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Hall of Human Origins

What Makes Us Human?

Origins | Are We Unique? | Nature and Nurture

Art: Are We Unique?

© AMNH / Rod Mickens

Art is hard to define. We might consider something art because of the response it stirs in the viewer, the context in which it is viewed (we respond differently to a soup can displayed in a museum) or formal qualities such as balance and symmetry. If these criteria were enough, a rock or spiderweb could be called art. But art also involves the intent to express oneself. While many animals create patterns and structures that inspire wonder in humans, there is little evidence that they are engaging in artistic expression.

Many animals produce colorful, symmetrical patterns—but they are not necessarily created for their visual appeal. Though they may be intricate and beautiful, most animal constructions are either purely functional (like a nest) or produced in response to some biological urge (like attracting a mate).

Though some cultures have no word for art, all human cultures show evidence of the artistic spirit—an urge to create that goes beyond the merely functional. Artistic creations need not be only for display; they may also have a practical or religious purpose. An object may also be decorated for no reason at all, except to make it beautiful. The urge to express an emotional or aesthetic experience can be found in almost any human creation, from cars to cartoons to cathedrals.

© AMNH / Dennis Finnin

Artists or Engineers?
Spiderwebs form symmetrical, visually balanced patterns that can be quite beautiful. If made by a human, they might be appropriate for display in an art gallery. But to a spider, the web is just a trap; no artistic intent or creative expression is involved.

"Decorated" Shells
Marine snails of the genus Xenophora attach rocks, shells, coral and other objects to their own shells, sometimes in symmetrical patterns. Though mysterious, their motives are more likely functional than artistic; the additions may strengthen their shells or provide camouflage.

Brown Gardener and his bower
Brown Gardener (Amblyornis inornatus), and his bower, Arfak Mountains, Irian Jaya, New Guinea, Indonesia
© Konrad Wothe/Minden Pictures

Just for Show
The males of the Australian and New Guinea bowerbirds use a variety of materials to build structures whose sole function is display. Although the bowers of each species have specific shapes, they are constantly modified and tinkered with. But unlike human art, they appear to have a single, biologically driven motive: to attract mates.

The Artistic Imagination
The natural materials shown here are available to anyone, or any species—but they have been arranged by a human artist to express a unique personal vision.

HTI, Haiti: Hand painted minibus (TapTap) in Port au Prince
HTI, Haiti: Hand painted minibus (TapTap) in Port au Prince
© Achim Pohl/Peter Arnold, Inc.

The Desire to Decorate
The lavish decorations on these buses make them not just functional objects but also works of art. No other species decorates so much of its environment.

This robot—named RAP, for Robotic Action Painter-creates original paintings using a combination of random decisions and responses to its environment. Does RAP's creative process somehow emulate the creativity of a human artist?

RAP (Robotic Action Painter), a robotic artist
RAP (Robotic Action Painter), a robotic artist
© AMNH / Denis Finnin

Each of RAP's paintings is original. As it creates, the robot receives no outside instructions, relying solely on its onboard program. RAP even decides when each piece is finished.

But is RAP truly an artist? Unlike a human artist, RAP has no creative inspiration. RAP does not know it is making art, nor does it know what art is; it is only following a set of simple rules written by a human artist. Yet humans identify the robot's paintings as artistic, so perhaps RAP's painting program successfully emulates some parts of the human creative process.

Artist's and funders' credit: Artist Leonel Moura created RAP thanks to funding from the Portugese Science and Technology Foundation (FCT) and the Caixa Geral de Depůsitos.

Art by RAP (Robot Action Painter)
Art by RAP (Robot Action Painter)
© Leonel Moura

30 minutes
RAP begins each painting with a series of random decisions. It repeatedly chooses a position on the paper, selects a color and then draws a random, scribbly line. When its sensors detect large enough patches of color, RAP has completed a "sketch" for its painting.

120 minutes
RAP then enters a more interactive mode, in which it uses an array of color sensors to "see" and develop the existing sketch. When it senses a color—green, for example—RAP chooses one of the green pens and adds more color to that area.

240 minutes
Through this positive feedback process the patches of color seem to grow organically, becoming more and more dense.

320 minutes
When RAP finds a single, densely painted area with uniform coloring, it decides that the painting is finished. RAP then signs its initials in the corner of the painting.