Sunday, 6 January 2013

Consciousness and the Enigma of Art 1 - Chimpanzee Art

Consciousness and the Enigma of Art

Chimpanzee Art

Congo the Chimpanzee

 In the 1950s a chimp called Congo caused a sensation with his pictures.


(Image Wikipedia)

(Image Christies: Sold  for £750 in 2009)

Congo wanted to paint pictures that were be aesthetically pleasing - for instance it was observed:  "When a picture was taken away that he didn't consider complete, Congo would reportedly begin to scream and "throw fits".[1] Also, if the ape considered one of his drawings to be finished, he would refuse to continue painting even if someone tried to persuade him to do so" 

Amongst other animals that seem to show an appreciation of aesthetics are the Bower birds that decorate their nests to attract their females.

But Congo's paintings, and the art works of other animals, are always abstract.  Humanity's works of art are intellectually different from anything produced by other species because they are about more than just aesthetics.  Human artists use patterns to represent objects that they see in the outside world; these patterns can be abstract, but more often they represent figurative landscapes, flowers, religious stories and portraits of our friends.  The audiences of the artists recognise these patterns as if they represent reality. A portrait like this one by Rubens is just one example of this uniquely human skill of using patterns on paper to convey emotionally charged images from one person to another.

(Portrait of Isabella Brandt by Rubens; British Museum )

As mentioned in previous letters these patterns do not need to be complex.  The Smiley is an example of a simple flat pattern that beams feelings of happiness into the minds of people who look at it.

Why was Congo not a figurative artist?
This may be irrelevant to the fundamental question about whether Congo was an artist, but I think it needs to be asked because something strange is going on here.  The answer to this intriguing question may help us answer the further question about whether Congo was an Artist (which is often hotly debated).  Understanding why he did not paint figuratively helps us get into his brain and understand his mentality.  For instance was it because he cannot see illusions?  I ask this question because when you look at figurative art, like the portrait by Rubins, you are really looking at a flat piece of paper with a pattern which the brain sees as a 3D face. The drawing by Rubens, and the emoticon of the smiley, are both illusions.  Figurative artists like Rubens are experts at using illusion to fool the brain, something Congo seems uninterested in doing.  

Fortunately this is a really simple question to answer because there are plenty of examples of  animals being  fooled by illusions. Here are some examples;

I want you to imagine that a bird sees a moth and is about to eat it, but at the last moment the moth spreads its wings because it was suddenly disturbed, on it's underwings are two large patterns that look like eyes

(Photography Credit: © Altrendo/Getty Images).

The bird was looking for something to eat, and was attracted to the closed wings of the moth, which through pattern recognition it thought was food.   Suddenly it was confronted with a new pattern, the pattern was the flashing of large illusory "eyes" from the underwings of the harmless moths. The brain of the bird changes from guessing the moth was food to guessing the moth was an owl and flew away. 

There are plenty of examples of birds being fooled by patterns on insects: For instance the Hairstreaks and Blues are two families of butterflies that have tails on their back wings.  They escape being eaten by hungry birds because the birds are programmed to peck at what they think are the head end of the butterflies.  The birds pecking at what they think are the heads and peck off the tails instead, and the wings break but the butterflies escape.  If you are familiar with these pretty butterflies you will notice that many of them have V shaped cuts on their hind wings where have been pecked by birds.

All brains, even those of insects like the fruit fly, work on the same principle; sensory information arrives in the brain from sensors on the body (eyes, feelers, smell sensors).  The information arrives along nerves as electrical pulses which form maps or patterns on the brain.  These patterns are the currency of the brain.  The brain logs, stores and recognises patterns made from the sensory information and tries to make sense of what it is receiving so that it can then send out sensible instructions to the owner of the brain about how to respond. Brains are very good guessing machines, but they can be fooled into making bad guesses.  

Evolution has created patterns on the insects to create illusions that fool the brains of birds into making wrong guesses.   

Congo brain is a guessing instrument like ours, and he sees illusions just like we do, but he does not use illusions when he is painting.  So we can move on to a second question; did Congo not have the intellect to appreciate illusion?  I think he did, for instance my cats seem to enjoy collecting and carrying soft toys that look like little animals.

(Photography Credit: ©

It seems to me that my cat appreciates that the furry toys we give him are a bit like real mice.  I think Congo was able to appreciate the illusion of reality, but he did not have the desire to manipulate patterns to make "figurative art".  Why not?  At this point I find myself pondering what is it that makes humanity different from Congo?  I think this thread of thought has come to an dead end with a paradox:  Both "dumb Nature" and intellectual mankind have discovered how to use illusory reality, which is separate from the reality of the "real" world, but our most intelligent relatives do not seem to want to do this.

