MacDonald, Juliet (2012) The Distinguishing Mark. In: Minding Animals Conference 2012, 4 to 6 July 2012, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. (Unpublished)

Cave paintings have an almost mythic status in Western histories of art. Modernist texts charting the history of artistic progress refer to these ancient artworks as an origin point, the beginning of human self-awareness and the departure from animal contingency (Biederman, 1948; Huyghe, 1962). In particular, the ability to draw or paint other animals is taken as an indication that a threshold had been crossed; the cave artist was able to distinguish clear forms out of the “immense, crowded field of perception” (Huyghe, 1962) and to visually represent absent bodies. According to such narratives, the act of delineating the recognizable shape of an animal, marks a defining moment in which the figure of the human first emerges from the darkness of the cave.

Scientific experiments conducted with chimpanzees in the twentieth century showed that non-human primates can take part in drawing and painting activities (Morris, 1962). In some of these cases it was reported that the configurations of marks produced did not constitute any recognizable depiction and remained at the level of ‘scribble’ (Schiller, 1951; Boysen et al. 1987). In contrast, The Gorilla Foundation website now declares that gorilla Koko paints ‘representationally’.

In this paper I will compare the way in which the capacity to produce visual representations was treated as a marker of human/animal difference in both artistic and scientific contexts in the twentieth century and whether this is now changing. I will ask whether the distinction between representational and non-representational mark-making has any continuing relevance, or if meaning can be found in all acts of deliberate marking by animals.

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