Criteria for what sets humanity from the rest of the world certainly has changed over time. Consider the act of tool making, for example. It was largely thought this was an act that only humans did — until Jane Goodall spent a lot of time hanging out with primates. She noticed a chimp using a blade of grass to get termites out of a hill and into his mouth. That was in 1960, and since then, other bits of tool-making evidence has popped up in the primate world.
Okay, how about the inhumanity of murder and waging war? Evidence of that has been discovered, too, and I don’t mean rather fun movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Actually, this goes back to Jane Goodall, again. In 1974, she witnessed the dissolution of a tribe into what would become The Gombe Chimpanzee War.
This was a conflict that lasted about two years. Goodall noticed how the death of the central alpha male led to the disintegration of the tribe. Feuding factions jockeyed for who got to become the next alpha. Sounds positively Shakespearean doesn’t it? Clearly, humans are not the only animals with profoundly dark sides.
Chimps are not always the warm, fuzzy, cute animals many of us would like to think. Little did former hack actor and American president Ronald Reagan know that some apes can rip a limb off and and beat something to death with it. I am guessing that he didn’t have to deal with any such incidents on the set of Bedtime for Bonzo back in 1951. So, tool making and reigning death upon enemies are no longer considered uniquely human.
What is left, then? It’s an act of human vanity to ask how we “are better” than the rest of the animal kingdom, but it is a necessary intellectual pursuit. It’s the only way we really can explain our humanity. Definitions are hard to establish in a void of other references. So, let’s go to one of the other oft mentioned delineation points: art.
Can we assume that the above painting was made by a spastic monkey? Think about it! Force feed a chimp enough high-octane espresso and give that primate access to cans of paint and a canvas. You could plausibly suggest that the above could result. So, did a monkey do this while in a poo-flinging rage?
Um. No. It’s actually American abstract artist Jackson Pollock — who was definitely not a chimpanzee. None of his work can be attributed to poo-flinging rages. Yet, he did throw and drip a lot of paint around. As revolutionary as his work was, it now seems commonplace. I mean, I can see knockoff attempts at abstract art in the hallways of high-end hotels around China. You can also see similar work for sale cheaply at art school dropout yard sales.
So is this a Jackson Pollock?
Is it the work of a failed art student ?
Is this something that’s hanging in the posh corridor of a Chinese hotel catering to international business men?
I neither confirm nor deny that. Actually, it’s quite possible.
But, one thing is certain.
It’s the work of Congo the Chimp, and he was once a sensation in the 1950s art world. Believe it or not, even artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali bought the ape’s work and added it to their personal collections. But, did Congo — all by his lonesome — become inspired one day to pick up a brush and express his inner self? No.
Congo was trained by surrealist painter Desmond Morris. This is kind of emblematic of something that has occurred in the art world. Congo was not the only non-human artist. Over the years, elephants, dolphins, donkeys, and rabbits have put paint to paper. Even more, there are 14 elephants in Thailand that comprise an improvisational orchestra.
The idea, here, is that humans are not the only creative, imaginative creatures on this planet. The idea, possibly, stretches into even the realm of insects. Consider the following art installation at Qingguo Lane in Changzhou.
This is 虫子诗, which translates as “Bug Poetry.” It can be found at the Heping Road side of Qingguo.
This whole display is not just dedicated to insects. As the Chinese title suggests, it’s dedicated particularly to the “poetry” insects have written.
This exhibit is more like an outdoor anthology, with individual “poems” displayed in their own special “scripts.” The poems are, of course, completely unreadable. One gets the feeling, though, that appreciating art such as this requires also an appreciation for Chinese calligraphy. Written Chinese uses pictographs as opposed to letters, and each Character can sometimes be appreciated as a work of art unto itself given the skills of the calligrapher holding the brush. But, then one has to wonder. Why is this weird bug exhibition in Changzhou? Who thought up this stuff?
This is actually based off of the work of Zhu Yingchun. He is an artist and director of the Nanjing Normal University Research Center of Book Culture. What is on display here in Changzhou has been taken from his latest book, which translates into English as “Bug Poetry.”
Guangxi Normal University Press released this in 2020, and purports to be a collection of poems. This is not the first time Zhu has turned to insects. While in his Nanjing studio, he actually does study the patterns insects actually create. It’s more than likely that the bug poetry display in Changzhou is a promotion for this recently released book.
That’s well and fine. However, one does have to wonder. Are the pages in Zhu’s book, as well as the Qingguo Lane exhibition dedicated to it, the actual work of insects? While Zhu himself might argue yes, a more realistic answer would be no. The art he finds in the insect world is more of an extension of himself.
And so, one now has to circle back to the initial question. What separates humanity from the animal kingdom? People used to assume that tool making and organized violence were unique to mankind, but that’s not the case. Jane Goodall found instances of that occurring naturally. For the chimps in question, that’s innate behavior. No human taught that to them. The same can’t be said when it comes to high-end art. Whether it’s animals painting, elephants preforming music, and bugs creating their own special calligraphy, it is still a byproduct of human creativity. This is not an knock on such art, either. It’s still interesting enough to try and wrap one’s head around.