In order to prove that animals dig art, science has goldfish identifying Stravinsky and pigeons understanding cubism, yet there’s much we still don’t know.
In the final episode of The Sopranos, Pauline Walnuts has a problem with a cat that has suddenly turned up at The Bing, one that has a preoccupation with a portrait of a dead member of their crew. Paulie, in conversation with Tony, noted that he “moved the picture, the fucking thing came to the new spot and stared”. In response, Tony suggested that the cat was merely a fan of art, due to the “abstract shapes or something”.
Do animals have an appreciation for art? The answer is an educated maybe. Back in 1995, a team of Japanese psychologists established that pigeons can be trained to spot the difference between impressionism and cubism. Per the study, the pigeons were able to tell identify the style of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. As the researchers put it, the “results suggest that pigeons’ behaviour can be controlled by complex visual stimuli in ways that suggest categorisation.”
A similar study proved that goldfish were able to tell whether a piece of music was Bach and Stravinsky around 75% of the time. But, does this mean that animals actually enjoy art beyond basic identification?
“Appreciation of art has two aspects,” says Shigeru Watanabe, who ran the aforementioned pigeon study. “Namely discriminative (or perception) and a reinforcing property (feeling of pleasure),” he said.
Back in May of last year, penguins of the Kansas City Zoo were turned loose in a local gallery, and as it turns out, they were fans of the Baroque movement, with the little fellows oddly drawn to the paintings of Caravaggio.
“I think they felt more comfortable there,” museum director Julián Zugazagoitia told Insider. “They seemed to spend more time there and look more intently. The room is much warmer, the walls are red, and there’s a lot of action going on in the paintings…I don’t know if the penguins were recognising human figures and looking at that, as they like interacting with humans,” he added. “Or maybe they just like the Old Masters more.”
So if we’re unsure whether animals appreciate art, can they themselves be artists?
Anthropologists have long considered the creation (and appreciation) of art as a strictly human pursuit, as we create something for the aesthetic appreciation of others.
But, as Robert Young, the Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Salford noted, “this anthropologic definition of art seems to exclude the possibility that animals can be artists. For example, we might find male birds of paradise extremely beautiful but this is not art. Bird song is often described as music and the displays of some animals are described as dance. But do they qualify as art?”
As Young wrote, “Studies have shown that most bird song cannot be considered music, innately produced or not, because it does not follow human musical scales. I personally find this a weak argument as there are a great number of musical scales used by humans. What is noise to me maybe music to you. Male bowerbirds make and decorate what is essentially a twig sculpture – bower – to impress females. Females pass by, inspecting these works of art – and the males stand in front of them hawking their artistic prowess. Male bowerbirds use visual illusions that mess with perspective, just like the artist MC Escher. They create a courtyard of objects in front of their bower, the largest objects being placed further away creating a forced perspective that they are larger than they really are. If the female is impressed by the male’s artistic talents then she will mate with him.”
Perhaps that’s the salient point. If it is partially motivated to achieve congress with another of our species, is it not art? As Pablo Picasso once said, “Sex and art are the same thing.”