(By now you are asking yourself, “What in hell does literary criticism have to do with bowerbirds?” Hang in.)
The other concept that gave me trouble was “l’art pour l’art” — “Art for Art’s sake.” Basically, the claim was made that art has no usefulness other than its intrinsic value. That is, art serves no purpose other than to be created and viewed.
(Now we have a ballgame.)
Cue the male bowerbirds of Australia! I have read about them for years and always wanted to meet one — you will understand why in a moment. Sometime in their dim evolutionary past, female bowerbirds began to demand an architectural extravaganza before - well, you know. Dinner out and a movie didn’t cut it. A male bowerbird was expected not only to clear a largish forest area and to construct a small hut of woven twigs, but also to decorate it into a dazzling Hollywood extravaganza with a psychedelic entranceway guaranteed to lure a female into checking the joint out. Once lured into the hut, the gal is treated to a performance of the owner’s dance steps just outside. The clever application of false perspective in the design (think Michelangelo’s David or Greek columns) serves to flatter the male’s size and make him that much more of a catch. Remember, every guy is competing with all of the others, so it takes an incredibly high degree of skill and imagination to seal the deal; simply put, the better the bower, the better the love life. The best decorators mate with up to twelve females. Biologists call this his “reward,” an understatement if I ever heard one.
Now while male bowerbird effort is demonstrable, this is not Father Knows Best. Having awarded the “Best Design” category of 20__, the ladies depart alone to raise the kids. Even more conveniently, when the mating season is over, the guys all return to full-time art to up their game; by "full-time" I mean TEN MONTHS OF EVERY YEAR. That bower doesn’t build itself and demands constant tweaking and improvements! So while it’s tough to grow delphiniums in Sydney because blue flowers — blue anything, actually —are like catnip for some of the girls, your poker chips might be stolen by another species of bowerbird which goes mad for red. What can I say? I too know that supplies are expensive and, though I may not invest ten full months of every year, glaze oil painting is definitely SLOW.
(Finally getting to the point)
No matter how you define art, bowerbirds qualify as artists.
One standard is that of skill, though tastes are changing. The "intention" behind modern visual art seems to be in ascendance over technical ability, a trend which I deplore. Noah Strycker notes that “The definitions of art and skill have separated so that we now value reputation as much as talent, concept as much as execution.” Even granting that, the bowerbird has both — he knows what he wants, and steadily develops considerable expertise to attain that goal, while aesthetically reinventing himself year after year. Not a bad life. I’m pretty sure that by Month Ten, the little architect/designer is way down the art-for-art's-sake rabbit hole, muttering: “I'm not sure about that piece. And if I could just add another…or a touch of ….. ahhh, yes." and on it goes. I know that feeling. Artists are my tribe. See why I want to meet another one? Of course, the bowerbird might reject me, the huge ugly female something, as intrinsically unqualified for the title "artist."
Which leads me to one observation. In the human race, both males and females form artistic intentions, develop their technical skills, and create aesthetically-pleasing works. But, you know, I remain unconvinced that the larger art world, like that of the bowerbird, equates female and male talent.