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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

That's a Damn Talented Elephant!

I'm not much interested in the past. There's too much to worry about right now. And the answers to all the best questions are definitely still to come. I want the culture of nature to be far-reaching, looking forward over the arc of the millennium with dreamlike daring, striving for thousand-year plans based on conviction, not just data. Wouldn't it be nice to believe that our species has a long way to go, so much more to learn, and even more time in which to learn it?

Yet who can forget the loss of innocence? What kind of death wish keeps us obsessed with dinosaurs and ancient dead trees; volcanoes set to blow right next to the world's largest city? You've all seen the Far Side cartoon: "Things look bleak. The earth's getting warmer. Our population is skyrocketing. And we've got brains the size of peanuts." We've all been there, or if not, we'll be there soon.

Still, there is solace in imagining we can communicate to the remaining creatures of this world, either those still alive or even those long dead. Remember those famous Netsilik words of the old shamaness Nalungiaq, about the time when people and animals spoke the same language: "Nobody could explain it, that's the way it was." Perhaps that's the way it still is. Consider the following story of art and its appreciation crossing the bounds of human and animal.

image, Desi the elephant paints.
Desi the Bali elephant paints an untitled work of art.
Photo courtesy Bali Adventure Tours.

There is art everywhere in our world, so much that we usually take it for granted. Music blaring softly indoors and out, spectacular advertisements plastered on every free wall. There may be no current shortage of art, but we have forgotten how to assess it, how to make it mean as much as it can. Art is the free play of consciousness, or human creativity beyond consciousness, as we can often make things we cannot explain. This is the strength of sudden insight, creative awakening, spontaneity, or call it what you will.

Artists of all media make things that they do not plan, that succeed just when they surprise. And yet, we often approach these works with questions about what the artist was thinking. We want her to be there, and ask, "What did you intend by this? What does it mean?" or, given the proclivity to analysis that marks our time, "What can we infer about the artist from the work?"

For art has become a synonym for self-expression, based upon some axiom that every self has something worthy to express. This is true. Every self has a value that cannot be denied. But some art is better than other art, even though all selves have equal worth. We must not be afraid of our likes and dislikes, but return to the quest for them beyond personal taste. Art must have a conscience—it should not fear the absolute. There ought to be a good at the apex of it, more certain than mere opinion.

The search for absolute art used to be much more popular, much easier to accept. Artists labored to illustrate or sing the divine, and the standard of correctness was seen as omniscient, larger than the human, anything but depiction of the artist's own self and its turmoils. Still, the best works brought a unique spin on the eternal, making the gods a bit more tangible, ever more real. The absolute was held up as a standard, though then as much as now, no one knew what it looked like.

G.I. Gurdjieff conducted experiments in search of absolute music, sounds that would have a specific, predictable effect on the listener. He felt close to success just once, as he reports in Meetings with Remarkable Men, when he found music that led nearly all in the audience to quickly fall asleep.

Paul Klee, a musician as well as a visual artist, thought the great age of music had passed long ago with the purity of the baroque, but that the twentieth century would bring the great age of painting and drawing, because the canvas was finally freed from the illusory need to depict reality Now point, line, and color could be explored in and of themselves, dancing with rhythms and patterns, approaching the abstractness of music in the sense of being about nothing else except itself, severed from the stigma of having to replicate the visible world.

The loosening toward abstraction that characterizes much of the mainstream of twentieth-century arts is one of the great achievements of our era. Before modernity art seemed ever pushing forward, always claiming to encompass and supersede all that came before, standing on the shoulders of giants just to do them one better. With this century's explosiveness this no longer seems possible. Rules have been cast aside, through layers and layers of further letting go.

The freeing may leave us with little guidance, but if it has liberated us, we have learned how to see so much more. Nature now looks like art, instead of the other way around. The drip patterns made by water on a desert cliff can resemble a painting. The songs of larks over the rustle of a meadow can at last be accepted as music. The darting of herons after fish in the river can be seen as a dance. Abstraction has drawn us closer to the art that has always been out there in nature. The result of this is that we all should feel more alive. Art that raises the right questions may have great importance for a culture in dire need of self-questioning, like our own at this precise moment in time.

image, Elephant in art class.
Elephants take art classes to enhance their craft.
Photo courtesy Bali Adventure Tours.

So we may not know how to tell what is good or accomplished, but we find art everywhere around. Even in the zoo. In the early 1980s, trainer David Gucwa noticed that one of his charges, an elephant named Siri, was playing with a stick, doodling in the dirt in her cage at the Syracuse Zoo. Over the next two years, he engaged in a remarkable experiment that tests the boundaries of trans-species communication, as he supplied Siri with pencil and paper, later paint, and the elephant commenced to produce works that many humans have marveled at and can easily be called art.

The drawings are minimal, but intriguing. This elephant knew just when to stop. The works look at first glance like an Asian calligraphy—not dashed off, but the sudden release of a spirit that has been pent up for a long time, an animal in a cage.

We have no choice but to take them seriously as artworks. That's what minimalism and abstraction have opened up for us—the chance to see art all around us where previously we would find nothing. We praise simple forms, colors, and shapes and find so much more immediately to see.

The book David Gucwa put together with journalist James Ehmann, To Whom it May Concern (endnote), is so successful because it does not presume any conclusions about the validity of elephant art, but just presents the works for us to consider, juxtaposed with written reflections on elephants throughout history. Gucwa and Ehmann then mailed sid's drawings to all kinds of "experts" to get their reactions. Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons said, "You can't speak for the animal. All you can do is appreciate what she has done—if you dare." Animal psychologist Donald Griffin wrote back, "They are complicated pictures, but I don't know what they tell us about what the animal was thinking. Of course, I have the same feeling about all modern art." They sent the drawings to the late Willem de Kooning, who responded, "That's a damn talented elephant."

