Research Fellow, School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Monash University
Can the nests of some birds be regarded as works of art, as aesthetic creations worthy of our admiration? Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that some birds have “fine powers of discrimination” and in some instances could be shown to “have a taste for the beautiful”.
But how can we regard nests as “art” when art is something we traditionally associate with museums, galleries, cleanness, quiet and, most importantly, humankind?
Since the early 20th century, attitudes towards what constitutes art have changed radically. A major breakthrough took place when Picasso described Indigenous artefacts as art, contrary to the anthropological, rather than artistic, interest that was common at the time. In 1907, Picasso saw African tribal masks in the Ethnographic Museum at the Trocadéro Palace in Paris. He commented:
The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things.
The masks triggered a catharsis when Picasso quoted their formal and symbolic qualities in his 1907 work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the painting that was the precedent to Cubism.
Cubism shattered the three-dimensional pictorial illusionism that had shaped Western painting since Giotto. Modern art was a wrecker – of boundaries, norms and forms. As art critic Clement Greenberg noted, modernism
… manhandled into art what seemed until then too intractable, too raw and accidental, to be brought within the scope of aesthetic purpose.
Given such shifts in attitudes towards art and artmaking, where does it leave my claim that birds can, in some cases, be considered “artists”?
In terms of technique and virtuosity, birds are second to none. They’ve had millions of years to perfect their talents, much longer than homo sapiens. Michelangelo may have painted the Sistine Ceiling but he didn’t do it with a brush in his mouth and no other form of assistance.
Birds are inventive, a need driven by evolution’s struggle for survival. Art is sometimes regarded as a leisure activity: if people have the time (and sufficient food and shelter), they can develop the ability to create pleasing and well-made objects.
But what if the urge to make things carries with it an inherent desire, in the case of humans and perhaps of some highly intelligent birds, to make those things beautiful? Beauty needs planning and a discerning audience that can appreciate it.
For the lesser masked weavers of Africa, evolution has provided a critical mass. Though the weavers nest in colonies, they build self-contained units. The males weave elaborate nests, that resemble pendulous, open-weave baskets, hanging one by one from slender branches.
As the males work, the females judiciously assess their progress. A great deal of skill and industry goes into each nest: the weave must be of the right tightness and elasticity otherwise the eggs will slide out.
When the nest is finished and ready for judging, the male perches hopefully beside it. A messy, disorganised nest, and its designer, will be rejected. The better examples are given a stern and thorough examination, including an interior inspection. If the female approves, she immediately moves in. Thus she ensures that the standards of nest building among lesser masked weavers will remain very high.
In these competitive stakes, the authority of the female’s demanding taste is paramount. Though the females are simply doing the best for their species, you can’t help but feel sympathetic towards the males whose splendid and time-consuming efforts are often met with rejection, especially as rejection in the animal kingdom may mean death.
Perhaps in the future, the ingenious and beautiful constructions made by some birds will take their place in galleries as art.
Janine Burke’s latest book, Nest: The Art of Birds, 2012
Academic rigor, journalistic flair