Are Paintings by Elephants Really Art?
Elephants are sentient beings and quite capable of making real art. REAL Elephant art is an original painting that is created by an elephant of its own volition, unaided in the creative process by humans. The words ‘original’, ‘own volition’ and ‘unaided’ are all keys to what makes one painting a real work of art (and truly amazing) and another painting a poor imitation (and at worst simply a hoax). The former is genuine and shows among other things the ability to emote and to understand, while the latter can best be explained with references to Pavlov’s conditional reflexes and Skinner’s operant conditioning.
Elephants have been known to pick up a tool (like a stick for example) and to doodle in the dirt of their own free will. In its simplest form, this is elephant art. The fact is that they don’t produce something recognizable (to you and I) in their doodling, except occasionally by fluke, but we can’t deny that it came from within them. It might mean something to them.
Jump forward a stage to placing an easel in front of the elephant, exchanging that stick for a paintbrush and dabbing it in paint. Now what happens? With a little training and practice the elephant creates a doodle-like image of separate brushstrokes on the paper. As long as the trainer has not taught those specific brushstrokes to the artist, they still come from within the artist and they are definitely done of their own volition.
Jump forward another stage and with more experience the same elephant begins to develop a style as it gets used to the process of painting. Doesn’t every artist? Aha! Now the true artistic nature of the elephant artist shines through! Every work will be different. Each finished work is the elephant’s own and it has great beauty.
Take a look at the artworks in our Gallery and you will see original abstract art in different styles. No two paintings are the same and like all abstract art, none depict recognizable objects or images. This is elephant art at its purest. This is real art.
On other elephant art websites, you are likely to see something completely different, such as endless identical so called ‘self portraits’ with a few carefully controlled lines that depict an elephant outline often holding a flower in its trunk, or perhaps a painting of a vase of flowers, or a landscape, geometric shapes, or ‘pointillist’ patterns in neat rows. Do you think any of these paintings were created from within the artist of their own volition? Of course not!
Those elephants have been highly trained for long periods to repeat patterns of brushstrokes on commands and physical prompts from the trainer. They have no idea whatever what we humans ‘see’ and there is nothing remotely natural or original in what they produce. By our definition, this is NOT real elephant art.
What an elephant produces naturally is abstract art and like all abstract art, it is open to interpretation. Whether it has meaning or not, whether it has intrinsic beauty and desirability or not, is in the eyes of the beholder.
Paintings that are executed by sentient beings will always elicit a response because I believe that we recognize in them something fundamental. When I study a painting by an elephant I see something awesome and primeval. The fact is that real art by elephants has an immediate visual, aesthetic appeal.