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WHY CATS PAINT

Cats have long been known to have artistic temperaments. They brood. They seem, indeed, to have a dark side, perhaps a certain angst.

Now, with the publication of a seminal work of art criticism called "Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics," we also learn that cats are artists in the truest sense: They paint, they have shows, they make money."Why Cats Paint," by Heather Busch and Burton Silver, introduces us to 12 major artists, whose work represents the major current movements in cat art (although a very recent trend, Neo-Felinistine, is not included).

We meet, for example, Misty, a formal expansionist. Photographs of Misty show her at work on "A Little Lavish Leaping," acrylic on card and wall, 120 by 170 cm. The photos catch Misty in the act of laying down pink tension areas, then overlaying these with black verticals that, as Silver and Busch note, are "at once dense yet strongly nuanced with movement."

Among the other artists included in this slick volume are Bootsie, a trans-expressionist; Minnie Monet Manet, an abstract expressionist; Charlie, a peripheral realist; and Smokey, a romantic ruralist.

Also featured in the book are examples of installations employing yarn and dead animals, as well as examples of "fiber art." One particularly arresting piece is "Opening," a 1992 work on red couch, 68 by 37 by 29 cm, which critic Gertrude Greer has praised as an "obviously invertist work . . . certainly more powerful than his later painted images with their rather boring predominance of phallocentric verticals."

Busch, a cat art curator, and Silver, a writer and art critic, are New Zealanders. According to biographical blurbs on the book's jacket, Silver is a regular contributor to the journal Cat Art Today. Busch is a former president of the American Cat Art Verification Board.

Their book, which has sold 20,000 copies since its release this summer by Ten Speed Press, is a scholarly look at the history and theory of cat art.

Biologists, they scornfully note, have been reluctant to concede that cat painting might be motivated by the cat's need to create beautiful images. Instead, scientists have always dismissed cat painting as either a playful release of nervous energy or a form of instinctive territorial marking behavior (as one might find in litter boxes or on the sides of expensive furniture). Cats will use paints, these biologists argue, only because the ammonia salts used in acrylic paints are remarkably similar to cat urine.

But recent research, say Silver and Busch, points to a purely aesthetic explanation for cat art. They review the work of Dr. Peter Hansard at Cambridge, Dr. Delia Bird at Oxford and Dr. Peter Williams, who heads the department of applied aesthetics at Rudkin College in Dallas.

"It seems that some cats are able to experience a kind of localized force field or meridian in certain areas from which they derive a benefit," write Busch and Silver. "Peter Williams calls these areas Points of Harmonic Resonance and claims they may play an important part in motivating cat painting."

The Deseret News attempted to contact Williams, but Dallas information lists no Rudkin College. "Ma'm, all I have under Rudkin is a carpet business," said the operator.

Silver and Busch say they hope their book "will inspire readers to carefully examine paw patterns in litter trays for examples of aesthetic intent, or leave a bowl of damp marking powder out by the refrigerator in case their cat may wish to express itself artistically. . . ."

The Deseret News was inspired, in fact, to introduce paint and paper to three cats chosen at random - Jackson, a bold yet restrained alley cat; Three Laps, a rag doll Siamese who travels extensively but is always prompt for dinner; and Barbarian, a tiger cat with a certain joie de vivre who bites through bread bags.

Because the cats had never painted before, they expressed some reluctance about the artistic process, and this translated into a somewhat tentative, yet clearly colorful, mural that could probably best be described as applied accidentalism. We applied paint to their paws, they walked across the paper toward the lawn. They then went into seclusion, apparently to think of a title.

Later both Jackson and Three Laps took turns sitting at an easel but were clearly not inspired, perhaps because they had their backs to the canvas.

Maybe there are better ways to persuade a cat to paint. But Silver and Busch, in their preface, note that theirs is no how-to book.

"This ethically difficult area is well-covered by other texts listed in the bibliography."

These works include "More Paw Less Claw: Helping Your Cat Develop a Better Technique" by M. Denis, as well as "Felineistine: Destructivism and the New Feline Aesthetic" by A. Lukax, and "Pawnopgraphy: Paw Marking as a Mode of Sexual Communication Amongst Domestic Cats in Sweden," from the Journal of Applied Aesthetics.