If you've spent your week wondering if pigeons can distinguish Picasso from Monet, get ready to have your questions answered. But the answer just makes us want more.
In 1995, scientists took "experimentally naive" pigeons, and put them in their own personal enclosures in a lab. The pigeons' naivete wouldn't last for long. They needed to learn in order to eat. (Well, kind of. The scientists maintained them at 80 percent of their free feeding weight.) Soon they were put in cells, and shown art. Specifically they were shown slides of Picasso paintings and Monet paintings. If they managed to discriminate between the work of the two artists, they got more food.
I won't keep you in suspense. The pigeons were able to distinguish an impressionist from a cubist, but the devil is in the details. They put Cezanne and Renoir in with Monet. But they weren't able to tell a Monet painting that was upside down. They were able to spot a Picasso if it was upside down, and they managed to put Braque, Picasso, and Matisse together. But the researchers didn't even attempt to show them "atypical" Picasso paintings, like those from his Blue Period. I ask you, what happened to courage in the experimental sciences?
I don't want a pigeon trained to distinguish cubists from impressionists, I want a pigeon trained to distinguish good art from bad art. Surely, with enough time and collaboration between art experts and scientific experts, that should be possible. And then I want that pigeon released into a museum. If artists want immortality, let them pass the pigeon test.
And if it turns out that pigeons don't have the ability to appreciate art, what about corvids? These famously brainy birds could be trained to appreciate art, and then released back into the wild. Let's face it, every city — and college campus — is burdened by public art that must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but is terrible and can't be taken down because it's "art." What better way to finally put that art out of its misery (and ours) by having it crapped into oblivion by trained art ravens?