Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 976:
CAT ART

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 976.

Today, an attempt at satire fails. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Now here's a book I can't get out of my mind: Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics, by Busch and Silver. It's a beautifully illustrated work on art that's been created by cats. It's absolutely straight-faced -- just what it claims to be. Cats, their forepaws daubed in paint, create pictures. They stand at walls slashing away with bold strokes.

The book describes a 1987 experiment in which cats were shown the works of several artists. We are told,

Cats show a distinct preference for ... Van Gogh. [They] relate to the swirling fur-like nature of the brush strokes.
There stands a long-haired black and white cat, smearing blue paint on a yellow background next to Van Gogh's work, Blossoms Blue. The result could be a Japanese abstract.

In one sequence, a cat fills three panels on a wall. Then he rips one panel down and continues to smear the wall itself. The cat has, the text tells us,

[applied] the medium across the three paper panels with quick rhythmical strokes that result in a pleasing textural complexity. He then removes the panels to reveal large areas of negative space onto which he paints his final motif.
This is a wonderful send-up of modern art, but something about it is wrong. As I read the book, I am touched by the beauty of the pictures. If the smears were ugly, I could laugh. But they aren't ugly.

Later chapters look lovingly at upholstery torn by cats -- at the patterns of the tears. They show cats assuming postures that mimic subjects. I guess that's what we would call modern dance. And finally it shows the way cats arrange their offerings of dead mice. With that they have my attention:

The cats at our house also bring us mice. Those offerings are never haphazard. They align their murdered prey along the pattern on our favorite oriental rug. They place it as a formal offering on the dog's bed.

Something is wrong about this satire of modern art. Actually, it enforces what many modern artists are trying to say -- the idea that the natural chaos of the organic world around us is beauty.

Cats, more than any beast, interrupt our obsessions with doing things. They mock the way we're compelled to the pursuit of purpose. They tell us we are on this earth to BE, not just to DO. And here paint captures the beauty and the dynamism of their unselfconscious presence among us.

This is a disquieting book. Instead of mocking modern art, it actually carries a subtle, but profoundly important, reproach into my frenetic, and overly-organized, life.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Busch, H., and Silver, B., Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics, Berkeley, CA, Ten Speed Press, 1994.

I am grateful to several friends in the UH Library's information Services Department for bringing this wiggy book to my attention: Nancy Buchanan, Jeff Fadell, and Kate Krause.



Photo by Carol Lienhard

Two artists contemplate their next still life


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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