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AI: Pachyderm Painters

What is art? Is it an expression of emotion by the artist? Is it the evocation of emotion in the viewer? Is it made to be art simply by being so named? Is it a purely human construct?

This week, for our skeptical critique, we look at the work of Kamala.  Kamala is a thirty-five year old mother of two. She emigrated to Canada in 1976 from Sri-Lanka and has in recent years become one of Canada’s most famous painters. Also, she’s an elephant.

Painting by Kamala

Painting by Kamala

Is there any meaning or value in these creations? Is it art? Is it simply taking advantage of a trained behavior for fund-raising? Could they hold meaning to Kamala?

 

 

 

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

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Ryan

Ryan

Ryan Consell is a skeptical artist, tap-dancing armorer, juggling scientist, rock-climbing writer, sword-fighting math teacher, uni-cycling gamer, fire-spinning academic and devout nerd. He has a Masters in Applied science, most of a bachelors in Fine Arts, and a very short attention span. He is the author of How Not to Poach a Unicorn and half of the masochistic comedy duo that is Creative Dissonance. Follow him on Twitter @StudentofWhim

20 Comments

  1. March 28, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    Two things: first, I actually own a picture like that painted by a dolphin.

    As for the question, I think you are setting up a false dichotomy. You seem to be saying either the painting is intended to represent a visual image or it is just a learned behavior.

    I think there is another possibility: the elephant is creatively choosing and using the paint, but hasn’t made a mental connection between the patterns of colors and the patterns of colors found in physical objects. So it can still be a creative work even if the painting isn’t intended to represent a physical object.

    I think this is the most likely scenario. Rather than elephant thinking “I’ll put a tree here, and zebra here, and my handler here”, I think it is more along the lines of “I think this color looks nice here, and this color looks nice here, and maybe a bit of this color here would be good”. So if you define meaning as “this blob means a car, and this blob means hay”, then no, but if “I feel like putting this color here right now” is meaning then yes.

    So this would still count as a creative work in my book, rather than a learned behavior. Would it qualify as art? It certainly wouldn’t qualify as classical art, where the art is meant to represent physical objects (even imaginary ones), but it might be similar to some forms of modern or postmodern art.

  2. March 28, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    @theblackcat: I love that you own a painting that was made by a dolphin. I’m kind of jealous 🙂

    As to the charge of false dichotomy; it doesn’t stand up because Ryan did not define art as ‘intended to represent a visual image’ as you do.

    I actually agree with your assertion that

    the elephant is creatively choosing and using the paint, but hasn’t made a mental connection between the patterns of colors and the patterns of colors found in physical objects. So it can still be a creative work even if the painting isn’t intended to represent a physical object.

    There are many styles and movements in art that are based on that same premise.
    See abstract expressionism, non-objective art , color-field paintings , etc.

    I’d put Kamala’s artwork in with abstract expressionism.

  3. March 28, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Maybe I should clarify my wording. “Meaning” in this sense does not mean a visual representation of an object on canvas. Instead it is any kind of meaning. Some potential meanings of the works:
    “I am happy”
    “Lunch was delicious”
    “The following is an elegant proof of euclidean geometry”
    “I am pleased by this arrangement of color”
    “The dark lord Cthulu is pleased by this arrangement of color”

    I certainly don’t consider this a comprehensive list. I am really curious if these are the sorts of things that elephants think, or if they even think or feel at all in a way that we can meaningfully relate to.

    These are the sorts of things I think about when standing in lines.

  4. March 29, 2011 at 3:31 am

    I am really curious if these are the sorts of things that elephants think, or if they even think or feel at all in a way that we can meaningfully relate to.

    I don’t know much at all about elephant brains, but I strongly doubt they can form anything like a coherent thought, at least not in the way humans can. (Even “I am happy” probably requires too much self-awareness.) We tend to think in terms of statements we can make about what we believe our conscious thoughts are, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. A lot depends on their memory and perceptual abilities, as well as the sort of emotional reactions they can have — I guess those sort of things are what we might have in common. (That is, maybe they can feel what we’d call happiness, but not really think anything close to “I am happy.”) What an elephant’s experiences are like, I really have no clue, but what I wouldn’t give to walk a mile in their shoes. Judging by Kamala’s paintings, it looks like her mind is an even more chaotic place than mine. Then again, compared to some of the crazier people I know, she might be pretty reasonable.

