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The Artistic Ape: Three Million Years of Art

Desmond Morris

In 1957, an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London, introduced a young artist who would die not long afterwards. The show was widely derided in the press, but the work was admired by Miro, Dali and Picasso, who was even presented with a painting. When asked by a reporter what he thought of the work, Picasso's reply was to bite him. The artist was a chimpanzee called Congo.

The curator was Desmond Morris. Ten years later, he would dash off a book that has cast a giant shadow over his entire life: The Naked Ape, his observational study of mankind as a mammal, still one of the 100 bestsellers of all time. Roughly how many copies did it shift?

"We kept checking," says the author. "Probably about 18 million, but when we got to 12 million you can't go on, it gets almost pointless."

His first book, though, was The Biology of Art (1963). It straddled Morris's interest in what CP Snow identified in 1959 as the 'two cultures', arts and sciences: a serious study of chimpanzee art and what it can tell us about aesthetic control in apes. "In the last chapter, I related that to human art," Morris remembers. "People said, 'You ought to develop that bit more.' But it was a daunting task, and I put it off and put it off. Then when I got into my eighties, I thought, before I die I've got to face this challenge."

The Artistic Ape has thus been 50 years in the postponing. It can be safely described as unlike any art history ever written, being the story of human creativity as seen from a zoological perspective: art as behaviour. After an opening chapter revisiting the three-year experiment with Congo at London Zoo, Morris moves on to the swift development of artistic skill in children before embarking on the narrative of human creativity. The journey begins 3m years ago with the Makapansgat Pebble, a stone found in southern Africa with (so far as we can tell) naturally occurring features like a human face. It was picked up from a stream by an Australopithecine man and carried four or five miles back to his cave. "It's the first collectible," Morris says.

The story then drifts through the caves at Lascaux, tours ancient civilisations, analyses folk and tribal self-expression, and puts traditional and modern art in a behavioural context. The book concludes with chapters on the roles of art, and what Morris identifies as art's eight basic rules. It's handsomely packaged and illustrated.

Throughout, there is the overarching question: why? From a Darwinian standpoint, there is absolutely no need for mankind to create. It doesn't help us survive. Morris's conclusion is that, unlike sleeping lions or grazing ruminants, we had a lot of time on our hands, and it needed filling. "As a species, we have evolved a complex, intelligent brain, and it needs exercise, just like if you don't take physical exercise your muscles get flabby. Art came from this need to elaborate our daily lives because we were predatory primates, which made us unique."

Morris's own brain is in fighting nick. Entering his rambling home in north Oxford is a bit like stepping inside said organ. One vast low room, lined with science books, represents the analytical hemisphere, while next door the floor-to-ceiling art books cater to the intuition and imagination half. There are artistic knick-knacks everywhere from his globetrottings. (Morris notched up his 100th country a few years ago: Christmas Island, in the Republic of Kiribati.)

As for the man himself, from under a pair of bushy eyebrows he exudes the same avuncular, non-judgmental curiosity that viewers will recall from those professorial television documentaries he made in the 1980s and 1990s. (He'd love to have made The Artistic Ape as a documentary, but his mobility isn't what it was.)

It may not be remembered that, in the beginning, Morris was an artist. He describes himself as the last surrealist, and the studio where he still paints is round the back. "I've been a practising artist all my life," he says, "privately, most of the time, because I couldn't sell my paintings." When I leave, he hands me a copy of a 1996 monograph entitled Desmond Morris: 50 Years of Surrealism, which teems with gloopy Daliesque figurines, plus his limited-edition surrealist manifesto.

It's sort of surreal that a surrealist is in the top 100 bestsellers of all time. He went over to the cause during the last months of the war. "At assembly, our headmaster would read out the names of last year's sixth formers who had been shot down in Spitfires the previous day. I was in the Air Training Corps, and if the war had gone on another couple of years, I'd have been shot down in my Spitfire, too. I thought human beings were pretty awful. I found a school essay my mother had kept, and to my surprise I found a phrase I'd written - the human being is a monkey with a diseased brain."

He ended National Service lecturing soldiers on art and exhibited his first paintings in Swindon in 1948, but the lab beckoned. After being demobbed, he studied zoology at Birmingham University. It took him a while to get round to studying humans. His doctorate was on fish behaviour, his postdoctoral research on birds; then, at London Zoo, his two worlds coalesced when he started working with Congo, who became a television star as Morris began presenting the children's show Zoo Time.

The experiment came to an end when the chimp severely injured Morris's secretary, who against strict instructions went into a room with him alone. Congo was sent back to the zoo, but didn't thrive. "Because of my passion to find out about the origins of art, I had created a humanised ape who hated other apes. He wanted to be with humans. I felt awful about it, and I could hardly bear to see him in a zoo cage." Congo died of TB not long after.

What Morris's studies proved is that a chimpanzee can manifest aesthetic control, even an artistic temperament. Congo would have tantrums when the paints were taken away from him before he'd finished. "He was screaming, tearing out his hair, jumping up and down, simply because I wouldn't let him go on painting, even though it had nothing to do with his survival. He had created in his brain a problem, a challenge - he was involved in exploring visual patterns."

Despite his artistic output, Morris says he's uninterested in the concept of talent. "All art books written by art specialists are concerned with what is better - is this Picasso better than that Picasso? The differences are so subtle and so complicated that they are beyond analysis. None of the experts knows why. All of this is precisely what my book is not about." He points to a pair of carved wooden masks hanging on the wall, both from the Bakwele tribe, in Gabon. "One of them is good and one isn't. One I bought at Sotheby's, the other off a barrow outside MoMA, in New York." Actually, it's pretty obvious which is which.

Morris's argument is that "the potential is there in everybody. But even if we are not very good at it, we all have a need to make our environment more elaborate. You'd have to be a pretty weird human being not to have an aesthetic response. I can't imagine being without one. You'd be a nutcase."

And if you can't do it well, you can at least look at it. The work of art he leaves the house for most often is Uccello's Hunt in the Forest, up the road in the Ashmolean. He once got on a plane just to see the Bosch triptych in Lisbon. No traipsing through the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa for him; in his view, that is simply conforming to a societal norm. "But I'd be surprised if, when those people get home, it is totally undecorated. As a human being, I need art for the same reason Australopithecine apeman needed that pebble with the face on it. I need these things because they excite me visually."

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