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Lesson Plans

Re: Do Animals Create Art/Beauty

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
craig roland (rol1851.EDU)
Thu, 10 Dec 1998 14:41:40 -0500

Marcia wrote:

>The question about whether animals can create art is always bound to
>get a fight...

Yes, I agree. I received a few hostile responses from people on this list
when I brought this issue up once before. At the risk of getting more
flames in my mailbox, I'd like to share some findings from research in this

Out of curiosity, I explored this topic a few years and found a fairly
extensive body of related research that was quite intriguing (and fun!)

The question of whether or not animals (can/do) create art goes beyond the
actions of one or two elephants like Ruby. There have been a number of
documented cases of captive elephants engaging in painting activities. One
of the more interesting (I think) is Renee (at the Toledo Zoo). FYI: The
Russian performance artists, Komar and Melamid collaborated with Renee a
few years back on a series of paintings (which were exhibited at the
University of Michigan Museum of Art).

Why do elephants paint? Bil Gilbert, who wrote the article on Ruby in
Smithsonian, said the answer is obvious--because it gives her pleasure. The
act of painting and the visual stimulation of the paint is appealing to the
elephants. Still another possible explanation--It's something to do.

Typically, zoo elephants are put through a daily routine of training
exercises. In some zoos, a number of "fun" things are added into the
elephants' routines to keep the animals from getting bored--including
painting. It has been observed that elephants (both captive and in the
wild) often use sticks to draw in the dirt and will sometimes engage in
stacking activities with rocks. So, it doesn't take to much to get them
involved in painting.

Whether Ruby (and other celebrated "elephant artists") are actually
painting with "intention" is an interesting question. Gilbert wrote about
Ruby "...there is no evidence to rule out the possibility that Ruby has a
powerful urge to depict, with color and line, her vision of what she and
other things are." Another researcher in this area, David Guswa (who
worked with a elephant artist named Siri at the Burnet Park zoo in
Syracuse) wrote in his book "To Whom It May Concern": "Once you understand
that an animal's intelligent, it's not illogical to suspect that it might
be creative."

In addition to "elephant art," there is also the matter of "ape art." The
work with chimps, apes, etc., in this area is far more extensive than
what's been done with elephants. One of the earliest studies with
chimps/apes was done in 1913 in Moscow. Nadie Kohts conducted a 3-year
study designed to compare the artistic development of her young son Roody
with that of an infant chimpanzee named Joni. Also, in the 1950s, Desmond
Morris conducted an in-depth study of nearly 400 pictures created by a
chimpanzee named Congo in the London Zoo. (This work formed the basis for
his book "The Biology of Art."). I mention these two studies to broaden
the question posed beyond that of elephants.

One more comment: Morris refers to this type of art a "infra-human" art,
(which to me suggests that it is "below" or "inferior" to human art.) I
prefer the term "inter-species" art to reflect the fact that most (if not
all) "art" of this genre is done by an animal in collaboration with a human

Perhaps we ought to begin training art educators for zoos? If so, I have
an appropriate slogan "out of the classroom and into the zoo!"

An animal lover,


CRAIG ROLAND. Associate Professor-Art Education.
School of Art and Art History, FAC 302,
University of Florida, Gainesville Florida.
32611-5801. (352) 392-9165 - Art Ed Office (352) 392-8453 - Fax
new email address: rolandc