Interview with Desmond Morris on The Artistic Ape

Long before Desmond Morris had startled the world with his book The Naked Ape, Morris has already gripped public attention as a painter. Now ranked as one of the foremost exponents of surrealism in Britain, Morris encapsulates the sociological importance of art through his paintings and books. His new book The Artistic Ape looks at artistic production in humans – how it began and why we pursue it with such intensity all over the world. We asked Desmond what we can expect from The Artist Ape and his relationship with zoology and art.

A: You are a truly inspiring ethologist, zoologist, socio-biologist, painter and writer, let alone all your work in television and film. Many people nowadays find it difficult enough to establish a career with one role, how would you say you have managed to become so prolific in all these areas, almost simultaneously? Have there been many sacrifices you have had to make in order to pursue such a busy and successful life of passion towards work?

DM: When I was young it was my ambition to become an artist but I could not sell my paintings. So I decided to pursue my other obsession – studying animal behaviour. I became a professional zoologist but always had a studio and never stopped painting. As a zoologist I was asked to show animals on television, which is how my TV career started. Then I began to study the human animal and wrote books about human behaviour. People then called me an anthropologist but I was really still a zoologist, looking at humans as just another animal species. So all my various activities boil down to just two passions; art and animals. Now that I am 85 my paintings are at last selling to collectors, and I am still writing books about animals. Having this double life has kept me busy but I don’t feel I have sacrificed much to pursue my two goals. My wife has always worked with me, doing research for my TV programmes and, more recently, research for my books. Perhaps the only sacrifice we made was having only one child instead of a larger family.

A: The Artistic Ape, your newest book, is shortly due to take its place on the shelves. What have been the inspirations behind this new book that covers almost all aspects of artistic production and endeavour in humans and animals? Can we think of it as an extension of your previous book The Naked Ape?

DM: Yes, in The Naked Ape I looked at the behaviour we share with other animals, in The Artistic Ape I am looking at one of the most exciting ways that we differ from other animals. Back in the 1950s I made a study of chimpanzee picture-making and wrote a book called The Biology of Art. It neatly combined my two great interests – animals and art. I vowed then to write another book that looked at human art, but it was such a daunting subject that I put it off for half a century. At last, in 2012, I decided that I really had to write this other book before I died, so I knuckled down to it. It was, as I expected, the most difficult book I have ever attempted. Also, in the end, the most rewarding because it made me look objectively at this strange human activity that we call ‘art’ and try to explain how it began and why we pursue it with such intensity all over the world.

A: The book is only 320 pages long but the subject matter is so articulately portrayed and explained that it reads brilliantly. In my opinion it’s one of those books that anyone with an interest in sociology and art (let alone a curiosity in living and life in general) should read whatever their age may be. It covers a huge array of subjects and documents the human’s endeavour in art in a very detailed and solemn manner. It almost provides a timetable of “the evolution of art” alongside the philosophical, aesthetic and social evolution of humankind. How long did it take you to bring your years of research to a clear stage of writing? What kinds of processes and concerns did you face during the preparation stage?

DM: The original working title of the book was, in fact, The Evolution of Art, and it was my intention to try and cover the whole story from three million years ago, which is the date of the earliest known art object, right up to the present day. The biggest problem was not what to include, but what to leave out. There is an ancient Chinese torture called ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and I felt that was what I was suffering as the book developed. The first draft had over 1000 illustrations and a text of over 110,000 words, but this had to be cut down to about 350 illustrations and 80,000 words. It was vital to keep in all the key works of art, so it was a very difficult and painful process, but it was worth it because now the book is stripped of any excess baggage and is a clean and easy read.

A: In the introduction to your book you write, “Wherever possible I have tried my best to avoid the specialised jargon of art historians and theorists.” Was that purely an individual choice or would you say that the way art history and theory is written today drives people away from taking any interest in such fields?

DM: All specialised books are loaded with technical jargon. The problem is that when specialists, such as art historians, try to write for a general audience they find it hard to free themselves from their professional jargon. This often makes their writing hard going for non-specialists and it is this that I have tried to avoid.

A: Would you say that people make art or that art makes people? Sometimes it’s not so easy to determine the boundaries of where art starts and ends, and the same goes for the human. There is a section in the book on “Child Art” but I suppose you have a lot of direct experience with children besides all your research as you have a son and four grandchildren. How have these relationships and experiences led you in your research?

DM: Art is something that all humans feel compelled to pursue in one form or another. A culture without art is a dying culture. But art is everywhere and we have had too narrow a definition of it in the past. When I was writing a book about football, many years ago, I noticed that even the scruffiest of football hooligans would talk excitedly about “a beautiful goal”. They didn’t say ‘an efficient goal’, they were judging the goal aesthetically – although they would have laughed at me if I had told them they were making an aesthetic judgement – but that is precisely what they were doing. Every time a man buys a necktie he makes an aesthetic judgement. Every time he chooses a new car, he does the same. Our whole world is governed by aesthetic judgements, only we don’t see it that way – we say art is in a gallery or a museum, but the truth is that it influences us in many ways every day of our lives.

A: Could you please tell us a bit about your upcoming projects and endeavours?

DM: My next book, due out in 2014, is on Leopards. I keep going back to my zoological roots and still enjoy studying other animals, even though my main focus now is on the human species. And I have an exhibition of my recent paintings opening in December at the Taurus Gallery in Oxford.

Hande Eagle

Credits: Desmond Morris, The Artistic Ape, courtesy of the artist.