Is It Art? Primate Paintings and Animal Art in History

Share Button
If a chimp can be an artist, can it also be an art critic? Image by seeka

If a chimp can be an artist, can it also be an art critic? Image by seeka

A thirty-seven-year-old primate has just won $10,000 for a painting he created using his tongue. Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? Hopefully the paint used wasn’t toxic, but either way, Brent the chimp hasn’t exactly made history: primate ‘art’ has been around for years. Is it really art?

Chimp Art Contest

The online chimp art contest, organized by the Humane Society of the Univeted States announced the winner of the $10,000.00 grand prize last Thursday. The chimp won’t actually receive the award himself, however, the prize money will go to his home, the Chimp Haven sanctuary in northwest Louisiana. The Associated Press quotes Chimp Haven’s president, Cathy Willis Spraetz, saying, “Brent paints only with his tongue. His unique approach and style, while a little unorthodox, results in beautiful pieces of art.”

Good for Brent. But one wonders, is it really art? Brent’s painting definitely “uses conscious production or arrangement of colours, forms, movements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty” as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary. But this same dictionary also states that art is a “Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.” The key word here, of course, is ‘human.’ Primates such as Brent the chimpanzee are not human.

Is Animal Art Really Art?

So, is this sort of painting art? It is definitely animal art, something that has been around since the mid-twentieth century. According to Edward O. Wilson, “Artistic impulses are by no means limited to man.

Zoologist Desmond Morris, studied the creativity of chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and capuchin monkeys in 1962. His star pupil was Congo (1954-1964), a chimpanzee who, by the age of four had created over 400 drawings in a lyric, abstract, impressionistic style. His work became famous with well-known fans like Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). In 2005, some of Congo’s work was sold at auction at Bonhams alongside of works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Three of Congo’s works sold for $26,000 US.

Chimp Art in History

Primate, chimp art, has been around for decades. It has sold for fantastic prices to people ‘in the know’ of trends in the art world. Does that in itself make an animal’s forays into paint and canvas qualify as ‘art?’

For Brent, this prize just means more money to support a safe place for his retirement. Will he continue to paint? Most probably. Will his art garner more attention in the future? Time will tell. But, is his work art? Really, when you think about it, only the consumer, the art connoisseur, can truly answer that question. Why? Because, like everything else in this world, the painting is what the money that buys it say it is.

A $10,000 prize certainly suggests that Brent’s work is, indeed, art.


CBC News. Chimp’s winning painting no slip of the tongue: Retired lab animal Brent brings home $10,000 prize. (2013). CBCnews. The Associated Press. Accessed September 1, 2013.

The American Heritage Dictionary. Art. (2013). Accessed September 1, 2013.

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. (1980). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.

Reynolds, Nigel. Art world goes wild for chimpanzee’s paintings as Warhol work flops. (2005). Telegraph.

Share Button

© Copyright 2013 Emily-Jane Hills Orford, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *