Are Bowers Art?
The first European naturalist to lay eyes on a skillfully designed and
decorated bower initially attributed it to human inventiveness. Who else besides man, he
reasoned, could have conceived and built such architecturally sophisticated and
aesthetically pleasing structures?
That was back in 1872, but even today many might liken the creations of
bowerbirds to those of artists. Below is a short clip from "Flying Casanovas,"
in which narrator Sir David Attenborough compares two constructions—one by
British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, the other by a Macgregor's bowerbird. He
then asks, if the first is considered a work of art, then why is the second
One is art. Is the other?
We invite you to watch the clip and decide for yourself whether bowers deserve
the label "art." Feel free to examine other bowers in Bowerbird Matching Game.
To hear what other readers thought, see below. Please note we are no longer
accepting submissions for posting.
Are Bowers Art?
In my dictionary, art is defined as the human effort to, among other things,
imitate the work of nature. It would seem to me, then, that the world we live
in and every natural element of it is a continuous array of untouchable true
How would it be fair then, to assume that only art molded by the human hand is
art, when, in effect, it is merely a vain attempt to replicate the perfect art
of nature? I certainly enjoy a beautiful painting or an inventive sculpture,
but nothing conceived by human design or possessing the "touch of a person," as
Mr. Goldsworthy prides his work as possessing, takes my breath away or makes me
realize how truly awe-stricken I can become by the natural world. Art is not a
The question of whether or not the work of the bowerbirds is art certainly is
an interesting one. After watching the program and considering the subject, I
believe that the bowers are indeed a form of art.
In the past, there have been stories of animals allegedly doing artwork, such
as elephants painting, which have been scoffed at, and perhaps rightfully so.
In that example, the elephant's supposed "painting" is little more than random
brush strokes. In the case of the bowerbird though, the male shows great care
and effort as well as evidence of individual tastes in his work.
Each species of bowerbird works for a specific "audience," and its males craft
their bowers appropriately. They assemble collections of jewels, each
displaying marked preferences for certain types of objects. The females then
examine the bowers, again showing specific tastes for certain bowers. This
perhaps is one of the most telling signs. Although the bowerbirds may be acting
out of instinct, their unique, aesthetically pleasing constructions are indeed
a form of art.
Are bowers art? The question prompts another: What is art? Is art, like
religion, something specific to humans, something that requires language and an
overly developed sense of self-awareness? Here are some thoughts: Art must
intentionally provoke commentary and dialogue. An artist must possess a mind
conscious of art's creation. Bowers are certainly beautiful, but their
intention is simply to attract mates—a basic evolutionary instinct.
Art should not be defined by what is beautiful—who would dare to define
beauty? If we can rule out beauty as a defining characteristic of art, we need
to consider other "artistic" structures created by the paws, antennae, and
claws of animals. Are termite hills, wasps' nests, and mole tunnels art
candidates? Once we start down this slippery slope, just about everything could
be considered art, which is why I'm voting: NO, bowers are not art. Art
requires the intention to create art, a quality that bowerbirds, as far as I
know, do not possess.
No doubt these are artistically crafty birds. Art and beauty are in the eye of
the beholder. My class and I are in awe of their accomplishments and talents.
I would love to have this art work decorating my classroom or home even. Thanks
for sharing this art with us!
Jan Johnson and her students at St. Bridget School
To a casual observer a Jackson Pollock canvas might be taken for a toddler's
messy drippings, yet art critics and historians have canonized his abstract
works, called him a visionary, and labeled his art with unwieldy but impressive
monikers such as "psychic automatism." Whether or not the casual observer and
the art critic share the same taste, both would probably agree that Pollock's
work is artistic. Like it or not, it is plain to see that the artist
intentionally set about to create something that has no other practical purpose
than to provoke a dialogue about color, movement, texture, artistic tradition,
even the nature of art itself.
When the bowerbird is constructing his bower, his objective seems quite
different. Though his bowers are beautiful and sophisticated (and
color-coordinated to boot!), he is motivated only by the need to propagate, a
carnal urge which is hardwired in all living things. If the definition of art
can be expanded to include bowers, then it is only right to call the clownfish
a drag queen and the long-tailed manakin a master of modern dance (see Mr.
Tyson's article on this Web site). You could also call a beaver an architect.
These labels seem out of place, however, since their techniques are
unintentional and unlearned.
For all of their aesthetic magic, acts of nature cannot, in my opinion, be
deemed acts of art. A field of wildflowers may be breathtaking, but it is not a
work of art. Yet by my definition, a carefully planted and manicured garden
would qualify as art. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art is in the
intentions of its maker.
