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article imagePigeons Perform as Art Critics

By Carol Forsloff     Jul 5, 2009 in Arts
Pigeons flock on Trafalgar Square, around the park blocks near the downtown area of Portland, Oregon and in a host of other places. But they have more talents than just eating crumbs from curious folk. Some can be art critics.
Right near the park blocks is the Portland Art Museum. And the National Gallery is the point of Trafalgar square pigeons might be visiting. It turns out scientists have found pigeons can tell the difference between different art techniques and can even judge the quality of paintings.
Scientists conducted an experiment using food as an incentive for racing pigeons. Four pigeons were placed in a chamber with a computer monitor showing watercolor and pastel paintings by different school children. The paintings were judged and classified into good and bad categories by an art teacher and 10 other adults. The pigeons were shown some of the paintings. When they pecked at the good pictures, they were rewarded, but not reinforced when they pecked at bad paintings. When given paintings without color, however, they were unable to discriminate good for bad, which suggests the pigeons use color to do so.
The second experiment involved eight new pigeons who were trained to discriminate between water color and pastel paints. They were reinforced for their efforts, and scientists found they could discriminate using shape and color cues in order to select between textures accurately.
Professor Shigeru Watanabe from Keio University of Japan handled the research and concluded, “'This research does not deal with advanced artistic judgments, but it shows that pigeons are able to acquire the ability to judge beauty similar to that of humans.'
Now this business about being able to discern good from bad paintings is interesting in light of the history of pigeons. These are not dirty birds that leave droppings, as some Americans might assume, but considered holy in some cultures throughout history because there is little difference between the pigeon and the dove. The dove, of course, is a symbol of peace. Add to that the fact pigeons have remarkable adaptability, as they have been able to survive in urban culture. Pigeons have also been comfortable around man and been a special friend, like the dove, as it was told they carried messages during the time of Solomon and the ancient Greeks.
Terry Cockrum, President of the National Pigeon Association,maintains "You won't find many pigeons that live away from people. They are always visible. They go where water and feed is closest to man."
The Fine Arts Schools in France (the ‘Écoles des Beaux-Arts’) don’t have classes specifically designed to teach art criticism and curatorship in their studies. Ramon Tio Bellido believes this isn’t good for artists and maintains “we should try to give art students in France, and elsewhere, the tools with which dialectically to question their own work, and to link it appropriately with a methodological and practical analysis of the way it is presented, in exhibition.”
But until France, and other places that teach art, provide classes to teach art critique, perhaps pigeons will do for awhile. Can you imagine if one would pick out Andy Warhol’s painting of the tomato soup can over a Degas?
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