The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Animals Painting

Are animals making art?

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The elephant isn't making its brush strokes while wearing a beret or peering around the canvas at an elephantine model coyly standing with a flower in its trunk. Still, it produces an odd frisson to see the Thai pachyderm "Hong" putting brush to canvas with the aid of her trunk.

Perhaps it should be less shocking than it is—after all, we humans with all our prowess are animals, too, just animals who've pawed ourselves upright and figured out how to make polyester suits and thwap each other with sticks. It's also true that other surprising species have made art—a chimp named Congo made frantic abstract expressionist canvasses decades ago, reportedly employing a particular palette and refusing to go on when his rendering was satisfactory.

Recently, scientists reported seeing wild orangutans employing leaves as a sort of reed instrument, altering the pitch of a distress call known as a "kiss squeak." Can it be long before an orangutan grooves on a whole melody (a positive development in the age of the vocoder)?

What is this multi-species urge to art?

When I heard all these things, I wanted to investigate closer to home. I found a way when I read about Tillamook Cheddar, a Brooklyn dog who also makes art. It's hard to know if this particular Jack Russell terrier is expressing the subtler points of her aesthetic manifesto or merely scrabbling on paper to quiet the voices that must fill the heads of all her hyperactive breed. Tillamook also has made a tidy bundle of Benjamins for her owner, who helpfully provides a way for her to record her scratching and biting (she reportedly works furiously, with much barking and growling). He also provides cheekily appropriate titles.

All that to say it's hard to know if Tillamook possesses the artistic drive of a Congo or Hong or merely an entrepreneurial owner.

I decided my dog, a fairly bright half-Beagle, might produce a little jing for me, too. Moxie the dog has betrayed none of the subtleties of the artistic temperament; she has shown no proclivities for the Marsden Hartley work above my mantel. (She has, though I'm not sure if it applies, shown a certain flair for the dispersing of rabbits.)

I took a page from the Cheddar methodology, getting a piece of scratchboard upon which Moxie could express her foggy canine abstractions. The dog merely sniffed the thing in disinterest.

I put a Pupperoni on it. She left a smudge of slobber. Though it had something of the craggy shape of Ireland's coast about it, it didn't seem particularly intentional.

It became clear to me as this process unfolded that part of this animal art business is deeply bogus. Until an elephant creates pigments from chewing up bark, fashions a brush from leaves and has elephant friends sitting for portraits, there is a human hand at work, too. This is really collaborative work, even for Congo the chimp, the most independent of the practitioners in question.

I felt a little bad about intervening, seeing as I was already futzing with the authenticity of Moxie's artistic vision. But it became quite clear to me that Moxie possesses no artistic vision of a kind measurable to mere humans, unless one counts the rapid dispersing of rabbits as art.

I placed the scratchboard on the bench where the dog jumps to have her harness fastened, and I called her name. Soon we had a little jump-and-scratch rhythm going, on and off the bench, and a composition unfolded, subtle but sure.

I am not entirely certain what to make of this collaborative piece. I'm relatively certain I will not be making thousands in the fashion of Tillamook Cheddar and her fancy art shows.

As a non-believer in the Great Chain of Being, I can believe that animals do possess an artistic drive. Understanding it may prove difficult. Perhaps their poetry is expressed differently, in the subtle wave of a flipper in mid-breach or the flair of a dismount from a troublesome branch. Perhaps—and it's a future devoutly to be wished—the future will see the emergence of animal genres undreamed of, and non-human works of more than a gimmicky variety.

That said, all offers for Moxie's work "Freebird (with Steak)" (pictured) will be entertained.


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