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:
- Here’s a gallery of art by Koko and Michael, two apes.
- Mulatta records has put out an album of recordings of a Thai Elephant Orchestra, including samples.
- This essay-page is the only place online that I could find where any of the line-drawings of Siri the elephant were on display. There’s a book on her art out there, though.
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.