What is art? We know the why, to express oneself, others, nature, emotions, and ideas. We know the how, being the application of creativity; imitations of life in the form of paint, all the way to sound. We know the when, starting concretely 45, 500 years ago all the way to present. We know the where, being in our minds when we see something that touches us in a profound way, and, finally, we know the who of art, being sentient organisms with the capacity to grasp it. But what is art? It is often said to be subjective to each individual, so its classification is in essence… limitless.
But subjectivity is less so, because while the philosophy of self, thought, and concepts such as solipsism breathe an ever-renewing fog over it, science works at homing in on an established frame of reference. As it stands now apart from locked-in syndrome, we classify the acknowledgement of subjectivity to be what one purports, so therefore if an organism has no means to purport, we rule that such an organism is having no expressly deep subjective experience, just a basic one. Most other animals are thought to have no more than instincts run through their brain, but that’s only because the animals in question don’t have the ability of language to communicate otherwise to us.
With all that said, I want to explore that a bit and try to see if our close genetic neighbours have at any point in history expressed a deeper understanding for art than we may have thought. I want to see how we have used monkeys and apes throughout history to enrich our own artistic expressions and figure out the real similarities and differences between the creativity of us and them, apes and peeps.
But first, welcome back one and all to the review series on YouTube that matters most! Monke in review. Whether the weather be weathered for furry friends across our genetic branches or not, we’ll be here to review the best and brightest among us. Today’s subject for your consideration is Monkes in Art.
In the 1950’s, some exhibiting artists at the ICA in London were hairier than previous years. Alexander was a male orangutan from the UK, Betsy was a female chimpanzee from the States, Sophie from the Netherlands was a female gorilla, and Congo, the most famous of the bunch was a male chimp from the UK. These non-human primates appeared regularly on popular television programs to paint in front of the nation. Those who collected their work included Pablo Picasso, and the Duke of Edinburgh.
There is a long history of animals being used to create art, including apes. These animals have been trained to paint, draw, or engage in other forms of artistic expression. However, the use of primates in this manner raises a number of ethical and welfare concerns which we’ll get into, but first, let’s look into these notable monkes a bit further.
From an article titled: Ape Artists From the 1950’s, by Andrew Dodds, he writes, “The works on show were mainly gouache on paper or card, Abstract Expressionist in style and mostly colourful, save for a few monochromes. Congo was the most widely represented in the exhibition, and some of his more ‘accomplished’ paintings were striking and unsettling, given the knowledge of ‘who’ had painted them. Even though, or perhaps because, they didn’t ostentatiously resemble any particular artist of the period, they did convince. Some of the works, several of which were titled Fan Pattern – Finger Painting on Yellow Card, were made directly with the ape’s hands. The emphasis on immediacy and directness of action dissuaded an aesthetic reading and enhanced the ‘animalistic’ and preformative elements apparent in all the paintings…”
Andrew went on to write, “It is unlikely the paintings would ever have been taken seriously as ‘paintings’ had it not been for the dominance of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s…. From simple titles such as Composition to the more elaborate Painting with Bold Circular Loop on Red Paper and Composition in Black on Red Paper, we are confronted with human intervention, and the gap between handler and ape becomes blurred. Morris is reported as saying, ‘Lots of chimpanzees given a paintbrush would go splish splash and make something, but we got past that phase until Congo was making purposeful paintings.’ And who decided when the painting was ‘purposeful’ or not? The answer, of course, is Morris, Congo’s handler, not Congo himself. As with Ham, the first chimpanzee launched into space in the 1960s, we know the ape was not at the controls.”
These works aimed to comment on the nature of human identity and the ways in which culture shapes our understanding of ourselves and others. Proceeding this time in art culture some critics argued that the act of training primates to create art may involve the use of physical or psychological coercion, and that this can cause significant harm to the animals. Which, of course. Furthermore, the living conditions for these animals may not meet their complex and unique needs, leading to stress and other negative health outcomes.
Additionally, some experts question the validity of labelling the art created by primates as truly “artistic,” arguing that it is instead a form of exploitation that capitalizes on the animals’ natural behaviours and instincts. In response to these concerns, many artists have ceased using primates in their work, and some galleries and museums have banned the display of works that use animals in any way.
Many animal welfare organizations and experts also discourage the use of primates in art and advocated for more ethical and humane alternatives, such as AI art. In the case of AI art, the artist in question holds a similar ground as with non-human primates. They are not the creators but merely the commissioners. Ultimately, while the use of primates in art may be intriguing, it is important to consider the welfare implications for these animals, and to ensure that their well-being is a top priority.
But with this we have only scratched the surface of the subject, for painting and photography are but one form of art. Next, we will explore the strange world of circuses!