Yes!! The works these birds do fulfill both function and form. It would be
similar to an artisan working with his or her materials and coming up with
something that both fulfills a purpose and does so in the most aesthetically
exquisite and deliberate way. Yes, it most definitey is art and quite beautiful
and amazing at that.
Saskatoon, Sasketchewan, Canada
Thank you so very much for bringing us this eloquent perspective on bowerbird
culture. I am what human civilization calls a "fine artist," and it is my
unflinching opinion that the bowers created by these animals are an example of
art at its finest. Not only are they created for the purpose of communicating
to fellow members of a species, but they are unique expressions of individual
identities of each creator. Their sophistication is at least on par with the
earliest known artistic creations of humankind—the Lascaux caves. I have had
greater inspiration for meaningful philosophical reflection from looking at
those bowers than from most of the creations that pass for art in most
There are many animals that have "cultures" and artistic expression that
deserve greater recognition from us humans. Take chimpanzees and elephants, for
example: In captivity, they both have responded with expressive creation when
given the tools to do so.
I applaud you for bringing us the intricate beauties of the bowerbird's
expression, which is not only about his desire to propagate, but also about his
complex knowledge of the environment in which he lives. Not only are his
creations saturated with visual and conceptual aesthetic, but they express the
delicate dependency of an animal in nature. I pray the world can appreciate and
save the natural systems that harbor such magnificent beauties, for they are
every bit as sublime as anything made by man.
And on that note, how is it that the perfectly adequate Museum of Modern Art in
New York City can be remodelling again, only 20 years later, to the tune of
millions of dollars, when vast natural systems full of unique beauty, such as
the proposed Lanjoue National Park in the Congo Basin in Africa, could be saved
for a mere $3.6 million and "mined" for their beauty in documentaries like this
one? (See http://www.savethecongo.org/index/html.) I truly think it is time for
contemporary art to get off its high horse and look at planetary realities and
help the world to appreciate more of the unparalled and imperiled beauty
created by nature. Before it's too late, and taxidermied bowerbirds compete
with van Goghs on the auction block.
Many thanks for the opportunity to express these issues. And for all the great
knowledge you keep bringing to us.
The bowerbirds are positively fascinating! Not only are their creations art,
they are art of the purest kind—nature's art created by one of God's
Sheila S. Albert
In watching the NOVA presentation on the bowerbird, I was amazed to see the
elaborate and decidedly beautiful creations they constructed. Surely there is
an esthetic at work which goes beyond simple animal instinct. The use of color,
texture, and placement were reminiscent of a feng shui sensibility, spoke to a
creative awareness. Truly fascinating.
San Rafael, California
Doesn't look like "art" to me. Looks more like instinctual coloring.
The description made me think that the picture would look more cultivated.
When I clicked on it, though, it just looked like two clumps of color.
Bird behavior is funny, although nowhere near as complex as human behavior.
The mating game for humans often includes the use of the reasoning that "we are
just animals anyway, so why don't we do it."
Nice try :)
You've asked a very tough question. As such, my best answer leaves much to be
desired. Art is the expression of the perspectives of the human endeavor,
either individually or collectively. This includes revelation of beauty. And
I'm reminded of the statement "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Bowers,
in my opinion, are most definitely beautiful.
However, you have to question the intent of the artist. Did the artist intend
to raise a feeling of awe when creating this, or in that matter, any feeling at
all? Art requires intent. Even when we ask "What is this?" and receive the
subsequent reply, "Well, what do you think or feel?" doesn't mean it lacks
intent. Rather, this is to test the success of the transmission of intent.
So if the bowerbird is the suspected artist, is its intent to express insight
into the human endeavor? Probably not. But then you could argue that the artist
is really an evolutionary force or some other greater power. Subsequent
questions are near impossible for me to answer for anyone else and would prove
even more long-winded than I've already been.
Yes, bowers are art! A celebration of one's accomplishments regardless of what
species. Interesting and beautiful. Do bowerbirds see color? They must, to
group like colored objects together.
I think "art" as it's defined implies human-made. If that's true, then strictly
speaking, bowers can't be said to be art.
But are they artistic? In my book, yes. Many people find them aesthetically
appealing to look at, and what could be a more apt possible definition of
artistic than "aesthetically appealing"? Moreover, many people, myself
included, would argue that bowers display imaginative skill in their placement,
design, arrangement of ornaments, and construction. And in many cases, they're
coordinated by color and type of ornament. When judging a work of art such as a
sculpture or a building, such attributes often "add up" to artistic. Why should
the work of bowerbirds be held to a different standard?
