One of my favorite books that I used to use when I taught college art appreciation was called Puzzles About Art: An Aesthetics Casebook (no longer in print I think). The book has lots of small aesthetics case studies with philosophical discussions about art. It really gets you thinking! I love using these in my teaching, so I think I will feature my favorites in a new series, starting with “The Chimpanzee Painter.”
This post was originally published in May 2014.
What is aesthetics?
Aesthetics is the philosophy of art. Every time you say “My kid could have done that!” in a museum, you are engaging in an aesthetics discussion worthy of the great philosophers. Examples of “aesthetic questions” include “What is art?” “What is an artist?” “Why is that art and that not?” “Why did that artwork sell for $4 million?” “Does art have to be beautiful to be considered art?” “Can something be art if it was not made by an artist?” “Are a child’s drawings art?”
Click here to download the free pdf printable worksheet!
The Chimpanzee Painter
Recommended Age: Upper Middle and High School
This activity is adapted from Battin, M.P., Fisher, J., Moore, R., and Silvers, A. (1989). Puzzles about art: An aesthetics casebook. New York: St. Martin’s Press which is no longer in print. I make no claim to the content; I just think it is an awesome resource!
“Betsy the Chimpanzee in the Baltimore Zoo is given some paints and some paper; with them she creates various products, some of which might be called paintings. Even if Betsy’s works are not masterpieces, they are undeniable interesting and appealing in their own way. Selected pieces of Betsy’s paintings are displayed for a month at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago then at the Chicago Art Institute. In both exhibitions, Betsy’s works are greatly admired by the viewing public.” — Puzzles about Art
The Aesthetic Question:
- Is Betsy’s work art? Why or why not? Explain.
- Does the decision to put it in a museum change its “art” status? Why or why not?
- If it is art, who is the artist? The chimpanzee? The museum? The zoo staff who had the original idea? Explain.
This is a great question with no real answer. It calls to mind question of intent. Can a chimpanzee intend to make art or is he or she just playing with the supplies? Is art about the final product, or is it about the idea? If it is about the idea, wouldn’t that make the artist the zoo worker?
I just found out you can buy prints of Chimpanzee art here at the Humane Society website! So cool. Proceeds from that sale go to support chimpanzee sanctuaries. This is not an affiliate link. It’s just neat.
Learn more about teaching Aesthetics!
If you are a member of The Art Curator for Kids Resource Library, you can get this lesson and all of my other resources for one low monthly fee. Find out more information here.
You can also buy this lesson bundle a la carte through the below links.
What do you think? Is it art? Why are why not? Answer in the comments!
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