The use of primates in circuses has a long history, so long that its origin hasn’t been recorded. The concept of circuses have existed since ancient Rome. While the incorporation of primates such as chimpanzees, orangutans, and other monkeys are not known, but evidence comes with the start of the circus industry in 18th century. They were commonly used in circuses as performing animals due to their high level of intelligence to perform tricks such as riding bikes, walking tight ropes, and playing instruments.
Now I’d like to say something like, as our understanding of animal welfare and the treatment of primates in circuses has evolved, countries have begun regulating and outright banning the practice, it seems like the opposite is true. Not that countries are incentivizing the practice, but as of December 2022, South Asian circus acts involving monkeys have risen, leading to higher numbers of trafficking.
The UK is actually doing good though. In 2019 it’s Parliament officially banned the use of wild animals in circuses. The British Parliament passed the Wild Animals in Circuses (No. 2) Bill following its third and final reading in the House of Lords. The move came after more than a decade of promises from lawmakers. Following this move, in 2021 the EU did the same thing! Banning all wild animals from use in circuses because it holds no educational or cultural value and although some of these animals have been bred in captivity for many generations, they still exhibit the behaviour typical of animals in the wild.
In the western world some push back has come, but not federally. In Canada there have been municipal bans on the practice like in BC where they have banned the use of all exotic animals including non-human primates, and in the US some States like California have banned the practice of using animals in general for shows, but it is still very much a practice across both countries.
While the use of primates in circuses has declined in recent years, it remains a controversial issue, with some arguing that well-trained and well-cared-for primates can provide a source of entertainment and enjoyment for audiences, while others argue that the exploitation of these animals is unjustified and unethical, like myself, and most people in fact. In an article from February 2023 titled Do Circuses Still Abuse Animals? written by Rachel Graham, “as more research reveals the abuses of the industry, public opinion of the use of animals for entertainment has shifted. Still, even as many countries around the world ban the use of animals in circuses, others continue the practice despite the objections… thousands of animals around the world are still used in circuses today. Over 40 countries have banned the use of wild animals in circuses but others have yet to make a change.”
She goes on to write, “Though public opinion polls suggest most people do not support use of animals for circus entertainment, the practice continues unabated.”
And honestly, that’s where it stands. It seems that chimps were used the most at the start of the industry and that has since slowed down, but to this day it is still a practice. Now let’s pivot from one entertainment medium to the next!
The use of primates in the film industry has a long and storied history, dating back to the early days of cinema. Primates, again particularly chimpanzees and orangutans, have been used in a variety of film genres, including comedies, dramas, and adventure films.
One of the earliest examples of primates in film was the character of J. Fred Muggs, a chimpanzee who appeared on the NBC television show “Today” in the 1950s. Muggs became a popular figure and went on to appear in several films, including the 1953 film “Africa Screams.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, chimpanzees and orangutans were frequently used in comedy films, such as: the “Doctor Dolittle” series featuring crystal the monkey, and the “Every Which Way But Loose” film, which starred a trained orangutan named Clyde. These films often relied on the animals’ human-like behaviour for comedic effect.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the use of primates in films became more controversial, as animal welfare organizations raised concerns about the treatment of animals in the entertainment industry. In response, many film productions began using computer-generated imagery to create animal characters, rather than using live animals.
Despite the increasing use of CGI, primates continue to be used in film and television today. However, the use of these animals is subject to close scrutiny and regulation by animal welfare organizations, who monitor the treatment of animals on film sets to ensure that they are not subjected to abuse or mistreatment.
Overall, the history of primates in the film industry highlights the same complex and contentious relationship between animals and humans as do all other forms of art. Should we be using these animals, these genetic cousins of ours this way?
From the start of civilization humans have been manipulating animals. We started out hunting them, then learned if we breed them over seasons we can have more food. Our manipulation continued, then using animals to carry us long distances, and perform manual labour we would have otherwise done ourselves. This use of manipulation, it then is obvious, continued into all other facets of human life and expression. We scarified lambs to appease gods. We domesticated dogs that later served for mere companionship. And we trained monkeys to wear clothes and do flips for change on the street. Exotic animals to this day fascinate people around the world even though through the internet you can see these animals in their natural habitat just fine, but, and so, the practice of using them for our enjoyment continues. As the wet stroke of a brush presses upon a canvas, is it art that appears from the hand of an ape? The answer is whatever you choose it to be. Thanks for reading.
While not the same as using animals to test rockets or makeup, I want to ask you all how you feel about training animals to perform tricks like painting or riding bikes for our entertainment; Do you think it’s harmless? Do you feel like apes really are expressing their inner-lived experience through art? Let me know! I wish you all nothing but love in your lives, and as always, sleep well fellow primates, until next time. Ciao for now. Peace.