  5. March 29, 2011 at 3:53 am

    If I recall correctly, elephants are one of the few animals that have been shown to be self-aware (by means of the mirror test). Others include chimpanzees, bottlenose dolphins, and humans, although I sometimes have my doubts about the last.

    The mirror test shows an elephant can clearly think about itself, which means having thoughts about its own emotions is not implausible. Although it isn’t certain they do, I would say it is more likely than not.

    That only applies to self-aware animals, though. It is questionable whether a non-self-aware animal could have thoughts like this, or perhaps even anything that we could consider true thoughts at all. But we don’t really know enough about neuroscience to say, and without such information trying to put ourselves in a mind radically different than our own is probably futile.

  6. March 29, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Assuming that an elephant does not have a language, could they have an inner monologue? What form could it take? Can an elephant comprehend the idea of a narrative?

    Are there any neurologists out there? Where’s Steven Novella when you need him?

  7. March 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    I’m a neuroscientist, and I am pretty confident we don’t have a clue what the neural correlates of an inner monologue might be.

    I am also not sure you need a full-blown language to have an extremely simple inner monologue. Even if you assume it requires some sort of verbal component, even dogs can express concepts that simple by means of various sounds (although it is not clear they actually have a conscious intent to convey anything).

    Elephants are very vocal and communicate a lot, so although they probably don’t have a true language in our sense, I would be surprised if they couldn’t convey simple concepts like “I’m happy” or “I’m hungry” verbally. If they could, at the very least a very rudimentary internal monologue composed of such simple vocalizations isn’t implausible.

  8. March 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    What about the concept of a narrative? Do we have any understanding of how the brain constructs or understands narratives? Are there any animals that have a concept of narratives? Is there even a plausible test for that?

    Is there a gastropod out there writing a great American novel in slime trails?

  9. March 29, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Thanks, theblackcat. I didn’t realize we’ve done mirror tests on elephants. Interesting. I’m not especially surprised about that, since in my experience they do seem like very intelligent social creatures. Still, as you say, it’s hard to say everything that might entail, but it does give us a better idea of their potential.

    Another question we might ask is what kind of emotional responses they have regarding color, form and other painterly concerns. Sure they might get something out of it, but perhaps they’d respond more to some other medium, like, I don’t know, sculpting or a poetry slam. Stuff they already have talents for (whatever those may be) that are meaningful to their survival and their social interactions.

  10. March 29, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Should we call this art? Judging by the description on the zoo’s website Kamala does this of her own volition, so it seems to be more than conditioning. I am inclined to say what she is doing should be considered play rather than art, and while some art is also play, certainly not all play is art. If children play war, would we fit this under the definition of war? Or even fighting? I doubt that Kamala is even playing at art. Isn’t the anthropomorphizing of her activity simply a mistaken case of ‘if it looks like art and it smells like art…?’

    To rephrase Ryan’s questions- is it enough to just call something art, or do we require that either the artist intend to give something, or the viewer to get something from the object in question? It seems to me that a helpful definition of art (rather than the broadest), must in some sense include both of these aspects, that is to say there must be some kind of communication going on. If Kamala has something on her mind, then as of yet, we don’t or can’t know what it is- so I’m inclined to call this play without more information. Sorry Kamala.
    I’m curious- does she show any concern for these objects when she is done? That might change my mind, a bit.

  11. March 29, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    To rephrase Ryan’s questions- is it enough to just call something art, or do we require that either the artist intend to give something, or the viewer to get something from the object in question?

    What sort of “something” would qualify?

    It seems to me that a helpful definition of art (rather than the broadest), must in some sense include both of these aspects, that is to say there must be some kind of communication going on.

    I don’t think communication or expression is really necessary for something to be art. Is there anything that has to be communicated in, say, basket weaving? You wet some reeds and put them together to make something usable. Perhaps you think “this one’s lopsided and leaky, so maybe next time I’ll do something differently,” and with that your experience of an object starts affecting how others like it are made. I’d say that’s creating an “aesthetic” of what you think baskets ought to look or feel like, what you think they’re good for, which materials are useful, and intentionally or not you use all sorts of skills and judgments to do it.
    Perhaps my definition is too broad, but I’d say “art” is a lot more like “craft” or “technology” than we tend to admit, and that it doesn’t necessarily need to express anything or be meaningful in any particular way. The basket doesn’t have to have pictures on it, communicate an idea, tell a story, or anything else. You just have to make it and evaluate whatever your experience of it happens to be.

