Zooillogix posted this video of an elephant that paints “realistic paintings of other elephants:”
It’s a fluff piece, granted, but it gestures towards credibility by bringing in an “art expert” (and, I’m guessing, cutting 98% of her comments). The genial narrator, anticipating our astonishment that an elephant could learn to paint portraits, reassures us that it is indeed possible, and that “what makes it possible is the trunk.” Uh, no. The trunk is what makes it possible for the elephant to grasp a human-style brush and execute fine motor movements. The brain is what makes any artist an artist.
Elephants are extremely intelligent. They have complex societies and display behaviors that are provocatively similar to our own, including elaborate burial rituals, and perhaps even stress-induced psychosis (this is an amazing story – go read it if you haven’t already). If other species do start producing fine art, I’d expect elephants to be at the front of the line. But we have no idea what’s going on in this elephant’s brain, because the narrator doesn’t ask any of the right questions – the most salient being does the elephant intend to represent anything?
Given that the elephant has a very limited repertoire, does not seem to paint from life or references, and uses a stereotyped series of motions that could easily have been entrained, this appears to be no more than a dexterous novelty act. As far as we can tell, the cartoonish painting produced in this video clip doesn’t symbolize anything in the elephant’s mind, except attention and rewards from a trainer. Ergo, it’s not art (unless you want to argue that art can be inadvertently created in the absence of artistic intent on the part of the creator – which could be a valid position, I just don’t agree with it.)
Now, the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project is raising funds to conserve elephants by selling “elephant art,” and I see nothing wrong with that goal. Much more commercially exploitative and arguably less interesting art is created by human beings (as always, I refer to Thomas Kinkade).
Many of AEACP’s elephant paintings are abstractions, which raises a thorny question: what motivates the elephant to choose colors or shapes in an abstract piece? Is it random, or is the elephant moved to create something genuinely reflective of its emotions? If the expression of emotion is involved, we begin to trespass on a grey area that may well be considered art. But it’s difficult to get any artist to clearly express what he or she intended when creating a piece, and animals are among the least communicative of “artists.” We can’t just ask. Or can we?
This article by Gisela Kaplan and Leslie Rogers gives a fair overview of whether animals in general, not just elephants, may indeed have an “aesthetic sense”:
If signing apes can tell us what they have drawn or painted and if the picture shows any hint of the object, or emotion, that they say it is, we might be convinced that they have indeed created a representation. At least some such examples exist. The chimpanzee Moja, raised and taught to sign by Beatrix Gardner, Ph.D., and Allen Gardner, Ph.D., sketched what she said was a bird, and it did show a likeness, with a body and wings.
You can read more about Moja’s bird drawing here, and here it is:
I have to admit that I quite like it. It reminds me of a Brancusi. But is it a bird? Did it really symbolize “bird” to Moja? And is it art? I don’t know. Moja and other chimps protest when interrupted in the process of creating, and refuse to add more when they consider a work to be “done.” But whether this is because they have some plan for their creation, or just that the activity interests them for a certain length of time, is unclear.
In short, there are many examples of animal “art,” and it’s fascinating to suppose that chimps, elephants, birds, and other animals really do have a creative impulse in common with humanity. But it’s also important to view such claims with skepticism and test them scientifically, as best we can. Kaplan and Rogers summarize the implications well:
Does it matter whether animals have an aesthetic sense or may be motivated to create art? And if animals do have an aesthetic sense and produce art, are there any implications for research, for our scientiﬁc theories, or for the way we treat them? Because scientists have traditionally assumed that the ability to create and enjoy art does not exist in animals, researchers still know next to nothing about what such an ability might be like. But we would answer all of these questions with a cautious yes.
Because the answer matters deeply to our understanding of what is to be “human” and what it is to be “animal” (not to mention what it is to be “art”), I’d ask that we be careful how we talk about this. I’d love for the evidence to support an aesthetic sense in elephants, chimps, birds, even cephalopods (who can, after all, use legos). But I’d like it to be real evidence, not unscientific fluff.