Painting by Congo the Chimp
Excerpt from an article “Art and Human Reality” by Denis Dutton in Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology (Book – 2011) page 25-26
Denis Dutton is also the author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution (Book – 2009)
These days, people in zoos and primate research centers enjoy taking out big sheets of butcher paper and letting the chimps go at them with brushes and paint. The chimps have a grand old time, scribbling about or making a typical upward fan figure. They are essentially taking joy in the sheer disruption of the white background with a solid color. It’s not unlike the pleasure many of us have gotten with finger painting, of early painting in school: We can get pleasure simply in the contrasts we create.
Is this “chimpanzee art”? People who make such claims are not aware of other aspects of the chimp’s behavior. First, the typical upward fan shape actually is not a picture, an image of a fan, because the chimp can’t turn it on its side or render it upside down. It’s not a representation so much as part of a motor sequence in the chimp’s arms and hands. Second, if the trainer does not take the piece of paper away from the chimp, the result will inevitably be a brownish blob, because a chimp has no idea of when to stop. There is no objective, or a sense of plan or end point in creating the work. It’s only a work of art for us because the trainer took it away from the chimp before it became a blob. Finally, and for the most tellingly, when they’re finished—or the paper’s been taken away—the chimps never again go back to look at the work.
It seems to me that anyone who says, “Yes chimpanzees have art,” is making a mistake. Chimpanzees like to disrupt white paper with big colored blobs. As human beings, we can understand that, but that does not make their creations works of art. There is no cultural tradition within which the chimps are working. There’s no criticism—art talk or evaluation of any kind—with the chimps. There’s no style in the sense that it’s a leaned way of doing it, though there are uniformities in the output for muscular reasons. To call this art or proto-art underestimates and misunderstands what human art is.
Animals have much to teach us, but from a Darwinian perspective, human beings are really something else.