THE BIOLOGY OF ART
By DESMOND MORRIS
VERY slowly we are beginning to accumulate books to form the nucleus of compulsory reading for student art teachers. Here is another. Desmond Morris has arrived at some concepts which are going to last a long time. He has found something even more fundamental (though not more important) than Rhoda Kellogg, whose work he discusses at length, indeed, in the present book.
It is interesting that the name Kellogg first appeared in connection with his topic in 1933, when W. N. & L. A. Kellogg published their study The Ape and the Child. Neither they nor anyone else, however, showed much curiosity about the aesthetic activity of the primates, even though the first record of Chimpanzee painting goes back to 1913. First in that field was the American Paul Schiller, whose unfinished investigations were published posthumously in 1953. Morris took up where Schiller had left off when, in 1956, he began observation of a young male chimpanzee, called “Congo,” at the London Zoo:
I held out the pencil. His curiosity led him towards it. Gently I placed his fingers around it and rested the point on the card. Then I let go. As I did so, he moved his arm a little and then stopped. He stared at the card. Something odd was coming out of the end of the pencil. It was Congo’s first line. It wandered a short way and then stopped. Would it happen again? Yes it did; and again and again. Still staring at the card. Congo began to draw line after line and, as I watched, I noticed that he was beginning to concentrate the lines in one particular region—a part of the card where there was a small ink blot . . . he carried in him the germ of visual patterning (“The Story of Congo,” P. 61).
The drama of this episode is unique in the annals of art, equaled only later by the same Congo when, nearing his 400th painting, he produced what we know from Rhoda Kellogg as the diagrammatic precursor to the human face. (1)
Quite independently other investigators were encouraging apes to create at about the same time. Someone suggested finger painting, and soon orangoutangs and gorillas joined the chimpanzees. In 1957, coincidentally, exhibitions of their work opened on the same day in New York and London—the much satirized London one, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, selling all its paintings within a week, in a clamour of public suspicion. But the Jeremiahs have retired in confusion long ago to leave the field to Dr. Morris—who is not only a scientist but also a painter who brings an incisive intellect to bear on the problems of the artist in the twentieth century, and the coalescence of these talents has given us this book [not long after its publication he became Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London].
The Biology of Art culminates in six verifiable principles which apply to picture-making as a whole and cover everything from Congo to Correggio. Of these, the author gives prime position to his principle of Self-rewarding Activation. This seems of supreme importance to education. The apes painted because painting was its own reward, and threw tantrums if their paints were removed before they had exhausted themselves of its attendant pleasures. This biological pleasure is available to all young children and it should be the aim of the teacher to keep it alive. However, the book suggests, much too sweepingly, that it is also what many twentieth century artists have been struggling to get back to, now that they have “no more motive for painting a picture than Congo had.” Granted that the recent emergence in art schools of the first year “basic course” may encourage such regression, it does not follow that college students live in a social vacuum devoid of a sense of the history of art.
However, in this connection, Dr. Morris demonstrates the harm which can be done by extrinsic rewards, at least among the great apes. If the ape is given to associate some definite reward (e.g. food) as a result of its performance, it can be seduced from “self-rewarding activity” and will reduce its painting to a minimum of insensitive gestures whose only motive is to acquire the reward. Here he does expose the biological sub-structure on which an adequate ethic of art teaching should exist.
The book is, besides, a great galaxy of ideas and observations and is lavishly illustrated. I look forward to the next publication from him where he intends to follow up some present leads.