Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


22.5.2  Alien Painting and Surface Arts

If the "negentropic hunger" theory of aesthetics is correct, then some form of artistic expression should be found among the more intelligent non human animals on Earth. Whales are known to sing half-hour songs that vary from season to season. Dolphins in captivity have been observed to blow echolocation beams in pairs, playfully creating a sympathetic beat frequency between them.15 But not enough is known about free-living cetaceans to determine if they actually have art.

Among the primates "song" and "dance" are common, and as early as 1962 thirty-two had produced drawings and paintings in captivity:

Twenty-three were chimpanzees, two were gorillas, three were orangutans, and four were capuchin monkeys. None received special training or anything more than access to the necessary equipment. In fact, attempts to guide the efforts of the animals by inducing imitation were always unsuccessful. The drive to use the painting and drawing equipment was powerful, requiring no reinforcement from the human observers. Both young and old animals became so engrossed with the activity that they preferred it to being fed and sometimes threw temper tantrums when stopped.565

Xenologists expect that the environment will strongly affect the style of alien painters. Gravity, for instance, provides visual orientation for land-dwelling creatures. According to one science fiction writer, describing a creature that grew up in the absence of gravity:

The effect was very beautiful, and totally alien. I saw that he was painting a flowing pattern of lines, converging on a blue center. The common structure of Earth paintings, into horizontal and vertical elements, was lacking completely.3240

The surface arts among humans are predominantly visual. Mixtures of colors and hues in alien works will depend upon eye sensitivity and the characteristics of optical receptors in the eye (recall Table 13.2). The art of ETs with frequency sensitivity like honeybees would appear excessively blue to the human eye. There would be an absence of red hues, and much of the chomatic tonality would be lost on us because we could not see several "invisible" ultraviolet colors. Aliens with eye responses similar to the seagull would produce predominantly reddish paintings with little blue or green. Other extraterrestrials might have visual sensitivities spanning a mere 1000 Angstroms, in which case their art would appear monochromatic to us. Conversely, our art would make little sense to them because of our unskilled use of their single major color.

There are other visual surface arts than just the "visible." Infrared paintings, for example, might consist of patterns painted with materials of varying thermal conductivity and heated uniformly from behind to produce a static polythermal image. Kinetic heat art could be accomplished by the use of conductive metals: The ebb and flow of heat patterns diffusing across a metal surface may be a beautiful sight to alien eyes. Dynamic art may be commonplace among such creatures, since touching, fanning, or blowing on the composition will cause its heat-colors to change. Radio art may be still more alien to human understanding. A single painting may cover an entire wall of a building and have no "visible" color. Irregularities in metal surfaces on the order of centimeters that strike our eyes as mere bumps and pock-marks will appear colorful and mirror-smooth to beings equipped with radio sight.1337

Sonic paintings are also quite possible. Porpoiselike pelagic sentients may set a sheet metal canvas vibrating uniformly with white noise. This is the sonic equivalent of blankness or whiteness. The aquatic artist then begins to paint by affixing tiny rectangular resonance cavities pointing outward on the metal canvas. These are driven by the white noise from behind (which contains all frequencies) and resonate at specific audio frequencies that represent colors in dolphin sound-vision. Such works could be made kinetic by using a driving frequency mixture other than white noise. Drivers sweeping the spectrum in monosonic intervals would cause the Lound-colors in the picture to pop out one by one for separate viewing. Since dolphins also have a Doppler sense, shifting the driver from blue to red sounds would make objects in the painting appear to move away from the observer, and vice versa. Entire action sequences could be crammed into a single work.

Xenologists admit that sonic and visual aesthetics may be mutually incomprehensible. Suppose we were to translate the Mona Lisa into sonic art using some sophisticated color/sound frequency mapping technique, in which our blue was rendered as high frequency sound waves, green as medium frequency, and red as low frequency tones. The resulting image would not look at all (to a porpoise) like the actual human female would had she been viewed by the marine creature in the water.

It is easy to see why. Whereas people live in a world of flesh, hair and clothing, dolphins see only solid bones and air pockets internal to the body using their echolocation vision. To them the skin and watery organs are virtually transparent. So sentient alien porpoises would regard most "rendered" human art as, at best, highly surrealistic. Conversely, the equivalent of the dolphin "Mona Lisa," rendered into human-visible form, would probably resemble a multicolored X-ray snapshot showing bones and other hard parts, liberally peppered with unsightly clumps and globules representing the female cetacean’s "beautiful" air vacuoles. Clearly a great deal of the aesthetic experience has been lost in the translation.

Extraterrestrials who rely on touch as their primary sensory modality may develop a form of tactile painting (static), or some means of transmitting tactile images via "teletactivision" using a picture screen with vibrating embossed patterns (kinetic). Electrosensitive creatures might have what humans could only describe as "phosphene art." Odor-painting is also a distinct possibility, with subtle blends of perfumes and scents:

The Olfax artist, by associating perfumes that have a connotation of fields, individuals, rituals, or edifices within a framed area could produce in his audience by olfactory means a response similar to ours when we see painted lines and colors on a canvas that combine aesthetically and produce a visual image of the things they represent.1000

One can imagine a number of clever "visual" scent-puns. For instance, the odor of heavily spiced pepperoni pizza might be juxtaposed with the scent of the alien equivalent of alka-seltzer. An electronic "teleolfactivision" could be used to bring kinetic osmic images directly into the home from across geographical distances.


Last updated on 6 December 2008