According to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, United States, history was made when non-human primates created non-fungible tokens. As with all NFTs, these pieces are unique digital collectables.

The art was created by chimpanzees like Cheetah. Cheetah had lived alone in a steel cage for 13 years and was used in a biomedical study, but now lives at the Save the Chimps sanctuary. The money raised from Cheetah’s and others chimps’ Primal Expressions painting collection sales will help to support sanctuary operations.

Save the Chimps was founded in 1997 by primatologist Carole Noon, and its residents come to the sanctuary from a range of situations. Consider the trio who created these NFTs: Tootie began life in the entertainment industry, and both Cheetah and Clay spent years in research laboratories. Today all three are members of the chimp family at Save the Chimps. The CEO of the sanctuary says the chimps have responded positively to the inclusion of art supplies as part of their enrichment program.

The launch of these NFTs is the latest chapter in a long and complex history of non-human animals in the art world. As I have explored in my research, this history also includes thinking about how those advocating for the well-being of animals have used artwork in their campaigns. My exploration of these questions led me to co-found The Unbound Project, dedicated to sharing stories about contemporary and historic women at the forefront of animal advocacy worldwide.

1950s chimpanzee artists

During the 1950s there was much attention paid to chimpanzee artists. Betsy, a resident of the Baltimore Zoo during the 1950s, quickly rose to fame for her artwork. When the Baltimore Museum of Art purchased an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning, a keeper at the Baltimore Zoo claimed that Betsy could likely produce something comparable and set about to test the idea.

While Betsy’s art career got off to a rather underwhelming start – she began by eating paint and chewing on a brush – she soon was soon smearing colourful pigments on canvases much to the delight of both the media and art collectors. She appeared on such programs as The Tonight Show and has received special mention in a recent book by filmmaker by John Waters.

Around the same time that Betsy was becoming a media darling, a chimpanzee at the London Zoo named Congo was thrust into the spotlight with the help of Desmond Morris, a respected artist and zoologist. Morris was the presenter of a Granada TV show called Zoo Time, and it was on this program that Congo and his artwork caught the attention of a broad public. Many well-known art collectors – including Picasso and Prince Philip – purchased Congo’s work.

ITV news report on sale of Congo’s painting in 2019.

In 1957, Congo’s art was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, and the following year there was a joint exhibit of Betsy and Congo’s work at the Baltimore Zoo. The Times reported on May 9, 1958, that when Congo’s paintings were shipped to the United States for this show, US Customs officials charged duty on the pieces, something that would not have been done if the artist had been human. An appraiser quoted in the brief story admitted they could not tell the difference between Congo’s paintings and similar paintings by human artists, but said: “We have to draw the line somewhere.”

Abstract expressionism

The claim that non-human animals could be artists sparked intense debate. Many were heavily invested in the idea that art could only be produced by humans. In February 1959, HW Janson, an art historian perhaps best known for his introductory-level art history textbooks, published an article titled “After Betsy, What?” Here Janson admits that Betsy presented a “real challenge” for him because of how similar her paintings were to abstract expressionist art.

Painting by Congo (1957). Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

While he was forced to ponder whether “apes are more human than we think”, he concluded that zoo staff, who provided Betsy with art supplies and decided when a piece was complete, were the ones who should actually be credited for the works, that Betsy was “merely a source of random patterns”.

But as the sale of the Primal Expressions NFTs last week demonstrates, the idea that non-human animals can be part of cutting-edge trends in the art world has not gone away, and conversations on this topic have grown increasingly complex.

Indeed, in the years since Betsy and Congo made headlines, there have been numerous examples of artwork and exhibitions that continue to raise important questions about creative instincts in non-human animals. As was the case at Save the Chimps, painting is often presented as an enrichment activity for primates in sanctuaries.

Collaborating with animals

In other cases, there have been important questions raised about the ethics of asking non-human animals to make works conforming to human expectations of what art should be. The Canadian artist Aganetha Dyck and British collaborative artists Olly and Suzi have added complexity to the conversation as they collaborate with non-human animals in ways that attempt to respect and honour both individual animals and the ecosystems in which they live.

Further, there is growing recognition that at least some non-human animals could have creative instincts similar to humans. Janson’s insistence that creativity is the exclusive domain of humans seems to ring a bit hollow these days. The more we learn about the complex emotional and social lives of non-human animals, the more unlikely it seems that only humans are capable of creativity.

Keri Cronin is an Associate Professor History of Art & Visual Culture at the Brock University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.