Birds As Art
by Jamie Harron
The deep gloom of winter's
browns, blacks and whites is upon you. The view from your
window brings no cheer until suddenly your sense of dissatisfaction
is shattered by the appearance of a storm of pink in the garden.
The arrival of a flock of pine grosbeaks has changed the moment
and your mood.
Whilst walking, a burst
of birdsong breaks your reverie and, turning, you see, glowing
on a backlit branch, a scarlet tanager down from the heights
of his stand of oaks. His brief pause in his search for food
has brought you a moment of beauty, an instant of emotion,
and then he is gone.
The idea of birds as art
is not a new one but it usually refers to a human construct,
something made by the hand of man. This creative piece of
work could be a painting, music, carving or photograph. If
we take the construct out of the situation, can we still have
art? This would make the instant caught by the eye, the moment
itself, art. The artist is Mother Nature rather than the hand
Science would argue with
such an anthropomorphic viewpoint. They would say that we
are simply imposing our own ideas of structure upon the chaos
of nature. However, debates between science and art are not
new and probably will never be resolved to finality. So the
situation remains that it is possible to have two viewpoints
of an event. The question is, how do we measure this event,
this moment? Let us investigate both voices in the debate.
There are several positions
within the scientific viewpoint indicating that debate exists
not just between art and science but also within each discipline.
There is creative tension and discussion, as the continuing
struggle to discover the truth unfolds. So why, according
to science, do birds have bright colours?
First, it is assumed that
the coloration of birds is to make them more or less conspicuous.
Some cases seem fairly clear, in that they are environmentally
determined, such as with snowy owls or the muted browns of
desert birds. If you were to turn to the inside front cover
of this magazine (oh go on!!) you will see a flight of flamingos.
In this case, the birds' diet affects their coloration. If
certain crustaceans are removed from their food supply, they
begin to turn white. When their diet is rebalanced, then the
pink colour returns.
Many birds have two distinct
plumages a year. This occurs mostly in the males and is usually
brought about by an increase in hormones in the spring.
But why the bright colours
in the plumage? There are two arguments that may not be mutually
exclusive. At their base is the fact that the colours are
an advertisement for both predators and potential mates.
To predators, the brightly
coloured males are more easily seen than their dowdier female
counterparts, which make the males a more likely target. This
increases the female's chances of survival and therefore that
of the species. This is particularly so for the many bird
species where one male will mate with many females and, therefore,
the loss of one male is far less damaging than the loss of
a female. It is also argued that the bright colours of the
male tell a predator that he will be difficult to catch. This
is much like the 'springing' done by members of the antelope
family, which tells an attacker that they are healthy and
fast. The message to a predator in both cases is that he or
she will expend so much energy trying to catch the prey that
it will not be worth the trouble.
Another possibility that
has been presented is the "taste test." This argument
borrows a known condition of the insect world. There, the
bright colours on many insects, for example the monarch butterfly,
tell a predator that they will not taste very good. It has
been suggested that brightly coloured birds will taste bad
to predators. (How do you test for that?)
The most likely situation
is that the brightly coloured plumage exists as a part of
sexual selection. Females will choose the most brightly coloured
males because their condition indicates that they are healthy
and resistant to disease and parasites. The females "feel"
that they will produce the best offspring.
Even in this very brief
discussion of the scientific viewpoint, we can see disagreements.
So even within science there are still no finalised arguments.
The best place to start
is the end. For this, we will not consult science but a poet
to discuss the finish before the beginning.
"My name is Osymandias, King
Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
All our creations, even
our societies, are doomed to fall away, with our greatest
works forgotten and lost in time and by time. Everything ends.
So if our artistic constructs
will be destroyed by inexorable time, how do we measure art?
We know that art proceeds by external logic, reflecting the
society in which it is formed and the values of that society.
It also develops by its own internal logic, with the creative
contradictions between the artist and society, between artists
and even within the artist himself as his work changes with
time and viewpoint. We also know that art, a broad church,
develops in various mediums such as painting, sculpture, photography,
music and so on. So to attain art, the medium is of no consequence.
It is merely the vehicle for art.
If Picasso's "Guernica"
was captured and destroyed by the Fascists two years after
its creation, would it have still been art? Would Michelangelo's
"David," falling to its destruction a few weeks
after its completion, still have been art? If Van Gogh, in
his madness, had destroyed his "Sunflowers" before
a horrified friend a couple of hours after the paint had dried,
would it still have been art? I take a picture of a hummingbird
at 1/20,000th of a second and the editor viewing it drops
it, scratching the slide and thus destroying it. Was it still
art? I believe the answer to all of the above is, yes! We
see that time, leveler of all, cannot be a measure of art.
So what is?
It must be agreed that a
certain degree of talent concretised in the work is necessary,
which is to say it attains an agreed aesthetic level. This
must bring out an emotion that was both intended by the artist
and is attainable to the viewer. So both time and medium are
unnecessary to art. But what there must be is the "other,"
the viewer. It is the other who experiences and recognises
the aesthetic and emotional impact that says that art has
Now mankind's relationship
to nature is a classic subject/object formation. We are both
part of nature, which is the object, and because of our self-consciousness,
we are the subject, separate from her. We are the "other"
to Mother Nature. Within the singularity that is nature, we
are both united and divided. There can be no other "other"
other than us. As seen above, it requires a viewer to evaluate
a construct to decide if it is art, a subjective experience
of an objective event. In the world there is no "viewer"
So we should finish at the
beginning. If a male bird, resplendent in his bright colours,
lands on a branch near us, and we find that the light and
shadow, foreground and background, the placement of the bird
in the scene brings to us the emotional and aesthetic values
that tell us that art has been attained, than is that event
not art? Is Mother Nature not the artist and we as the "other,"
the judge of that event?
The bird is art!
What is this? Objections
do I hear? Don't accept my premises? Well then, my construct
falls to the dust, to lie on the barren sands. However, it
does not matter, for the bird remains as beautiful, with or
without words. Can't you see it?
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 40, Summer/Autumn 2002. Copyright Jamie Harron.
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