Fairs Books USA

No monkey business

Only humans can make art—but can we find its roots in our closest animal relatives?

A crab embroidered on a mola, or blouse, worn by the Kuna Indian women of Panama’s Atlantic coast. Photo: Desmond Morris

Desmond Morris, the zoologist, anthropologist, writer, broadcaster and artist, claims that The Artistic Ape is “the most important book I’ve ever written”. In it, he charts the evolution of three million years of artistic endeavour, beginning with a prehistoric pebble and ending with contemporary street art.

Morris has spent much of his 65-year career comparing human with animal behaviour, investigating in particular the picture-making abilities of apes. One result was the exhibition “Paintings by Chimpanzees” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1957. This was followed by “The Lost Image”, a show at London's Royal Festival Hall the following year, which compared pictures made by infants, adults and apes.

Morris’s bestseller The Naked Ape, 1967, was his first look at the human as an evolved animal. Writing about humans in the same way zoologists look at animals, he explored the conflict between our animal impulses and our loftier aspirations as matters of biology, not morality. He shed new light on human behaviour and society, concentrating on the things we share with animals, such as eating, sleeping, mating and rearing young. What he left out was man’s unique capacity for making art.

Morris’s definition of art is “making the extraordinary out of the ordinary – to entertain the brain”. There is no evidence, of course, to support the view that other species are capable of producing art, but Morris describes various tests in which young apes were offered the basic equipment with which to attempt picture-making. He reports that they did no more than draw straight, sometimes crossing lines, haphazardly scattered on the paper, whereas a child soon graduated to more complex shapes. The apes did, nevertheless, show a degree of visual control—an indication, perhaps, of possibility. It is as though the ape stands at the very threshold of art, but humans have stepped through the door. This highlights the differences rather than the similarities between human and apes. Apes have tendencies that suggest their ability to make art if given encouragement by humans, but these tendencies would not appear without the stimulus.

In tracing our artistic development from a hunter-gatherer species right through to the modern age, Morris concludes with two chapters on what distinguishes the extraordinary from the ordinary. The first lays out the universal “Roles of Art”, or its purposes (sacred, status, public, collectible, folk, propaganda, festive and applied art); the second outlines the “Rules of Art”, or how it makes the ordinary extraordinary (by exaggeration, purification, composition, heterogeneity, refinement, thematic variation, neophilia and context).

This has little to do directly with apes or the animal world, but Morris suggests that art-making is closer to ape behaviour than to any other non-human activity: a lion simply kills to eat, whereas apes and human hunters make eating a celebration.

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