Sunday, April 20, 2008

Animal minds: Art produced by animals: Is it art?

Recently, I was asked about claims that some animals can produce art. Here is one example, an eight-year-old Thai elephant known as Hong, trained by mahout Noi Rakchang and art teacher Khun Tossapol Petcharattanakool:
Two years ago, Hong began painting with her mahout, Noi Rakchang, and has steadily developed her skills. After learning how to paint flowers, she moved on to more advanced paintings. She now has two specialties. One is an elephant holding flowers with her trunk, and the other is the Thai flag. An elephant with so much control and dexterity is capable of amazing work. Just for clarification, with these realistic figural works, the elephant is still the only one making the marks on the paper but the paintings are learned series of brushstrokes not Hong painting a still life on her own.

In other words, what Hong has learned to do is execute a series of manoeuvres in an order that produces a picture recognized by humans. Hong is not expressing her own ideas, nor is it clear that she recognizes what she has drawn.

As Snopes explains, introducing a video,
The above-linked video is "true" in the sense that it represents the real phenomenon of elephants who have learned to paint — with the caveats that "painting" in this sense means the animals outline and color specific drawings they've been taught to replicate (rather than abstractly making free-form portraits of whatever tickles their pachydermic fancies at the moment), they work under the direction of trainers, they don't all exhibit the same level of proficiency, and the quality of their output can be highly variable

Some elephants are apparently able to remember a long series of actions to perform.

National Geographic provides some background to the story:
Asian elephants have been trained for centuries to haul logs for the forestry industry, but deforestation and restrictions on logging have meant the loss of jobs for many of them. Animals that can no longer earn their keep are frequently abandoned, mistreated, and starved.

For the past several years, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Russian-born conceptual artists based in New York, have been teaching domesticated elephants and their mahouts (elephants' lifelong trainers) how to paint.

Clearly, a key purpose of the project is to provide a living for out of work elephants and mahouts:
"The paintings are collaborations," she said, "a way of communicating between the animal and humans. The mahouts frequently are choosing the colors, and the elephants are applying the strokes. The elephants quickly master the fundamental techniques of painting, and also develop distinctive sensibilities and styles." allows people to purchase beautiful art and give money to a worthy cause at the same time, said Milk, adding: "Our rallying cry is 'An elephant painting in every home.'"

Most elephant art, as displayed here for sale, is not at all remarkable - it is simply series of strokes made by a paintbrush held in an elephant's trunk, and imaginatively titled by the marketer.

Obviously only a few elephants can learn a precise series of brush strokes that map onto a human perception of a figure.

Here's a painting elephant at the Milwaukee Zoo, who is joined by a sea lion (pictured at the site) and various other animals that can be taught to hold a brush and rub paint on a canvas.

If by "is it art?", you mean "Will people buy it and hang it, to help the cause?", well then - if it is in a frame, it will look like art to them, right?

Dinesh Ramde's recent MSNBC story (April 7, 2008) explains,
Of course, beauty — and artistic talent — are in the eyes of the beholder. People who buy animal paintings are rarely art aficionados. Instead, they're typically animal lovers who know the money is going toward a good cause.

Ramde also notes the interesting case of the chimpanzee Congo three of whose 1950s works recently sold to a collector for about 13 times what the auction house expected. To a human, these three abstracts appeared suggestive, like patterns in the clouds, but we have no way of knowing what they meant to long-deceased Congo.

Other animal mind stories at The Mindful Hack:

Researchers ask: What does it mean to be an animal?

Deception in humans and animals: The differences

Medical journal published article on cat's death predictions