Are humans the only ones who can create? I used to think so. When I see things like this or octopuses building things and using tools, I have to wonder a couple things. Were they trained solely to do “art” according to their trainers? Is this the one-in-a-billion statistical glitch that just mimics something else? Is something occurring that we only label with “art”? Or is there a possibility that animals other than humans can create, as well?
In the book Every Man an Artist, several people including musicians and philosophers to painters and builders write on what makes “art” art. Art is less a commodity or product than it is evidence of action, and the action is creating in connection with the universe. There is the age-old concept that art imitates nature, usually attributed to Plato in either his Phaedo or Timaeus, and this is understood by many to mean that art is merely a decoration meant to replace what could be seen out of a window. That’s certainly an easy answer, but not very satisfying.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a young master of Chinese landscape painting, and my friend from Hong Kong was able to translate for us so we could have a conversation. I asked how he chose his subjects, were they always taken from life, and what was his motivation. He answered that he believed his motivation was the same as for any artist; his subjects were taken initially from what could be seen, but painting what can be seen every day (he said) would be useless – anyone could see that whenever they opened their eyes. “I paint,” he said, “the ideal, what I hope and wish the world would be. I combine different pieces to make a landscape I would love to find myself in, and I paint to inspire people to hope for the same thing I do – a better world. And maybe they will want to help me make it.”
When Plato taught that art should follow nature, he is not demanding that art can only be called art if it represents a tree, a rock, or a pond, but rather art must be what nature is. Nature is a manifestation of principles of growth and balance reflecting the Divine. Regardless what a person does – teaching, painting, farming, building homes, caring for parents or the sick, sculpting – when that person is creating honestly (and creating experiences is no different than creating things) and in harmony with the Divine, that act and its evidence is art. It may not be something that is appropriate to hang in a gallery or sell prints of online, but by all the standards that mean anything it is art.
Something else I thought was uniquely human is the act of compassion until I saw this video. I don’t know whether other creatures truly express those things which help us define ourselves as human, but I do know my children are growing up into a very interesting world. I’m hoping it looks a lot like the paintings of my friend.