To understand the gap we have to look at the differences between human consciousness and Chimpanzee consciousness to find for clues about why we have this desire to create an illusory reality, but Chimps do not.

The First Figurative Art
The earliest evidence of figurative art by mankind are found in the Chauvet Caves which are in the Pyranees.  These works, which were made 30-32,000 years ago, cannot be called primitive.  They seem to me to be made by artists who know what they want to express and how to convey their thoughts through pictures.  Are they really representative of where human art started from or are they the flowering of a long artistic tradition?  Whilst constructing this letter I discovered a 3D animation of a walk through the caves of Laucaux, these paintings are nearly as old as the ones in the Chauvet caves.  I recommend that you watch this video because it is a moving and humbling experience.

Our species had already roamed the earth for 80,000 years before these cave paintings were made, yet from this earlier period there is no evidence of  figurative art.  This very abrupt appearance of figurative art begs the question; was there a big bang cultural event that propelled us into discovering figurative art, or did figurative art happen gradually, like the development of stone tools?  These are a good questions to ask because the answer has a lot to do with how human consciousness developed and still works.  It might even help us define what art is and why we do it.

 (In this picture lions are hunting on the right and there is a herd of rhinos on the left.

The Last Common Ancestor between Humans and Chimps lived about 7 million years ago, during this relatively short evolutionary period  an incredible gulf has developed between the conscious minds of Humanity and Chimps.  In the later letters of this series (which are mostly written) I am going to trace the fossil and archeological record for evidence of how this divide between humanity and our nearest cousins the Chimpanzees opened up .  But before looking at that well documented story I am going to lay out what we are discovering about human consciousness; models of how it works and how it is different from the consciousness of other animals that inhabit our planet.  I hope this will give us important clues about why Human Art is so different from the Art of Congo, and why figurative and landscape Art is present in almost every human culture (even in Islamic Art before they introduced taboos about depicting pictures of people)?  I will try to find clues that will give you tentative answers to my questions.  


Anonymous said...

I think that the caves were their restaurants and the paintings were the menus. Lilly :)

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting post in that it caused me to realize something that I have long suspected subconsciously: i.e., the stress on aesthetics over meaning in art is not necessarily more advanced.

To illustrate: almost thirty years ago, my wife and I visited a national gallery in Washington DC. We accompanied another couple, not from the US so we were acting as hosts to our nation's capital city. One of the couple expressed great admiration for a huge abstract mural. They were good friends and so I made an effort to understand the sense of admiration. I asked, "Why do you like it?"

My friend said, "Well, see.... It is the balance of color."

Frankly, I didn't see but I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Oh. Okay."

Not very convincing. It was the best I could manage. I was a bit troubled by my inability to share the appreciation. We had stood in front of many paintings that day that had held me entranced. The mural had left me cold. This post has helped me to understand my reaction a bit: I didn't appreciate the mural because I am not aesthetically inclined. I tend instead to appreciate art that conveys meaning. The abstract mural conveyed no meaning to me although I was impressed by its size.


Julian Williams said...

Pluck you have got one of my central themes very fast! I have wrestled with this question of the meaning of the word art for many years. Of course when we get into semantics we are in dangerous territory, because words can atomise our view of the world and logic.

When I read articles in books and journals on neuroscience I often come across writers who interchange the word aesthetics and art, at which point I want to stop reading because to me they have missed a central point.

The word art is a meme, and memes change and evolve according to how they the populations that use them want to use them. I think we either need a meme to describe this special ability (need) only we human's have to express emotion across time and space. We can either make up a new word, or take back the word art and redefine what it means.

Julian Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julian Williams said...

Lilly, your remark touches on a very important point. When we look at cave art they seems to be made by people that are so far away from us in time that they must have been psychologically a different species. We talk of them as "primitive" as if their brains were not fully formed like those of modern mankind. But I agree with you Lilly; they were ordinary people like you and me, who joked and laughed and had fun together. They played as children and became serious as adults, some were clever and generous, others were stupid and mean. In order to see the makers of these lovely artworks better we need to hear their laughter, and there is one instance where that laughter from over 30,0000 years ago can still be heard, and will be included as part of one of the later posts. on Consciousness and the Enigma of Art 1 - Chimpanzee Art
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