  12. March 29, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    I’m an artist and I’ve got to say that the whole “definition of art” argument is one of the most painful ones there is. Art evolves continuously, and to make it worse, artists have a habit of continually trying to subvert the meaning of art itself (DuChamp became the most influential artist of the 20th century by doing just that). Trying to define art through recourse to aesthetics or meaning is pointless, because those things are so pervasive and subjective. For instance, a bicycle can be a beautiful thing, but is it necessarily art? And a hockey jersey can have meaning, but does that make it art?

    I’ve long decided to define art operationally, kind of like how Bohr (or was it Einstein?) defined time and space: time is what clocks measure, space is what a ruler measures. This leads me to three criteria for art:

    1) art is what an artist makes
    2) art is what they have in art galleries (this one could also be about any other institutional validation for artistic practice – for example, art is what the NEA or Canada Council funds), and
    3) it’s art if your peers think it is

    When I apply these three criteria to Kamala this is what I come up with:
    1) Does Kamala self-identify as an artist? Not likely, especially since she could hardly know what an artist is.
    2) Would Kamala’s paintings be shown in an art gallery, or funded by an arts council, or validated in any other professional context? Not likely unless it was as a stunt, a farce, or incorporated as part a human’s art project (I’m thinking particularly of an artist who encouraged her cats, paws dripping with paint, to walk across her canvases).
    3) Would Kamala’s peers consider it art? Who are her peers anyways? If other elephants are her peers it’s unlikely they recognize her as an artist, since, again, they could hardly be expected to know what an artist is. And if we are waiting for a group of human artists to consider Kamala no different than themselves then I expect we will be waiting a long time.

    I don’t doubt that Kamala’s paintings can be sensually beautiful, full of expression, and wrought with meaning, but then again, so can my morning omelette.

  13. March 29, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    I like Ryan M’s observation about whether she holds any attachment to the paintings. I’m curious if she ever revisits them or if she has a favourite?

    I haven’t been able to find any indication of this kind of behavior, though. Anyone more resourceful than me know if any chimps or dolphins, parrots or elephants have created something creative that they then defend as their own?

  14. March 29, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    What about the concept of a narrative? Do we have any understanding of how the brain constructs or understands narratives?

    My impression is we don’t, but I am not certain. Actually, we aren’t even entirely certain what parts of the brain are responsible for the short-term memories necessary to hold a narrative..

    Are there any animals that have a concept of narratives? Is there even a plausible test for that?

    I think the first step in having a narrative would be able to connect together distinct unrelated thoughts.

    I do remember reading that whale calls have what appears to be a form of grammar, which I think could be considered to have this property as well. I am not certain how well-established those results are, though.

    But I think if an animal has grammar, and tends to use sequences of their grammatical equivalent of a phrase, I would say this is a decent indication that they are using a narrative. But frankly I am more familiar with speech reception than speech production, so consider this a layman’s opinion.

  15. March 29, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    A good test for the attachment idea might be to provide the elephant with choice of several of its previous works, and see if it reliably picks one independent of the arrangement. You could even do a test like:

    Have paintings A,B,C,D, and E

    Give it A, B, and C. Say it picks C.

    Now give it C,D, and E. Say it picks D.

    Now give it A,B, and D. It should pick D, since it apparently like C more than A and B, and D more than C.

    This wouldn’t necessarily test for attachment, it could also be a test for a sense of aesthetics, but I think if the elephant has a sense of aesthetics towards the paintings that would probably qualify them as art as well (in the same way an abstract geometric design on a piece of pottery would be art).

  16. March 30, 2011 at 1:28 am

    Crazor,
    -I’m inclined to agree with your more inclusive definition for art, but my intuition is that a definition of art ought to exclude Kamala’s work. I think accepting elephant paintings as art doesn’t do justice to how we use the term. I think my point about communication does, but I am willing to give it up if someone can make the case. I think it’s similar to removing Pluto from the set of planets. Excluding Pluto makes the definition of planet more meaningful- more precise. The history of modern art has practically made a sport out of diluting the definition of art- is this necessarily a good thing. At what point does the dilution become homeopathic? Don’t get me wrong, I love craft, but I think most contemporary art world perceptions of art downplay or even exclude the importance of craft in favor of including things that are willfully anti-craft. Whether or not he was sincere, Duchamp has made a monumental impact taking this approach as ceramicfundamentalist mentioned.

