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
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
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
[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
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