The picture of a bear – A Finnish brown bear questions man’s exclusive right to make art
Last autumn, brown bear Juuso painted thirteen works of art in just a few days. This summer, the public bought its paintings in the blink of an eye. Man’s exclusive right to make art has been questioned by a bear, without it even realising what it has done.
At the end of August, a painting by Kuusamo-based Juuso the bear was put on display in the hallway window of newspaper Aamulehti. Fans followed soon after.
People of all ages stood behind the window. Many of them had only arrived to marvel at the handiworks of a painting bear. They brought honey as a gift for Juuso. Many of them bought prints pulled of the painting to hang on their wall.
The expressions of people who had stopped to look at the painting, named Odottelen ystävääni (Waiting for my friend), were infatuated and respectful, sometimes even astonished. They looked at Juuso’s strokes as if it was art.
The anecdotal experiment of the Predator Centre in Kuusamo began to achieve substantial measures.
Several media, including Yle, Aamulehti, Ilta-Sanomat, and Kaleva, called Juuso an artist. The biggest brown bear in Finland charmed the whole country and also raised some much needed money for its home centre.
”I have a feeling that in some way, Juuso understands what it’s doing.”
The first batches of Juuso’s paintings were auctioned in the autumn of 2015. The earnings were used to repair the predator centre’s concrete pools, which are meant for the bears. In all, the auction returned a profit of 8,000 euros. Quite an achievement for an animal!
“Juuso is a bear given the chance to show what it can do”, says bear keeper Pasi Jäntti from the Predator Centre.
Jäntti, an artist himself, has followed Juuso’s creational work from the beginning. Words cannot describe the way Juuso works its paintings.
“It knows how to choose different colours from the options provided. It can mix up colours and notice the changes in the shades. I have a feeling that in some way, Juuso understands what it’s doing.”
The colour vision of bears has traditionally been considered poor, but according to Jäntti, Juuso has proved these claims faulty. He tells that Juuso is especially excited about blue and red.
“Blue might bear a resemblance to bilberries. Red could be lingonberry”, ponders Jäntti.
And does Jäntti consider Juuso to be an artist? Not really. Juuso is a bear with an ability to convey an illustrated message, but Jäntti would not call it an artist.
Nevertheless, in Jäntti’s opinion, it’s easier to see human characteristics in Juuso – and in bears in general – than in some other animals. “A bear gives way and accepts everyone in its woods. In many ways, a bear is wiser than a human.” Perhaps that is exactly the reason why it is easy to treat Juuso as a human-like creature or even as an artist.
Bear is an almost godlike figure in Finland, and it has an undeniable meaning for our culture. Bear is the national animal in today’s Finland, and in the pre-Christian pagan religions it had a central status. Even nowadays, an officially recognized religious community based on indigenous Finnish spiritual tradition, Karhun kansa (‘People of the Bear’), is operating in Finland.
Pasi Jäntti says that originally even Christianity was brought to Finland with the help of bears. The bear was a sacred animal in old Finnish religions, thus it was natural to gain acceptance for the new religions with the help of the king of the woods. Hence, people were also more open to the new beliefs.
Jäntti points out that even nowadays characteristics of bear worship can be seen in Finnish Christianity.
“The exact same rituals can be found in funerals and in peijaiset, the celebration after a bear hunt. The deceased is mourned and the bear’s skull or the coffin is put on display. Then the guests eat and drink, reminisce and speak well of the departed.”
Bears have been associated with human characteristics throughout history. Thus, the thought of a bear as an artist is not even that odd.
Art is a high-level human activity. When we look at Juuso’s painting, we humanise the bear even more. We get closer to the bear, even so close that we might think we understand the animal’s thoughts.
Then again, the bear is a part of nature. Even though Juuso has spent its life among people since a cub, we are still talking about a wild animal. In nature, the bear is a dangerous and frightening beast that must be kept an eye on, and one must stay alert in its close proximity.
An artistic bear may also bring art closer to nature. Similar interpreting skills are not needed when looking at a bear’s painting in comparison with human-made abstract art.
Abstract art, which the general public perceives as difficult, becomes easier to get hold of when it can be enjoyed without the need to interpret meanings. Thus, Juuso’s works of art offer a direct pathway into enjoying visuality – without the burden of interpretation.
Looking at the paintings may even wake similar feelings of enchantment as Fell Lapland or Koli landscapes.
Whether you understand Juuso as a humanised part of culture or as an animal belonging in the wild, in either way, it is difficult to see it as an artist. Even though the media have raised Juuso into the position of an artist, there are hardly many people who are of the same opinion.
Some have been offended by the whole conversation about Juuso. In August, artist and artisan Tiina Huhtinen-Siistonen from Valkeakoski filmed a video where she applied paint on two large sheets of paper and then rolled on them in a swimsuit. The video was published on Aamulehti’s website alongside an interview with Huhtinen-Siistonen. In the interview, the artist stated that the works of Juuso the bear should not be considered real art, because they are merely an animal’s mindless splattering.
