No artistry in apes

A 50-year-old painting by a chimp called Congo has sold at a London auction for £14,000. But is it art?

Louis Ryan

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On Monday, three works of art by the chimpanzee Congo – which was coached by the anthropologist Desmond Morris in the 1950s – were sold at an auction in London. They were bought by Howard Hong, a private collector in Los Angeles, who later issued a statement saying that Congo’s paintings ‘represent the complete evolution of mankind’. Can monkeying around with a paintbrush ever be art? Read this article on Congo’s creative antics, originally published in LM magazine in June 1997:

Over a three-year period in the mid-1950s, Dr Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, Manwatching), then of London Zoo, supervised a chimpanzee named Congo in the production of several hundred ‘monkey paintings’, of which a small selection was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, in September 1957, together with similar efforts by Betsy, a chimpanzee from Baltimore Zoo. The fortieth anniversary of that controversial show is to be marked by the publication of Monkey Paintings by Thierry Lenain, senior lecturer in aesthetics and the philosophy of art at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Without a trace of irony, Lenain tells us that ‘the second half of the fifties was a golden age for monkey artists’. But the reasons for this ‘golden age’ were entirely within the human domain: firstly, the adoption of the novel term ‘human animal’ in a number of scientific disciplines, which indicated growing doubts about the distinction between ‘human and animal’; secondly, the new prominence of abstract expressionism, which meant that for the first time some plausible resemblance could be claimed between the exertions of a monkey wielding a crayon and the gestural compositions of contemporary artists.

Likewise, the revival of interest in monkey painting in the 1990s is related more to the current intellectual climate, with its tendency to lose sight of human uniqueness, than to any fresh achievements by our biological, simian relatives.

In 1957, Morris’ (or should it be Congo’s and Betsy’s?) exhibition proved an unexpected success. But there was also some negative criticism from those who scorned the aesthetic worth of the end product (monkey ‘painting’); and those who drew attention to the human input into the process (‘monkey’ painting).

Lenain’s book shows that the chimpanzees had more than a little help from Morris. Isolated from other distractions, the monkey was immobilised in a kind of baby chair, with the paper fixed before him. Pencil or crayon was placed in his hand, or, if he was painting, the brush would be given to him loaded with paint, then exchanged for other brushes when the paint was used up or the gesture discontinued. Alternatively, Morris would leave Congo with one colour and rotate the sheets on which this colour was used.

Morris’ rotations of paint and paper raise the question of who decided when a given stage was finished, or when the painting as a whole was complete. ‘Nothing could interrupt him [Congo] until he was satisfied with the balance of his painting’, averred Morris. But Lenain says that ‘Congo enjoyed covering a shape that he had just produced with “savage” brushstrokes; the best examples of circles produced by him were saved by removing the paper before he had completely finished’.

Lenain explained to me that ‘Congo’s temper changed during the two years of his career as a painter’, becoming more restive and occasioning, it would seem, increased intervention from his minder. Yet it is to this ‘later period’ that Morris attaches the greatest ‘aesthetic’ significance, drawing particular attention to loops and circles which were only saved for posterity by his own timely intervention.

The question of a conscious finishing point is vital. With human activity there is always the before, during and after of conception, execution and assessment. ‘Action painting’ is an attempt to elide the distinction between conception and execution – but consciously so, and therefore vainly. With the monkey painter, however, there is only execution. This is not to say that monkeys may not be stimulated by the act of painting, as they are by other activities, but to liken this to the ‘joy of creation’, as Morris has done, is to abort the meaning of creation and parody that of joy.

Monkey painters do not take the slightest interest in the product of their exertions. But there have been many studies of monkey paintings by humans, and Lenain’s book provides a useful account of these. He finds himself in ‘respectful disagreement’ with Morris, and he concludes that monkey painting is not art in any real sense. However, Lenain tends to support the claims of Morris and others for a ‘sense of order’ among non-human primates.

One of the more well-attested observations made of monkey painters is that their marks or brushstrokes are influenced by prior shapes on the page. Morris found that, when confronted with a blank sheet or a sheet with a line down the middle, Congo distributed his markings fairly evenly over the page. But if the line was shifted to the right, the markings tended to cluster to the left, and vice versa. Evidence, it has been claimed, of the desire to balance the picture, and hence of a basic aesthetic sense.

It is true that the marks seem to act as a kind of sign-posting to the monkey’s eye, brain and hand, sending him automatically to one or other side of the visual field. But the reactive nature of this process underlines the difference between monkey and man. Even the most rudimentary human efforts are characterised by freedom of choice in the available field. It is the inability to deal with choice in a controlled way that characterises primitive or childish pictorial expression, setting it apart not only from the mastery of the accomplished artist but also from the automatic sign-posting experienced by the monkey.

Monkey painting may help us understand human creativity, by pointing up what it is not. As for the product of this strange activity, I feel that some of it has some aesthetic value, but that this derives from a combination of accident and covert human intervention. Ultimately there seems to be no good reason to regard the monkey painter’s hand as anything other than a random instrument of the human experimenter. Though having said that, the fact that these paintings are in their gestural aspect the product of sheer unconsciousness, does make them intriguing.

This article was first published in LM magazine in June 1997.

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