I woke up this morning wondering about the nature of art, and making art. After a cup litre of coffee, I felt better, but still wondered, so I warmed up my Google and went looking. It appears that humans are not the only creators of interesting things.
First up: The BBC (Who else?) diverted my attention to the male Vogelkop Gardener bowerbird, who builds decorated structures with the intention of luring an attractive female into…nest. (This is a plan I understand wholeheartedly, as I’ve used it myself…just not with bowerbirds). The resultant “bower” is a decorated structure make of local ‘found’ materials such as shells, moss, acorns, and attractive rocks. It has been observed that the individual bowerbirds show very individual taste in these constructions, that some would defined as “style”.
Next: There are chimpanzees who have been given the opportunity to play with pencils, and have used the opportunity to create objects of interest. As humanity’s closest relative living in the wild, in captivity some of these animals have graduated to the use of paint and paintbrushes, with results that have been exhibited at facilities like London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. (That exposure is far more avant garde and prestigious than anything I can claim, other than display at our gallery.)
Also of interest are the painted creations of elephants. I guess it is not wildly surprising that elephants, which are fairly intelligent and have significant social and emotional ties to others in their societies, could display creativity in 2D mediums, as they have shown creativity in problem solving in their everyday lives in the wild. However, elephants that paint have only been observed making their art in situations of captivity. (Perhaps good quality paints and brushes with long handles are hard to find in the savannah, not to mention stretched canvasses on sturdy easels.)
Cows!! This was a surprise to me. I knew that cattle ranchers (I have relatives in that business in spite of the unlikelihood of that fact) place salt blocks out for the cattle to supplement their diets. (New book coming this fall: “The Guernsey 7 day diet plan.”) Apparently the cows (or goats, or deer, or other bovines) are inclined to lick the salt blocks into shapes that are considered pleasing by many. In fact, a man named Whit Deschner has gone so far as to initiate “The Great Salt Lick Contest” where all the entered exhibits are blocks of salt that have been attractively licked by cows. Having said that, I’ve watched my wife work over a Dairy Queen medium swirl ice cream cone in some very interesting ways… And…there is even a town named “Salt Lick” in Kentucky. The downside of this art form, is that many of the artists end up…eaten. (It may be that the salt enhances their flavor…as a result I will now be avoiding Cheetos for the rest of my life.)
Painted Cats Painting Cats
Then there is the cat. My beloved and I live in a rather co-dependent relationship with a Siamese cat. His specialty art form is operatic singing, to which he is extraordinarily committed. He practices nearly all the time. We are often awakened at 2am to some new and as yet unnamed aria that extolls the culinary virtues of eating rabbit. (His language choices suggest he reads Anthony Bourdain.) And he offers a staggering variety in his singing! Subtle variations that depart radically from western keys and scale structure. No “Roll Over Beethoven” for this impresario. (No great surprise, as he is from the far east, after all.) Again, is it art? (He believes so with a conviction and emotional investment that is impressive.)
The other side of the coin is those who are fans of cat painting. This takes two forms: Those who appreciate the output of painting cats, and those who paint on cats. (The latter tend to be experts on the comparative virtues of the various band-aid brands, and the survivors also tend to have common blood types.) For a look at cats that paint, I would direct you to YouTube explorations of this practice (by Pawcasso, of course), and the book “Why Cats Paint”. As far as the idea of “Painting Cats” I would not suggest that there will be an impending exhibit of this practice at Artworks Gallery in the near future. (We don’t have enough paramedics on staff.)
What is Art?
So….a number of animals can create items that could be classified as similar to abstract art. Hmm. But is it actually art?
Excuse me, let us be more specific….Art with a capital ‘A’.
There are many who do treat the output of these animals as if it is art. (There is always an exhibition of this type to be found somewhere.) I find their creations interesting, but the question of what constitutes art is a good one that can be applied to the output of humans, too.
I live where I can see incredible sunrises over Puget Sound and the Cascade mountains. I routinely take photos of these events as I cannot imagine not trying to capture the scene for all time. These photos are beautiful to behold, but are they art? (Let’s leave the question of my skill as a creative photographer for another time. In fact, I would prefer a time when I’m not actually around.) To be art it would appear that these situations would require some intervention and interpretation by a human being.
Aha! Here we go…The Oxford English Dictionary defines art thusly:
Art.[mass noun] The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
That’s discouraging. It appears that I am not unbalanced enough to ever be a great artist, but I will keep after it until I am found out. Don’t tell anyone.
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