Debate arose about whether Juuso’s paintings can be seen as art.
In the comments section, a heated debate arose about whether Juuso’s paintings can be seen as art. According to the comments, laypersons took Juuso’s side. The work was considered art, even though its maker was not an artist.
Nevertheless, researchers of art consider Juuso to be more contradictory than the general public do. Martta Heikkilä and Harri Mäcklin, both specialised in aesthetics and art history, see Juuso’s works quite differently.
In the opinion of Helsinki University docent Martta Heikkilä, who wrote her PhD dissertation on aesthetics, Juuso’s works cannot be understood as art. Heikkilä states that in principle, everyone can decide for themselves what they consider art. Still, even if the resulting works may look like art, in her opinion they do not meet the criteria to be considered art.
“Juuso has no objectives. It has not aimed to express its state of mind. The works may express phenomenological physical activity, but they lack the symbolic level”, states Heikkilä, and continues “Juuso hasn’t got the institutional understanding of art and art history, and it has not mastered the medium.”
Heikkilä however mentions that questions regarding animal art have been under debate long before Juuso stepped into the limelight.
In the 1950’s, Baltimore Museum of Art had bought Willem de Kooning’s abstract painting Backyard on Tenth Street. The director of the Baltimore Zoo at the time, Arthur R. Watson, said that even Betsy, the zoo’s newest chimpanzee, could paint better.
No sooner said than done. Betsy was brought finger paints and it started painting, albeit it always got bored after finishing two paintings. The chimp’s paintings sold well and in the end, it earned more than many artists of the time.
In addition to Betsy, for example Congo the chimp was renowned for its paintings during the same time in the 1950’s. Congo, who lived in the London Zoo, was said to understand the composition and balance of colour in its paintings. It was even said that it made progress in the course of years. Unlike Betsy, Congo could concentrate on painting for longer times.
Along Betsy and Congo, people began to be interested in the questions concerning animal art. According to biologist and surreal artist Desmond Morris, who studied and taught Congo, the paintings made by primates were a demonstration of the endogenous understanding of the abstract.
According to Heikkilä’s view, Juuso has not demonstrated a similar understanding of the rules of art as Congo. Juuso’s works seem to lack everything the traditional art theory requires of a work of art.
Perhaps the handiworks of the bear from Kuusamo are merely pleasant pictures.
Juuso’s future as an artist, or at least as a maker of art, may not necessarily be hindered by the lack of understanding the institutional, historical or instrumental aspect of art. The post-humanistic trend that has also gained a foothold in the field of art, is on Juuso’s side.
“Post-humanism questions the exclusivity of the human subject position. Since the end of the 20th century, it has been possible to ask whether an artist has to be human”, says Harri Mäcklin, a doctoral student of aesthetics at the University of Helsinki.
He takes the movie script formulated by a computer algorithm and the work series Tuulipiirturit (Windtracers) by Finnish artist Tuula Närhinen as his examples. In both of these works, the maker of the actual work is not a human being. In her creation, Närhinen attached pens to tree branches. As the wind shook the trees, the pens drew different patterns on the paper.
Mäcklin considers Juuso’s case similar. One can ask whether Juuso, the wind and the algorithm are the creators of the works or merely instruments that have enabled the creation.
The artist of the presented work could, for example, be Pasi Jäntti.
“But intuitively, Juuso is still the maker”, ponders Mäcklin.
The case of Juuso is eventually about something way larger than just a painting bear.
The mere act of exhibiting is central to a work of art. Mäcklin points out that in the case of Juuso, it is important to ask what exactly do we consider as the work of art: the concrete painting or exhibiting it?
“On a conceptual level, exhibiting a work can make it art. For example, Marcel Duchamp made art out of a urinal by signing and exhibiting it. Why couldn’t exhibiting an animal’s work be considered art in the same way?”
Thus, the bear does not have to be an artist for its works to be art.
Mäcklin says that we must answer several subquestions before we can ascertain whether Juuso’s works are art or merely pleasant pictures.
An exhastive answer may not exist.
On the one hand, a bear cannot convey meanings in a form that is traditionally required in art.
Then again, it is possible that human is slowly beginning to lose its exclusive right to make art, and Juuso is a pioneer in the field of posthuman art.
The case of Juuso is eventually about something way larger than just a painting bear.
For Heidegger, art was not a puzzle with a final truth or solution. Rather he encourages us to notice how art can show the world in all its mystery, and thus in a new light.German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in his 1950 essay The Origin of Work of Art that the objective of thinking art is not to solve a mystery, but to see one in the first place.
Without knowing it, with its works, Juuso the bear has gotten us humans to discuss the boundaries of art.
Whether you see Juuso’s works as art or not, they generate new thoughts.
And that is what art is for.