Even if the male bowerbird's actions are instinctual, I'd still consider what
they do artistic, just instinctually so. But elsewhere on this Web site, the
bowerbird expert Gerald Borgia says that bowerbirds can be imaginative in
what they do with novel items. To me, this suggests a certain creativity,
albeit it at the mental level of a bird. Human artists are born with certain
talents—artistic instincts, you might say—and by learning and trial and
error and a lot of hard work expand their talent. Are bowerbirds any different
that, say, decorate their bowers with plastic toys (an interest in which cannot
be said to be instinctual, since the likelihood of their forebears having used
plastic toys to decorate their bowers is next to nil)?
I think it might be presumptuous for us humans to consider ourselves the only
creatures capable of making artistic creations. We, like the bowerbird, are
just one more species of animal, albeit the cleverest one. Perhaps it's time to
begin qualifying the term—there's human art and non-human art—and to be
more open to the idea of the latter.
Those bowers are truly art, even if they only serve courtship. Those are
extraordinary birds. I enjoyed the program very much; it was educational and
extremely entertaining. Thank you showing those beautiful and talented birds.
This bird's work seems certainly to arise from a creative impulse, and the end
result is arguably aesthetic. That is, like human artists, the bird aims to
evoke a feeling in the viewer by creating an abstract form. Like human artists,
the bird's success or failure depends on the skill of his execution.
Another similarity with human artists: the bird springs from behind his art and
attempts to copulate with an admirer.
I believe the bowerbird "mating structures" are a very natural and lovely form of art. During the NOVA program I noticed the distinct similarities between bowerbirds and humans. Even two days later the show has stayed on my mind, despite the hectic season.
The commonalities are clear. The bower architecture is used simply to attract a mate and is not a nesting site. The rival males steal building materials and sabotage one another's constructions. This is also noted in human history and can be observed in the present. Human males strive fervently to achieve material wealth so as to attract the most desirable females or as many females as possible. Large homes, fine jewelry, and new cars are all outward displays of virility and mental prowess. These things entice and encourage curious females to participate in copulation.
For human females, I believe it's all a matter of acquiring the best mate. Attractive male features equate to superior genes and strong offspring. Material wealth helps to insure a stable future for the children. As for the female bowerbird—clever construction and vigorous dancing by the males seems to do the trick.
I am firmly convinced that the various structures of the male bowerbird are ingenious, effective, and aesthetically pleasing to both bowerbird and human. It's only human conceit that allows us to believe that we are sole proprietors of the world of art. To look at bowers is to gain insight into ourselves. If beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, then let us look upon the the work of the bowerbird.
Darryl L. Pender
Greenville, North Carolina
I wish we knew what was going on in that little bird's head as he builds his ornamental garden. He certainly has the look in his eye of an artist. That face he makes as he puzzles over shapes and colors strikes me as very familiar to some friends I know when they are choosing paints for a canvas. The obsessive behavior of the young male birds who aren't really trying to land a girlfriend but still can't fight the urge to create. That strikes me as like the drive of a prodigy as he or she discovers at an early age art will always dominate his or her life.
If I was to vote on if these birds are artists, I would say all the evidence isn't in, and we cannot make a more reasonable choice than "undecided." But I consider that a huge vote of confidence in favor of the bowerbird. It is a remarkable creature indeed that can reasonably ask us to consider resetting the bar, and not so much for the question "What level of sophistication is needed to qualify a living thing as an artist?", but rather "What level of sophistication exists specifically in this species of bird?" We should try to get an answer. Scientists should study these birds.
Since there is no consensus of what constitutes art in the human world, there certainly cannot be a consensus of what constitutes art in the animal world. So this question should not be presented, much less answered, for that reason alone. But if we must address this question, let it be answered by juxtaposing our understanding of art against the work of the bowerbird.
A human creates art for the purposes of symbolism, a representation of an idea, or for the purpose of self-expression. The artist does so regardless of the gender of the audience. A construct found in nature, however, serves a much more practical, non-sentient purpose. If a human finds such a construct artistic, that is vindication that humans can appreciate nature as art; it is not vindication that art is nature. Nor can we conclude that animals, much less the bowerbird, create it for that purpose. This was the premise of the dissertation presented to the reader.
Regardless of how elaborate in design, the bower's work is not art in the human sense of the word, not even a piece of modern art. Bowers create the bower for a technical purpose. They create their love nest to attract females. In order to qualify this structure as art, in the human sense of the word, the bird would have to have made it for none other than his pleasure of standing back a few paces and looking at it.
Show me a bowerbird that does that at the end, and I will show you an artist.