Reading a lot about the animal mind at the moment – an excellent book by Virginia Morell, Animal Wise, published by Black Inc in 2013 talks about recent scientific research which is, very slowly, beginning to realise that animals do in fact have “minds” – and I came across some remarks about bower-birds which add the imprimatur of science to the claim that they are making art.
Scientists studying the greater bowerbirds mapped and tabulated the thousands of stones, glass and other beautiful items of decoration the male birds use to ornament their bowers (as described in an earlier post) The Art of the Bower-Bird. One scientist wrote a code letter on each little stone and piece of glass, hundreds and thousands of them even just at one bower. What did she find? The birds weren’t only collecting items of beauty to display to their lady loves, they were actually creating the illusion of perspective in the way they laid them out – the same techniques artists use for landscape painting. The birds put the largest of their pieces furthest away from the opening to the nest and the smallest ones close to it. The female bowerbird inside the nest looking outwards will then perceive them as all being of around the same side. Was this an accident? No of course not. When the researchers disrupted the birds’ careful curation, they found they restored them back to the original order once the researchers went away. Each item had its proper place. “Bowerbirds, the scientists concluded, are artists – the first animal, other than humans, that is fully recognised as having a artistic sense”.
Well I don’t know if that is the conclusion we need to come to. I think the painting primates demonstrate their artistic sense once they have learnt to paint properly, much as humans do. But the point is, that artistic sense, the aesthetic engagement, belongs in the interaction between mind and world, and there is no way we should ever have concluded that humans are alone in this.