Some forty years ago, the ﬁrst gallery exhibition of paintings not of but by chimpanzees shocked the art world and precipitated much debate. The animals had produced abstract paintings pleasing to the human eye. Did this mean they had an aesthetic sense, an appreciation of beauty? Elephants, too, can paint—sales of their canvases are now being used to raise money for zoos and conservation—and so can seals and several other species. Is this really art, or are the paintings more or less accidentally pleasing to us but not to the animal itself? How can we decide whether these strokes of paint are art or mere daubing, made without awareness or any degree of artistic motivation or aesthetic sense? A similar question can be asked about other forms of art, especially music. Birdsong, for example, may be music to our ears, but do the birds appreciate it as an art form?
If research were to prove that animals have an aesthetic sense, we could gain valuable insights into the animals’ level of awareness. Creation and appreciation of art are aspects of consciousness that we have tradition-ally viewed as purely human activities, ones that express our highest cognitive abilities. If animals share at least some aspects of this ability, we will have to look upon them with more respect and perhaps change the ways we treat them. Research on animal art involves studying how the brain perceives sensory information and how we decide whether something is beautiful or has symbolic meaning. Studies in this area also stem from curiosity about the evolution of artistic expression. Looking at the similarities between the art of early humans and that of some primates causes us to wonder if art may have origins that extend back in evolutionary time to the apes, or even earlier.
Some researchers have dared to suggest that animals may play because they ﬁnd it pleasurable to do so. Doing something for pleasure, rather than for survival, is part of how we deﬁne the act of creating art.
Mainstream science has yet to be convinced that animals have an aesthetic sense, but these days some scientists who study animals are increasingly convinced that they do have higher cognitive abilities. At the moment, interest is focused on the abilities of animals to solve problems, use tools, and communicate in meaningful ways, but some researchers have dared to suggest that animals may play because they ﬁnd it pleasurable to do so. Doing something for pleasure, rather than for survival, is part of how we deﬁne the act of creating art. But just as we must be open to the controversial idea that animals can create art, we must also be careful of the pitfalls in reaching conclusions too soon.