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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

This Art Is So Stupid a Monkey Could Paint That!

This is probably a phrase that is muttered daily under the breath by some patrons who visit a modern art museum. It is easy to recognize the profile of this visitor. They are dragged into a modern art museum by a relative who believes that a museum visit will provide culture and an appreciation for cerebral contemplation. Seeing modern art in a museum is an opportunity to get up close and personal with thought provoking content that does not easily explain itself. The hapless visiting relative, wishing to be a good sport goes along with the initial idea until they reach the first exhibition gallery.

Apprehension followed by dread fills the mind of a reluctant visitor as they enter room after room of monstrous sized paintings that do not contain a single representational element in them. At first some may question, “Am I an idiot because I do not get what is going on with these paintings. Everyone else around me seems to admire them. What is wrong with me? Soon enough, the reluctant visitor comes to grip with their sense of self and determines that nothing is wrong with them. It is the artwork that is the problem. This is when the phrase, “I could paint that,” or “a monkey could paint that “rises up in the mind of the frustrated visitor.

I found an old story that caught my attention. In 1954 a chimpanzee named Congo was born in the United Kingdom. Instead of becoming just another zoo exhibit, Congo went on to immortal fame because he was given an opportunity to paint. By 1957 the “child prodigy” had created enough artwork for a gallery exhibition. Like a handful of popular “artists,” Congo died young, succumbing to tuberculosis in 1964. But, he left behind around 400 paintings and drawings.

Congo made the news in June 2005 because two works of art made by the chimpanzee went up for auction in London. The winning bidder for Congo’s paintings, Howard Hong of Pasadena, California made Congo’s work newsworthy. It seems that in a daring display of economic speculation or what some might consider an episode of temporary insanity, Mr. Hong paid over $25,000 for the two paintings.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Mr. Hong stated, "Who is to say that humans have a monopoly on the ability to concept abstractly?" (or use “concept” as an infinitive verb for that matter) It is hoped that Mr. Hong’s question was rhetorical. Granted, if one has the opportunity to view the paintings in question, Congo’s art is not all that bad looking. However, a few important questions need to be addressed. Did Congo communicate a need to express himself creatively and request canvas, brushes and paint? Did he prepare the colors, select the brushes and choose the paints that were applied to the canvas? Congo’s art displays a certain level of “sophistication,” but how much human intervention went into the process. Obviously, the colors were prepared and laid out in a fashion that facilitated the act of painting in what I imagine, is similar to the method used to assist another celebrity animal painter, an elephant, that uses brush and trunk to apply paint to paper laid on the ground. The elephant “appears” to be focused in working with the brush on the surface of the painting. The finished works are sold to support the ongoing work of the zoo.

Going back to Mr. Hong’s statement, it would have had greater impact if it had come from an experimental psychologist who specializes in animal studies. Congo’s zoo curator, Desmond Morris, spent his life trying to convince others of a higher level of thinking and creativity among animals. Morris’ claims were met with skepticism among animal scientists.

Many animal behaviors that mimic human attributes have roots in instincts that have helped these creatures survive as a species for thousands of years. Elizabeth Lonsdorf has been studying Pan troglodytes, like Congo, in Tanzania and has focused her attention on the chimp’s use of tools, in this case, a thin stick, used to extract termites out of their mounds. Ms. Lonsdorf observed the method and length of time it took for chimps to acquire proficiency in the use of sticks to remove termites from mounds. Bearing this in mind, Congo’s use of a paintbrush could have been the rudimentary modeling of behavior similar to manipulating a stick in a termite mound.

If the creation of art were inherent to this genus and species, behavioral scientists would have observed more than just a few animals using available materials to make something we would identify as an art object. Zoos might be filled with mud slathered rocks purposefully applied by their caged residents.

The “deck” is stacked in favor of interpreting painting as abstract reasoning if we present high order animals with paint and brushes it is possible for them to make attractive strokes of color on a surface presented to them because they have the propensity to use sticks as tools for movement that applies paint that is also the same gesture used for more practical survival purposes. Granted, tool use is a higher order skill, but as many of you are artists quickly realize, poking a termite mound with a stick is a far cry from the effort needed to create a painting. Personally, I would have been impressed if Congo placed a representational object in his paintings rather than just a series of abstract gestures.

I believe that the reference to achieving abstract concepts made by Mr. Hong is more a reaction to the attention of reporters mocking the amount of money paid for these paintings. Mr. Hong probably wishes that Congo was a star among the many chimpanzees that could represent the hidden, creative life of animals. It could also be a bit of buyer’s remorse combined with wishful thinking. If we analyze Congo’s paintings will we discover insight into animal behavior or a pattern that indicates a deep, meticulous thought process the animal employed in creating the painting?

We live in a world where several major motion pictures are released every year that use animal characters. We have been conditioned since childhood to believe that animals carry on a secret life that maintains the ability to talk, think in high level functionality and carry on a sophisticated life behind our backs and that expresses a wide variety of emotions and actions.

Sharon Basco produced an article on the Internet where she stated, “For artists, unlike animals, making art is a soul-searching process with a series of conscious choices.” We pick an appropriate palette, subject matter, determine the composition, mix paint and apply color to build the forms we intend to convey. The process of painting is not simple or casual and it is somewhat insulting to be led to believe that lower order primates have the same abilities as humans. Perhaps Mr. Hong may come to realize that random gestures of a chimpanzee holding a paintbrush, while intriguing, are not the same as a well-planned and carefully executed abstract painting.

In my ongoing attempt to teach my dog to paint, I have reached a major stumbling block that would not have been an impediment to Congo. I can’t seem to find my dog’s thumbs. Our dog has long, hairy feet and something that looks like a 5th digit that is located high up on the back of its leg several inches from what would be considered to be the main part of a paw. I believe I need to pursue the use of the dog’s mouth as a means to hold the brush. Unfortunately, it is difficult to combine having a dog hold a paint brush and give savory treats as incentive for keeping the brush in his mouth. Dipping the brush into paint and transferring it to a surface is a whole other matter.

The Syntax of Color

(Ed. Note: no animals were harmed in the creation of this e-column.)

Original Grammar of Color Essay

Vol: 1 No. 15 (Published June 2005)

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