Animal Art

I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s book The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal and I’m at the bit where he’s trying to find roots for human arts in animal art, which got me curious enough to look around online:

In the Diamond book, this chapter on the roots of art in animal behaviour, or, maybe, rather, the continuity of artistic behaviour with other behaviours seen in other species, got me thinking about the chapter just preceding it, “Bridges to Human Languages”.

It seems that people form Creoles — grammatically complex blendings of languages — spontaneously in childhood if they grow up in an environment in which pidgins (strict-grammar-less mishamashes of various languages) are spoken regularly. One theory Diamond discusses is the possibility that the deep structural consistency that is found across various creoles suggests that certain kinds of structures may be our default grammar tendencies, which can be overridden by experience in languages that have different grammatical structures, but which kick in and become the creole’s grammatical rules if children, while acquiring language, encounter a pidgin — a vocabulary set with no standardized grammar.

This notion of childrens’ development got me thinking about early development and art. Not the art by kids that sells for money, necessarily, but the deep tendencies for children to draw or paint in a certain way. I don’t know if one exists, though.

One thing I found when I was doing a painting class with some kids was that they were really creative imitators. If I painted first, they would imitate me — pouring paint onto the cardboard if I did so, flicking it with a brush if I did so. If I didn’t commence things, they’d usually gravitate imitatively to a bellwether, one kid who was just more eager, or more experienced. If the bellwether started painting something imitatively, many would follow — but that didn’t often happen. Just as often, paintings from previous days had already caught their attention and they were imitating what had been done before — which is pretty interesting, if you think about it. It involves inferring what was done by someone else to get a given result.

But of course, the kids I was dealing with were too old for this to mean much. They’d all painted, and experienced “art”, before. Still, I do think the imitative impulse is something that, interestingly, Diamond hasn’t much dealt with, at least not by halfway through the book. Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, while a bit over the top in some of its assertions (though I sometimes wonder whether she’s not dead on correct even there) has a lot about the evolutionary function of imitative behaviour.

4 thoughts on “Animal Art

  1. Yup, kids do show patterns in art that are quite characteristic of various stages of development. They start with blob people, with stick arms and legs emerging from the blob that combines head and body. I don’t remember the details from when we studied it at uni, but Googling should throw up some stuff.

  2. Thanks, Claire. Question, though: how culturally-specific are the details within those stages? In other words, do those particular stages appear to be innate, or are they modeled on external behaviours or instructions? For example, do kids in all cultures, even those without major representational art traditions, start out by drawing human figures, or do children from those cultures without representational art traditions start out by drawing, say, geometric shapes? In other words, to what degree is the urge to draw people specifically (or representational art of some kind) innate, and to what degree is it acculturated? (I can look around for info about this, of course, so don’t feel obliged to answer.)

    Another question that occurs to me is about how what is “instinctual” about this kind of children’s drawing compares to the “art” done by animals? Is there room for a parallel analogy between the way kids’ art in various developmental stages, and the art that apes or elephants make, like the one that Diamond proposes for the very early stages of speech in children and, according to Diamond, the very interesting prelinguistic “speech” behaviours of, say, vervets?

    I suspect not much had been studied in terms of “animal art” (since googling didn’t bring up much earlier today — though maybe I’m just using the wrong keyword), so the latter question may not currently be answerable, but it sounds, potentially, fascinating.

  3. As far as I can remember, they do both, the possibly inante, and the culturally appropriate. For example, we studied the art produced by Australian Aboriginal children growing up in remote communities who keep lots of the traditions. They use symbols in traditional art to represent things. For example, a U shape is a person. I remember this cool picture of a school bus, drawn as a classic school bus, with kids sitting in it and one just getting in. The kid getting in was drawn representationally. And inside the bus a whole bunch of U shapes were sitting on the seats. It made sense for this kid to draw people both ways in the same drawing. But that was with school age kids. I don’t know about earlier.

    I don’t know anything much about animal art, but I had the impression it was studied. Maybe not very rigourously?

  4. Cool, very interesting info, and the example with the U-shaped and representational figures in the same drawing is very weird and intriguing.

    As for Animal Art, maybe I was just using the wrong keyword. The first bit of Diamond’s discussion (now dared dated, anyway), gave me the impression that most scientists considered animal art just oddities and not worth study.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *