Animals Might Be Able to Appreciate Art
Studies have shown that birds can distinguish Monet from Picasso, but do they know what they're looking at?
Le singe peintre door Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps
Science saw the world through different lenses when Jane Goodall first arrived at Cambridge University in the early 1960s. Astronomers were still searching for the Big Bang's cosmic fingerprint, genomes were decades away from being decoded, and Goodall herself hadn't yet revealed the complex social lives of chimpanzees. Back then, humans were seen as a completely different kind from the animal kingdom.
"Science and some religions were desperate to define ways in which we were different — self recognition, consciousness, and so on," Goodall tells Creators. "One by one, these barriers between us and them were knocked down."
Today, people often celebrate the similarities between us and our animal relatives, and yet we're sure some traits — such as an appreciation of art — are distinctively human. Then we come across a video of a Golden Retriever admiring a landscape painting and realize it's time to reassess what we think makes us unique.
Researchers have been studying animals and their relation to art for decades. In 1995, a team of psychologists from Keio University in Tokyo showed that pigeons could be trained to discriminate between paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso.
A study in 2001 from the Rowland Institute for Science tested whether koi fish were capable of distinguishing the music of blues legend John Lee Hooker from that of classical genius Johann Sebastian Bach. They could. Years later goldfish accomplished a more complicated task by distinguishing between Bach and Igor Stravinsky, which they did in 75 percent of cases. These were impressive and perhaps unexpected feats, but simply distinguishing one arrangement of sounds from another is hardly akin to appreciation.
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"Appreciation of art has two aspects," says Shigeru Watanabe, who led the study on pigeons and paintings. "Namely discriminative (or perception) and a reinforcing property (feeling of pleasure)."
Watanabe says animals have demonstrated a capacity for the former, which can be trained, but aren't particularly good at the latter. As an example, in 2009 he worked with pigeons again, training them with food rewards to discriminate between "good" and "bad" art. "They learned to respond to food-associated paintings but not to no-food-associated paintings," he says.
But nearly two decades after the initial pigeon study, Watanabe and his team conducted another study, this time with Java sparrows, and spotted signs they experience a pleasurable feeling from art.
The sparrows in this study had no artistic training and, rather than challenging the birds to perform a task, the researchers simply watched the birds perch near various paintings, interpreting their choice of perch with a preference for this or that style of art.
From a selection of Cubist, Impressionist, and traditional Japanese artworks, five out of the seven sparrows in the study perched near the cubist painting longer than the impressionist one, three seemed to prefer the Japanese painting to the cubist one, and six showed no obvious preference for either the Japanese or the impressionist work — an interesting finding, given the influence Japanese-style painting had on impressionism. In yet another study with sparrows, Watanbe demonstrated they also had a preference for classical music.
Meanwhile, University of Wisconsin psychologist Charles Snowdon teamed up with cellist David Teie in 2015 to create music just for cats. In Snowdon's study, they concluded that felines actually prefer these species-specific sounds. (Note: Teie now sells music for cats online.)
"In cats, we found that they were more interested in and responsive to music in the pitch range and tempos of cat vocalizations," Snowdon says, "so there is some 'appreciation' of music, although we don't know if it is at the same level as human music appreciation."
These findings may make art snobs scoff, but they're practically self-evident to Richard Prum, an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University. In his book, The Evolution of Beauty , Prum examines animals as aesthetic agents in their own lives and argues this capacity is woven into the very fabric of evolution through forces like sexual selection.
"It's scientifically demonstrable that animals have an aesthetic capacity," he says. "What I mean by that is that they can perceive objects, they can evaluate whether or not they like them, and then act on that. That in-and-of-itself makes for an aesthetic experience."
In Prum's view, there's also some overlap between the "art worlds" of animals and humans, that results in humans finding beauty in natural forms that aren't necessarily meant for our appreciation.
"When we look at a peacock or smell a wildflower, we're in a way eavesdropping on [...] the product of an independent art world," he says. But the question still remains, "Do other animals appreciate the products of the human art world?"
Prum leans towards yes, and he points to a video of Snowball the cockatoo dancing to Queen. "You can't say this parrot isn't happy," he says. "It has free volition to do whatever the hell it wants — it's doing it because it's enthusiastic about it." Snowball's "spontaneous synchronization" to music has since been studied by scientists who thought this behavior only occurred in humans.
It's difficult — if not impossible — to definitively answer the question. Even studying the brain scans of that painting-admiring pup probably wouldn't make things any more explicit. But there are animals that do display what seems like an inherent capacity for artistic appreciation.
Consider the bowerbird, which builds and decorates elaborate structures with sticks and colorful objects to attract a mate. "Their bowers are not nests," Prum says. "They're essentially just seduction theaters."
Before human-made objects were so prevalent, bowerbirds decorated their bowers with leaves, flowers, fruits, and bugs. Now they use a myriad of colorful objects, from bottle caps to coins and pieces of glass. The colors and objects differ between species and even between individuals, such that each bower has its own design at the discretion of it's owner. It's as though bowerbirds are curators of their own art galleries.
"It is impossible to say that the bowerbird does not appreciate the artistic arrangement of his bower," says Goodall, "or that the female does not admire the hard work of her chosen mate. And when captive chimpanzees work hard at painting, carefully placing their marks to present a balanced picture, we cannot prove that they do not appreciate their efforts... I for one will give them the benefit of the doubt."