Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Next Step in Elephant Art

I've seen paintings done by elephants before - naive art meets abstract expressionism meets Wild Kingdom. Sometimes they're pleasing to look at, but there is little evidence of anything approaching serious artistic choice. There was a book a few years ago, detailing how two Russian artists established a preserve for (if I recall) retired tourism elephants in Thailand, where the former beasts of burden could try their trunks at less taxing tourist-pleasing and income-generating pastimes. The art is no more interesting than in, say, Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics; squiggles, dabs, splashes - nothing very controlled, but the idea is oddly pleasing - less objectionable, say, than a dancing bear.

This video, however, stands out as something new to me - a clip of an elephant painting what seems to be, well, an elephant (whether it's to be understood as a self-portrait or a portrait of another elephant I can't really say, particularly since the animal likely has no idea what, exactly, it is doing - just producing lines as taught). Having looked into this a few years ago, I can attest that elephants were painting no such images back then; this is something wholly new. While the cheering tourists seem pretty gullible, it's still pretty remarkable to watch, and is already a Youtube favourite. I had no idea that the elephants could be trained to this extent - to produce actual likenesses.

For further research: a Thai website that sells elephant art; and a Snopes urban legend page on elephant art, with various further links. Also take a peek at eBay item 280217166008, an image of some flowers painted by an elephant, and compare it with 280217182162 - from the same seller in Thailand; the paintings are very nearly the same, showing the degree to which the elephant is just doing what it's been taught. One past auction (280215951756) by the same seller, vero389, shows a pair of elephants walking in the field, and fetched over $500 US - the priciest elephant art piece I've yet to see (is it the family theme, invoked by the fact that one elephant is slightly smaller, that accounts for the high price, or the simple fact that the paintings actually look like elephants?).
However neat all this may be, perhaps we should really understand these as actually being paintings by humans, with the elephant as simply a rather cumbersome medium? (ie, "Study of Flowers," by Phong Suc Tep; paper, watercolours, elephant). If you program your computer to produce a work of art, for instance - it's still YOU that is the artist.
How would vegans feel about elephant art, I wonder?
Post-script: ...and then there's the Thai Elephant Orchestra. Elephants playing theremin? Hmm...
Now, if people really want to wow the tourists - teach the elephants to make pizzas and serve beer. A full-service elephant restaurant, with elephant music, elephant art... a nice elephant massage... The possibilities are endless...

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