Why did the chicken cross the road? Perhaps it was to make art this whole time! Humans aren’t the only ones who create art; animal-made art is a real phenomenon.
Some animals create art naturally. Take male bowerbirds for example, who create elaborate enclosures (bowers)—often misinterpreted as nests—to attract females. They are usually made of twigs and sculpted to look like short V-shaped passages. Male bowers usually surround them with grey and white debris, such as stones or shells, then garnish these patches with meticulously placed, vividly coloured objects, such as human-made plastic refuse. These bowerbirds seem to have a particular vision for their construction, for when researchers have disorganized the objects, the bowerbirds would rearrange them back into their former positions.
But other animal artists use proper human tools. Congo, a chimpanzee, is one of the first fame-garnering examples. Starting in the mid-1950s, Congo was given pencils and then painting tools, which—of his own accord—he used to create abstract art. He and his talent were showcased on British TV in 1957. Like male bowerbirds, Congo was also observed to have a particular vision; when his tools were taken away before he was finished, he would plead for their return, and when prompted to continue painting once finished, he refused.
Pigcasso is a more recent example. Born in 2016 in South Africa, she was rescued that same year from an industrial hog farm and brought to a farm animal sanctuary outside of Cape Town. After Pigcasso showed a strange affinity for paintbrushes, which were apparently the only things in her vicinity she didn’t eat, the owner trained her using food rewards to take them to canvas. Since then, she has created hundreds of paintings— in an abstract style—some selling for the equivalent of tens of thousands in USD.
An important question to consider when thinking about animal art is whether its creators are self-driven and aware that they are creating art or if they are just going through the motions as instructed. One 2014 study of elephant painters in Melbourne Zoo showed that the elephants in question did not seem to garner any reduction in stress-related behaviours from the activity, which would have been an indication of self-direction and captivation. Rather, it seems they were just doing as their zookeeper instructed, their art being more for the humans around them than the fulfillment of any inner interest.
Animal art makes us reconsider what art really is and could give us insights into animal cognition. Can something unintentional be art—such as a puppy that falls into a paint can and happens to traipse across a canvas; or created simply at the precise direction of an instructor—such as the Melbourne Zoo elephants; or done at the behest of deep-rooted courtship instincts, à la male bowerbirds? Animal art that looks intentional on the other hand, such as Congo’s—or perhaps Pigcasso’s—makes us consider whether at least some animals have deeper inner lives and greater potential than we may have initially thought.
Written by: Brian Evancic