Wednesday, June 22, 2005

But is it art?

You've heard it before: if 1,000 monkeys typed eagerly on 1,000 keyboards, one of them would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.

To my knowledge that hasn't happened yet.

A chimp, however, outsold impressionist master Renoir and pop art provocateur Andy Warhol when three of his abstract, tempera paintings were auctioned at Bonhams in London June 20 for CDN$26,352.

The artist, Congo, wasn't chimping around. Before dying of tuberculosis in 1964, Congo packed a lot of painting into his 10 years on earth; he produced 400 paintings and drawings between ages two and four.

I don't know how Congo reacted to the scorn and criticism the art world hurled at him during his lifetime. Perhaps he took some solace in knowing none other than Pablo Picasso reportedly hung one of the chimp's paintings on his studio wall.

Perhaps the skepticism hurt him so deeply he turned his back on painting for the final, colourless years of his life.

Perhaps in the animal kingdom art is an instinct followed by children and wayward youth, meant to be abandoned for sober responsibility upon adulthood.

Congo isn't the first non-Homo Sapien to turn an auction house on its head.

Ruby, an Asian elephant who was moved to the Arizona Zoo at the age of seven, spent years without the companionship of her own species. Dwelling with a goat and some chickens--who couldn't possibly understand what she was going through--Ruby doodled with a branch in the dirt.

Her keeper, in an effort to offer much-needed stimulation, brought her some painting supplies. Holy Ganesh! Ruby couldn't get enough of that painting stuff. Her work sold for up to US$5,000 in the 1980s and she was the subject of a book by Dick George, a consultant with the zoo.

Elephant art is a thriving genre. It is also a burgeoning movement to bring meaning and purpose to the lives of Asian elephants disrupted by deforestation and new logging restrictions. Unable to earn their keep, the elephants face abandonment, mistreatment or starvation.

Enter the Lampang Elephant Art Academy at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Thailand, founded by Russian-born conceptual artists to teach domesticated elephants and their lifelong trainers how to paint.

According to Mia Fineman, an art historian whose illustrated history When Elephants Paint chronicles the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, it only takes a few hours a day for the animals to learn the techniques.

There's a catch though. The elephants have got to want it. Despite the boredom of captivity, they have to have an innate desire to put pen to paper. I mean, brush to canvas.

To fund elephant centers--and liven up living room walls-- sells paintings by luminaries of the elephant art world.

It's fascinating but leaves me wondering: is it art? Are the animals routinely replicating a mechanical process or are they engaged by the creative process?

What, if anything, does this phenomenon signify about the human experience of art and creativity?