Art Students

Java sparrow                Photo: Kim Bridges, Picassa Web Albums

For artists and gallery owners, Art (with a capital A) is a serious business. For many though, it is a matter of decoration, chosen on the basis of “I know what I like”. There are examples of paintings by elephants and chimpanzees selling for appreciable sums. To, I hasten to add,  people and not to fellow elephants or primates other than of the human persuasion.

It is possible to train or condition most species to recognize or respond to a variety of shapes and colors. But do species have preferences for types of human artistic endeavors? Prof. Watanabe and his colleague at Keio U have set out to answer this question (1). They chose a team of seven Java sparrows to live in an art gallery style cage with images of three artistic styles. The first was, of course, traditional Japanese art, and the other two were Cubist and Impressionist painting styles. Perching time in front of the images was used to score preferences.

Five of the seven preferred Cubism to Impressionism. There was a three to two split on Japanese traditional to Cubist images. When asked if they preferred Impressionism to trad Japanese painting, six didn’t give a hoot, or in their case a chipchipchip.

Of course, none of the birds had been exposed to an art appreciation course, and so they were then enrolled in a program. They were subjected to a positive and negative reward system of teaching that is similar to the operant conditioning that we often subject our children to. At the end of the program, the sparrows could discriminate between the styles and were graduated. The question remains though: where they really, deep down, preferring some of the images or were the just parroting what they had been told?

Y. Ikkarai & S Watanabe, Animal Cognition, 14, 227-234, (2011). DOI: 10.1007/s10071-010-0356-3

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