Portrait of an Animal

A tree kangaroo drawing tree kangaroo gods?

If oxen and lions had hands
and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men,
horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses
and oxen to look like oxen, and each would make the
gods’ bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.


A customary question posed by viewers of  art produced by animals: “Is it art?” Fair enough; that question has been posed by art critics of human art. After months of arduous and devoted labour, Rodin’s statue commemorating French playwright Honoré de Balzac outraged viewers, who called the monument a “‘lump of plaster, kicked together by a lunatic'” (Hale 122). The Society of Men of Letters, who had originally commissioned the work, roundly denounced it. Ultimately Rodin chose to keep Balzac for himself, declaring that “‘the Balzac statue is the logical development of my artistic career. I take entire responsibility for it. And my wish is to remain its sole owner”. Art critic John Ruskin so maligned  James Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, that Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. During the trial Whistler himself was on the defensive, attempting to rationalize to the court and the bewildered presiding judge why his work was indeed art. Perhaps it’s only fair that we should put the critters through their creative paces. Is the paint brush only an artistic tool when wielded by the hand, as opposed to the trunk, the paw, or the mouth? Is there anything to be learned from a visual that might be entirely accidental?

Flowers painted by the unnervingly dexterous Asian elephant Boon Me.

This question alights upon a key difference between human and animal artists (beyond the opposable thumbs). Do these animals harness the intention, inspiration, and imagination we have come to expect from the artist? Do animals enjoy making art? Indeed, if they do, this might be incongruous with  the perception of the tortured artist. Recently, a number of zoos, galleries, museums, and conservation advocacy groups have attempted to spark a discourse on these topics, including Zoo Miami’s Savage, the Little Rock Zoo’s silent auction of animal art, and the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project. In 2012 the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology held the exhibit Art by Animals, which showcased paintings by elephants and a variety of primates. Jack Ashby, manager of the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology, says that art as an activity for caged animals has increased with the evolution of the zoo itself. With the realization that animals are not as mentally productive in zoos as they are in the wild, painting has been introduced as a cerebral outlet, which just happens to fascinate human audiences.

Digit Master by Bakhari, chimp at the Saint Louis Zoo. While it’s questionable whether or not Bakhari named this painting “Digit Master,” he certainly would not be the first painter to have his work given an unsought title.

In her article Art and Brain: Insights from Neuropsychology, Biology and Evolution, Dahlia W. Zaidel states that the human practice of art was an evolutionary process that took tens of thousands of generations to develop. In trying to understand why there are beings that create art and those that do not, Zaidel claims that they key lies in our respective neuroanatomy and biochemistry, which control our behavioral development (181). Zaidel concludes that art is an operation that depends upon several complex cerebral processes. Or, as science blogger Jessica Palmer notes, “the brain is what makes an artist an artist”. This is not to say that animals are not neurologically complex, although some species are more complex than others. In their thoughtful article Kaplan and Rogers suggest that proving animals have an aesthetic sense could radically change our own perspectives on animals as being more cognizant that we had previously realized. It is no coincidence that advocacy groups have played an active role in introducing animal art to audiences. When we are presented with animal-produced art it “asks us to take the animal seriously and in doing so [it] takes us humans elsewhere” (Broglio 44).


Broglio, Ron. “A Left-Handed Primer for Approaching Animal Art.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 9.9 (2010): 35-45. EBSCOHost. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.

Hale, William Harlan. The World of Rodin 1840-1917. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1969. Print.

Kaplan, Gisela and Lesley J. Rogers. “Elephants That Paint, Birds That Make Music.” The Dana Foundation. The Dana Foundation, 1 Oct. 2006. Web. 31 Oct. 2012.

Xenophanes. A Presocratics Reader. Ed. Patricia Curd. Trans. Richard D. McKirahan. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1996. Print.

Zaidel, Dahlia W. “Art and Brain: Insights from Neuropsychology, Biology, and Evolution.” Journal of Anatomy 216 (2010): 177-183. EBSCOHost. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

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