Around 60 years ago, a chimpanzee art exhibition opened at London's Institute for Contemporary Art. What shocked and delighted spectators was that these paintings were not pictures of chimpanzees; they were artworks created by chimpanzees. Today, animals worldwide - such as elephants - create art to raise money for their sanctuaries or conservation parks.
There's no doubt that many of these paintings are pleasing to the human eye, just as birdsong is acoustically pleasing. The question is: do animals consciously choose to create art, or are these collections nothing more than a set of random brush strokes?
What Do Animals See When They Paint?
To understand whether animals can appreciate art, it is helpful to examine what they can see. For example, many elephant artworks consist of various brush strokes in varying colors, but can elephants see and appreciate these colors?
Elephants have a dichromic vision, which means they only possess two cones (compared to three in humans). This means they can differentiate between blue and yellow but cannot see red and green. Additionally, the brush strokes in these paintings are similar for several elephants, so could the "paintings" represent the natural movements of an elephant's trunk?
Other animals in captivity - such as seals - can also be taught to paint. But seals are completely colorblind, so providing them with a choice of colors would have little meaning. The same is true for several animals, such as dogs and whales, who have sacrificed seeing the full spectrum of colors in exchange for enhanced night vision that allows them to detect movement more efficiently.
Still, the same is not valid for all animals. Birds, for example, have a visual acuity that is two to eight times better than humans. They also see colors on the UV spectrum, meaning birds see images more vibrantly than we could ever imagine. Observations also lead us to believe that birds are conscious creatures who may possess self-awareness and abstract thought. So, we should consider their ability to appreciate works of art.
Do Animals Have Creativity?
To understand whether animals can be creative and use "art" to express emotions or create a specific image, we have to ask them what they have painted. As animals, on the whole, cannot use language, this is a difficult task. Still, some species, such as chimpanzees, can learn to communicate with us through sign language and symbols.
Two gorillas, Koko and Michael, were trained to paint and use symbols for communication. Animals such as these give us an insight into their perceptions of art. You can view some of their self-titled artworks online. There's no denying that "Love" by Koko looks like the shape of a heart or that Michael's painting of "Me, Myself, Good," complete with his handprint, points to a sense of self-awareness.
Currently, we can't say whether or not animals make art as an abstract form of expression, but examples like this suggest that it's a possibility.
Can Animals Enjoy Creating Art?
Whether animals can create art and whether they enjoy it are two separate questions.
Some evidence suggests that animals such as elephants derive some form of enjoyment from painting. But the evidence is anecdotal, meaning the reduction in stress measures could be due to other factors, such as increased contact with humans. Even more damning for animal art enthusiasts is the experts who say that animal art could actually be distressing for the animals involved.
It's like dressing animals up in clothes or making them perform in circus shows. These behaviors deviate from their natural life and can cause significant stress.
Still, that doesn't mean animals don't enjoy creating art. It just means we shouldn't try to anthropomorphize them; instead, we should enjoy animal art and the animal's terms.
Do Animals Naturally Create Art?
We don't have to train an animal to pick up a paintbrush to see art in the animal kingdom; we can see examples of their beauty and creativity everywhere.
Bowerbirds are well known for their unique courtship behavior. They use various methods to attract potential mates, including building an elaborate bower, collecting shiny objects, and using colors preferred by the females. Bowerbirds have evolved these behaviors over time to increase their chances of finding a suitable mate.
Meanwhile, a pufferfish's courtship display involves creating a large, geometric circle in the sand. The fish use their fins to shape the sand while moving away unwanted stones with their mouths in a practice that can take up to a week.
These practices show us that animals can appreciate aesthetic beauty and have the ability to create their own works of art. From birdsong to beautiful bowers, animal art is more about appreciating the beauty these animals create naturally.