The industry that exists to service laboratory primates is surprisingly vast. Our close genetic cousins can’t just live off kibble while caged, nor can their brains remain limber with nothing more than a hamster wheel to occupy their time. So companies like New Jersey’s Bio-Serv exist to peddle “primate enrichment” products designed to make captivity a bit more bearable.
One of their latest offerings is finger paste, which we reckon is meant to encourage artistic expression. But can non-human primates produce genuine art, rather than just sloppy facsimiles of what they observe in the lab? (Or, for that matter, mere random splatters that occasionally resemble something recognizable?) This is a question that stirred great debate during the 1950s, when Desmond Morris allegedly taught a chimpanzee named Congo to paint:
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.
We’ve yet to make up our mind on this topic, though we promise to give it careful consideration tonight (as we drink, naturally). But we remain fairly well-convinced that non-human primates lack the ability to create a movie as terrible as Battlefield Earth.