Dog Art?

A question, dear readers.  Is it art when dogs paint?

Wesley J. Smith answers with a resounding “no:”

The dog art isn’t actually art–at least not art created by a dog. The dogs are not expressing their aesthetic yearnings or attempting to create a thing of beauty. Rather, they are engaging in trained behavior that, for them, has no deeper meaning. (The same is true about similar elephant paintings that are created in India, an example of which is reproduced at the right margin.) Any artistic elements in this story spring exclusively from human activities, and thus, the story beneath the story is that the paintings made by dog and elephant “artists” illustrate the truth of human exceptionalism

Melinda Penner agrees:  Though two abstract paintings, one by a human and the second by a doggie, may appear similar (especially to me) the first has something the second can’t have:  meaning and intentionality.  The doggie is only capable of creating random strokes on a canvas and is conveying no design or meaning, no information.  Art is what it is because of it’s intrinsic value – the artist’s intention.  A doggie’s painting can’t be art because he just isn’t capable of imparting that kind of information.

What about you?  Is it art or not?

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

10 Comments

  1. Creative Art. Repentance. Aesthetic judgement.

    These are all things which are uniquely human and not to be found in the animal kingdom, I think. What other things belong in the above list?

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  2. Does repentence include self-awareness? It seems like that should have a home somewhere on the list.

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  3. 1. Yes, but just as Smith describes, because of the intentions of the trainer.

    2. Whether that means that only humans can practice art, I do not know. Dolphins, birds, and chimps have been observed engaging in apparently aesthetic behavior, but the “apparently” is the best we can do, given the high epistemic barrier.

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  4. Jim,

    Does it matter at all whether the actual artistic production is intentional or not? If so, then it seems like even if there are “artistic elements” in the paintings, they wouldn’t constitute art as they hadn’t been “intentionally” composed (even though the artists had been intentionally trained to compose them). Does the question make sense?

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  5. I’d wager the overall intentionality covers any “happy accidents” along the way. For instance, if an artist programs stochastic randomness to produce fractal images of profound beauty, I’d still call that art. (At least, if I understand your question.)

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  6. I admittedly know little about aesthetics, but having listened to Veith, who knows a great deal, I would not be so quick to immediately say these paintings can’t be art because the “artist” doesn’t intend it. As I liveblogged here ( http://tinyurl.com/2e3zv6 ), Veith said that the focus of art for premoderns was on the work itself (is it beautiful?). The focus shifted for moderns to the artist himself (is he doing something new? is he saying something important?) and now for postmoderns to the audience alone (do I like it?). If thats true, then aren’t we betraying our modernist tendencies by saying “it can’t be art, because the artist isn’t intending to make art”?

    I would agree that these are not art, but then I’d say that about almost all that passes for “art” currently. ;) But we have to focus on the work itself if we’re going to argue for objective standards of beauty. However, I also agree that art is something special to humans and that anyone who thinks this proves otherwise should watch the video of the trainer constantly watching and urging the dog to paint. I’d also say if the dog did produce something like Rembrandt, then we’d really have to credit the trainer with the work and not the dog (much like in Jim’s example, we’d credit the programmer, not the randomness). The dog is like another medium through which the artist is working.

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  7. Jim, if I read your response rightly, you would contend that in this instance, the artist is not the dog, but the person who trained it. Is that correct?

    However, Brant points out that it still may be “art” regardless of whom the artist is. Question for Brant:nn if a machine produces something that is beautiful, is it still art? My worry is that Veith’s characterization of art admit too much. Brant, what do you think?

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  8. My two cents: Brant says, “But we have to focus on the work itself if we’re going to argue for objective standards of beauty.” David Hume disagrees and in his essay, “Of the Standard of Taste” (available on internets everywhere), argues otherwise.

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  9. Jim writes:
    I’d wager the overall intentionality covers any “happy accidents” along the way. For instance, if an artist programs stochastic randomness to produce fractal images of profound beauty, I’d still call that art. (At least, if I understand your question.)

    This sounds comparable to a theist claiming that a beautiful sunset is a specific instance of “art” because God created the world and any result, however natural or mechanistic, is therefore intentional art. But I don’t know any Christian who would actually claim that (common metaphors of God as artist notwithstanding).

    I think of art as “artifice” in contradistinction to “natural.” So I would classify the fractal pattern as natural since the intentionality of the programmer is removed one degree, just as the sunset is literally “natural” because the intentionality of the creator is a degree removed.

    So just as the sunset is still “intentional” insofar as it occurs in accordance with divine providence, the fractal pattern is similarly “intentional” but lacks the immediate intent that typifies art qua art.

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  10. “So just as the sunset is still “intentional” insofar as it occurs in accordance with divine providence, the fractal pattern is similarly “intentional” but lacks the immediate intent that typifies art qua art.”

    I think I share this intuition and have been trying to articulate it to myself. Thankss, Nobody.

    Jim, I’d love to hear a reply when you get a chance.

    Reply

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