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Animal Art

Last year in Southern Utah an art competition was held.  Two fine artists, Daphne and Holly created paintings that sold for $450.00 and $355.00.  Nothing remarkable except that the two lady painters were pigs- the four footed kind.  At Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, an annual art competition is held between the varying species of sanctuary residents.  Cats, dogs, horses, pigs, birds, rabbits all compete against one another for “top artist” prize.  The finished pieces varied from paintings to paper art and paw prints on hats.  

Although the pigs missed out on the top prize, their caregivers saw what a great time that the porcine painters had creating their masterpieces so they have continued the practice and sell the finished works to raise money to build a Piggy Park. Art lovers can purchase their own “Pig-cassos” and specify size, colors, and even request a specific pig painter. (pigs@bestfriends.org)

Several years ago I purchased a piece of animal art created by a Chimpanzee named Johnny who lived at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Florida.  At that time, the facility was closed and was trying to raise funds to open a bigger and more environmentally natural habitat for the animals.  Apparently the chimps had been creating art for several years so facilitators began selling the work created by the monkeys to help raise the needed capitol.  My painting is a 9 x 12 inch canvas board covered in green, pink and violet paint.  Did Johnny choose the colors or did his caregiver help him?  Did he use a brush or his fingers?  Can animals really create art or is the creation really an “accident” by default?

Creation and appreciation of art have traditionally been viewed as uniquely human activities that express our highest cognitive abilities.  If it can be proven that animals share any aspect of this ability it will transform the way we interact with them.  Although mainstream science remains unconvinced that animals have an aesthetic sense, some scientists who study animals have concluded that they do have higher cognitive abilities. Some researchers have stated that animals play for pleasure which suggests that they engage in activities for enjoyment not just survival.  This behavior, doing something for pleasure, is how we define creating art.  
In deciding whether an animal can actually produce a painting as art, researchers first determine what the animal can see.  If an animal uses color aesthetically but lacks color vision, then the artistic use of color is accidental.  Elephants, for example, have a limited range of color perception.  Chimpanzees, on the other hand, see the same range of color that we do.  The envy of colorists, are birds who can see a greater range of colors than we can imagine.  Ravens have been trained to paint by holding a brush in their beak.  You can view the paintings of a Russian raven named Voron at http://animalsart.ru/raven.html.  
In at least a few instances animals have indicated that they can create art representationally. Moja, a chimpanzee raised to use sign language, sketched what she said (by signing) was a bird. The piece did show a likeness with body and wings and Moja used the same schemata when she drew birds on subsequent occasions. Koko, the sign language trained gorilla, also painted what she said was a bird which also had a body with wings. Another language trained gorilla named Michael used paint symbolically. Although he often painted in full color, he  painted using only black and white paint to indicate his black and white dog. The drawings of Mojo’s birds have been compared to the cave paintings of early man. Is the chimpanzee’s art a precursor to that of early humans? Some engravings found on the Reseau Clastres chamber of the Niaux Cave and the Gabillou Cave both in Southern France, indicate the possibility of such a theory. If true, the origins of art would be pushed back to a much earlier time.

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