial field where the field assumes the status of an imaginary space, then chimpanzees are apparently incapable of such a production.

On the other hand, if 'special aesthetic presence' can mean the production of lines, shapes, colours, and forms that can be noticed and enjoyed as first order sensory phenomena, then chimpanzees are clearly capable of this different sort of production. Lenain would regard this latter type of production as pseudo-art. So would various art world theorists, such as George Dickie and Arthur Danto, since Congo himself was incapable of being a self-aware member of the art world, or, of course, of having any inkling of the atmosphere of interrelated theories and ideas that constitute an art world as such. Certainly, Congo's paintings would fail to satisfy most, if not all, of Denis Dutton's cluster criteria for defining art as outlined in his fascinating book The Art Instinct.

The problem here is that if many contemporary philosophers claim that art must be an artifact (that is, by definition an object created by humans); that it must have a conceptual or symbolic subject of some kind; that it must be the product of a self-aware, intentional aim whose goal is to actualise said subject; that it must be an object that the artist wants to and in fact does return to after completion (for purposes, say, of criticism or contemplation); and that it must be an object that is not merely the result of instinctual exploratory play, but rather is part of an artistic culture, to be preserved, discussed, and appreciated outside any simple pattern of such exploratory play….then it is unclear that art as such must have all these conditions.

To build the notion of artifactuality into the very definition of art (as Dickie and Danto and others do) is immediately and arbitrarily to rule out non-human cases. To say that all art must have a subject is problematical as well, as might be seen in the simple case of a still life. Does a trompe l'oeil painting of a bowl of fruit have a subject? One might say that the painting refers to the fruit or in some sense concerns the fruit (or that the fruit is the subject or 'sitter' of the painting), but there need not be any conceptual statement about the fruit that the artist is making; he or she is merely applying various techniques to the precise representation of the fruit.

To say also that artists invariably want to and in fact do return to their finished works is unconvincing, since, although perhaps unusual, there are cases where human artists do not do this. Lenain could argue that in these cases humans are capable of returning to their works but choose not to do so, whereas chimpanzees are not capable of returning to their works. But returning or not returning to a finished work hardly seems a necessary condition for defining art as such.

And lastly, although it seems true that chimpanzees lack an artistic culture or art world of their own, the fact that they produce paintings as a function of exploratory play need not exclude their creations as a basic form of art. Young children also produce drawings and paintings out of a sense of play, and the fact that chimpanzee paintings result from a sort of ecstatic and concrete absorption with disrupting a pictorial field need not exclude them from the domain of art, especially given that the chimpanzee artist's aim in such cases seems to be the intentional creation of a series of lines, shapes, forms, and colors whose purpose is to be noticed and enjoyed in terms of the direct sensory appreciation of first order or low-end aesthetic properties.

Grant for the moment that I am correct in classifying chimpanzee paintings as art of a basic form, what then follows from such a classification? What sort of difference does it or should it make in the way we approach and appreciate chimpanzee paintings? If they are art, what sort of critical or interpretive discourse about them should we engage in? Do we simply appreciate the lines, colours, and forms of Congo's paintings and stop at that? Does it make any difference that the paintings were done by a member of a different species? Should species differences make any difference in artistic value?

One could answer that at the level of simple formalism species differences might not matter, and that an appropriate critical response to chimpanzee paintings need not involve anything more than noticing and enjoying (or not enjoying) the mark making for its own sake.

Both Morris and Lenain recognize that individual chimpanzee painters have their own simple styles, and that someone who is familiar with a given animal's general style can usually identify new paintings as having been done by that particular animal. Of course, this is a great distance from the critical discourse we typically find in regard to, say, Jackson Pollock's work. But it may be enough to allow chimpanzee paintings as intentional creations that 'confer a special aesthetic presence on a pictorial field.' If so, it seems likely that chimpanzee paintings are not merely examples of disruptive mark making. They too can be experienced, enjoyed and appreciated as art.

About the author:  John Valentine, is writing in Savannah, Georgia, USA.

Address for correspondence:


  1. Thanks Martin! I post it's and to FB !

  2. Thanks, István! The 'roll-out of the new Philosopher is solow, but we're getting there! (And your earlier posts at Pi are still getting lots of interest, I see.)