  17. March 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

    “Give it A, B, and C. Say it picks C.”

    What about if it actually likes B more, but it picks C because C matches the drapes?

  18. March 30, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    @Ceramicfundamentalist: And THAT is exactly what dealing with clients is like when you work for an art dealer 🙂

  19. March 30, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Ryan M

    I’m inclined to agree with your more inclusive definition for art, but my intuition is that a definition of art ought to exclude Kamala’s work.

    I would say there’s not enough evidence to suggest what Kamala does is “art,” and there is some evidence suggesting otherwise. However, in my opinion, defining art with the express purpose of excluding particular things doesn’t seem like the best method of resolving the issue. Although that may not be what you’re saying here in the quote, I’d humbly advise against it.

    The history of modern art has practically made a sport out of diluting the definition of art- is this necessarily a good thing.

    In one sense, throughout recorded history there’s been a gradual expansion of our concept of art, and in another it’s become more refined and rarefied as what museum galleries contain. I’m not so much concerned with Duchamp-like antics, or whatever differences there may be between “high art” and “low art,” just trying to use a broader standard that accounts for various cultures throughout history. I think we should be able to talk sensibly about all of it without appealing to the standards of the modern art world. And I just don’t know of a compelling reason why at least some other species (non-human primates especially) must be incapable of it. They must certainly be limited in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re entirely incapable.

    I should say I’m a musician, and that probably does affect my views on this a little bit. I don’t think music itself needs to “communicate” anything, rather it’s just a bunch of sounds someone put together. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with an answer to what a piece of abstract music is really communicating; but at the same time, next to the linguistic arts themselves, music is ostensibly the most closely associated with verbal communication. We can also say, metaphorically, that an abstract painting communicates an idea, and that may be true as far as the metaphor goes, but what idea is it? If no one has any idea what’s being communicated, why would we call it communication? Why would we say this unknown bit of communication is a necessary aspect of what makes it art?

  20. March 31, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Crazor,

    I am coming from a museum/ visual art background which definitely colors my take on this. I think my use of words like “ought” and “should” previously was careless and I regret it. What I want to get at is how the elephant example is useful in helping us clarify the various ways we do define art as a separate question from how we ought to define art.

    defining art with the express purpose of excluding particular things doesn’t seem like the best method of resolving the issue.

    The concept of art I have been referring to is exclusionary. Is this a good strategy? Well, yes and no. On the yes side I will suggest again the Pluto example. I don’t think calling Neptune a planet and Pluto a “planetoid” makes Pluto better or worse- it’s an attempt at useful precision. Drawing boundaries is a tool even though it is exclusionary.

    You mentioned the terms “high” and “low” art. Such distinctions are often used to express value judgments about what is better or worse. This would be a potential down side of exclusionary distinctions. I am not trying to make a value distinction of this kind. However, even to critique value judgments it seems helpful to clarify the purported basis on which they are made.

    An exclusionary term commonly used to distinguish human made easel paintings that look very similar to the elephant’s art from art in general is “fine” art. I’m not saying this is good or bad, only that it implies that all fine art is also art generally, but not vice versa. My emphasis in previous comments on communication was aimed at pinning down a distinct quality that is actually used as reason to distinguish fine art. Why include purported fine art like a Cy Twombly or Joan Mitchell painting in a fine art museum exhibition and not an elephant painting? Take Joan Mitchell- her Wikipedia page is short and really only says a few non-biographical things about her paintings:

    She used “sometimes violent brushwork. Her paintings are highly expressive and emotional…Her paintings “express something inchoate and primordial. The marks on these works were said to be extraordinary”

    There is significant emphasis here on expression; I’ll assume what is meant is emotional expression which Wikipedia defines as “observable verbal and nonverbal behavior that communicates emotion.” How paintings like Joan Mitchell’s can nonverbally communicate emotion or anything else is a great question which you raised yourself. So, I will tentatively stand by my distinction that communication is a part of the definition of “fine” art that exists in art discourse, with the reservation that the use of this distinction rightfully deserves skeptical inquiry. Ideas of ‘Fine’ or ‘High’ art, as value judgments, also deserve careful critique.

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