enjoying the foliage

Painting with the Animals

Posted on: Thursday, March 13, 2008

While looking for videos of a chimpanzee undergoing the mirror test, I came across two different websites where paintings done by animals can be bought. The ape paintings are mostly smears but a few of them look like they depict figures. #AA-509 in particular. It features four objects with large head-like tops and a tail-like body that comes down from the head. The fact that the ape reproduced this shape four times suggests that it was making this figure on purpose. The elephant paintings are much different from the apes. The apes likes to paint in smears for the most part, whereas the elephants usually painted a pattern of vertical lines in alternating colours. Each elephant painting gives credit to the elephant who painted it. If you look at all the paintings by one artist you can see that each elephant has a distinct style of painting. Prathida usually paints lines on a bit of an angle in regular patterns. Japatee, on the other hand, seems to stab the canvas with the brush more and paint lines that go in all different directions, roughly forming a circle of paint. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. I find this interesting not only because it shows that these elephants have individual personalities that are distinct from one another, but they are also able break outside of the confines of their own styles at times and be creative.

Painting and art in general is something that people usually associate with human uniqueness and superiority to other creatures in the world. The fact that these animals made a series of conscious decisions about what colour to use, where to put the paint stroke, and to even continue painting rather than going off to find food makes me believe that a lot of animals are much smarter than we give them credit for. Obviously these animals are never going to produce some fabulous work of art like Goya or anything unless we enter into some creepy new genetic manipulation era, and obviously these creatures don’t have language, let alone linguistic creativity. But they do have art and artistic creativity, which, for me, shows that they have a conscious thought process and deserve more credit than human animals usually give non-human animals.

While I’m on the topic of human notions of superiority to non-humans, I read this essay a while ago by Paul Taylor which criticizes the old Aristotelian view of human superiority because of reason. If I can crudely summarize his arguments: Every individual seeks out their own realization of the good and there is no objective way to say that one individual’s good is better than another’s. Each animal has a series of traits and abilities it uses to survive and maximize their realization of their own personal good. Humans have reason and math, bees have wings and stingers. Bees have no use of reason, because their hive structure would fall to pieces and they would all end up dying. Humans have no use for a stinger, because it would make sitting on other people’s laps difficult, not to mention dying once somebody stung somebody else. Taylor argues that judging animals by human merits to determine moral worth is illogical, as it already assumes human superiority. Also, Taylor criticizes judging the moral worth of any thing, even humans, by merit, because it would mean that those humans with less merit did not deserve as much moral concern. This is contrary to the democratic belief where every individual is worthy of moral concern, regardless of merits. He also criticizes the view that humans are superior because of the soul for obvious reasons, as well as human superiority by virtue of being humans. He likens the genetic view to old class systems where people were born into a certain class, which were, according to Taylor, fundamentally immoral. So that’s a rough summarization. If anybody has any questions, I can try to reproduce his argument more fully.

But now I have to go get a free lunch, so I can’t elaborate any more.


5 Responses to "Painting with the Animals"

Brian, I find the elephant paintings hugely endearing. My favourite part of this post was “Each elephant painting gives credit to the elephant who painted it.”


But the fact that I think it’s adorable is based on my dumb bipedal desire to
anthropomorphize to animals, which I guess is kind of problematic in itself?

Coulson, I really really really enjoyed this post and will probably be sending those painting links along to others as well. They’re beautiful, and pleasant to look at regardless of their artist’s species. Does anyone know if the species of ape/elephants that did the paintings are trichromatic?

I wrote an interesting (to me, at least) paper last year about the evolution of trichromacy in primates. It would be ridiculously interesting to look into the link between that and the colour application/composition of these paintings.

I like. It is rather worrying, on the other hand, that the elephant paintings were given names, that might well have nothing to do with what the elephant was thinking.

Prometheus, good point.

I love love love the elephant paintings! I assume that all of these are fairly expensive because pachyderms require a lot of upkeep or something like that…I do hope that elephants reap some of the benefits of their artistry at any rate. Don’t you think it would be awesome to the patron of an elephant artist?

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