A Native American has us reaching out to take the more-than-human world seriously One expert on animal cognition gets uncomfortable when that cognition appears creative! But I think it takes the greatest courage for a recognized artist to want to trust the elephant, to want to appreciate her work, not to imagine she is trying to tell us something that can be easily explained. De Kooning knew that art is more than psychology, and that abstraction must lead to an openness to seeing artistry where previously it was invisible. He had the guts to realize that to appreciate the creativity of an elephant implied an advancement of the human character, not a belittling.

image, Ramona the elephant artist.
Ramona is a prolific elephant artist.
Photo courtesy Bali Adventure Tours.

Just a few years later he was to face the same scrutiny as Siri. Later in the 1980s de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, but he kept painting until 199O, seven years before his death, in a more delicate, outlining manner than his earlier bold and full works, but with a visible sense of purpose still. His work through 1987 has been deemed by some worthy of exhibition (beyond that his paintings have been kept private thus far). Critics are divided: Did he know what he was doing? Should these works be kept under wraps? Or are they the natural culmination of the fabulous career of one of the most enduring great abstract expressionists? Can we consider these works as art, without recourse to an obsession with disintegrating pathology?

Perhaps it would be nice to be able to apprehend art without knowing anything of its history or context, to gauge the effect of works on our consciousness, without information that will goad our conscience. But that's not the way it is. If we don't know more about the artist or his time, we want to know. If we can't, we imagine, we extrapolate, we hunt for significance.

Whereas de Koonings earlier works are often bustling with energy and activity, too much to fathom or explain, these late paintings are sketchy, hints at compositions, promising possibilities rather than completing them. In some ways they are easier to take, but woefully incomplete. We search for direction behind them, traces of fading genius, tendencies perhaps of mastery that outsiders and novices can more quickly grasp. This is the attraction of pathology—we are impressed that anything at all can be produced by one suffering, one reduced or incomplete. See how many parents post the art of their children on the walls of home, and are genuinely impressed. (And often they smile that they swiped the paper away from the kid at just the right time.) See how surprised we are that the old and infirm can do anything at all!

De Kooning's cryptic canvases filled several halls in New York's Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1997. Were they the final gasps of brilliance or the record of a talent fading? I watched visitors to the gallery, checking out the fading marks of de Kooning's genius. And I carried to the show the book of elephant art, showing it to friends, remarking on the way both exhibits of work do not encompass their significance in themselves, but lead us immediately to important questions. There seems to be a polarity. People seem to squirm on one, challenge or another. "You mean de Kooning liked these?" said one artist of the elephant drawings. "Perhaps he was already senile." Or another gallery-goer: "These paintings don't do anything for me, but I sure would like to meet that elephant."

My original intention in bringing these two artists on trial together was to stand up for both of them, to reiterate that any artist, human or animal, expert or novice, always has an advantage over the critic: they have created something, they have made the work, and no kind of attack, judg.ment, or explanation can ever take that away. But wandering through the maze of de Koonings, all from his final painting years, so simplified and declining, arranged chronologically like a clock winding down, tentative marks upon an increasingly white space, fading away into silence, I felt not only a sadness but a certain injustice inside: this is not fair to this man's work, these pieces mean nothing without the paintings that came before them, it is not honest to show all these together without presenting his earlier, stronger work.

At the same time I had a nagging suspicion that we might prefer our artists to be suffering, disadvantaged, waning, out of control, and smile at how illness and infirmity makes them calm down. Why does sickness make us that much more sympathetic to art? This is a culture where we are taught to increasingly envision our own stories as narratives of recovery. We are not sure what art means or what it is for, but we assume there is some good in it if it makes us feel better.

The elephant reaching out beyond her ken to make marks on a page, the final canvases of the ailing Dutch master. These tales show that self-expression can and will prevail. Awareness matters less than drive, action stymies explication. But self-expression is its own tyranny as well. It may be important for all of us to strive to make art to ground our selves, as a kind of therapy, to hunt for a firm ground in this fluid place. Yet that is not the primary purpose of creative work. Art still aims to make itself necessary by aspiring toward destiny, and it ought to enhance, not stifle, the ability to tell the good from the bad.

It is time to stand up for the achievements of this past century in the arts, not to shoot them down. Art's modern battle to free itself from all constraints mirrored blind leaps to liberation in our recent past: music that is four minutes of silence, paintings that are completely red, performances deliberately unfocused or untrained. We had to go through these steps to cleanse our culture of excess, drive, and even the will to progress, to imagine that the great march of our Western way was going anyone fantastic place in particular. It is not. We are en route to many places, many ways to indicate good from bad, many ways to be aware of our creative responsibility.

Arthur Danto has argued that by taking such risks, art has become philosophy, trying to approach the absolute not with beauty, but by asking the right questions, and refusing to let us stop asking. This will only work if philosophy at the same time moves closer to art. The vast frontier of questions must be spoken beautifully, framed elegantly, and not allowed to drift into arbitrary abstraction away from the rest of us who ought to care most about it.

Elephonic Rhapsodies: Thai Elephant Orchestra album cover.Hard to find artists who will call their work abstract. Too easy to find philosophers who admit that their thinking is too abstract. Each endeavor must illuminate these concrete experiences, the living causes of wonder.

We of the culture who do not know just what to believe in have been blessed by the openness brought by our recent history. It is no accident that we are finally able to look at the art of elephants with some seriousness, or to be forced to admit that art teaches us not so much about the artist, but more about ourselves and how much explanation we demand before we can really see.

A shadow, a light, a melody that triggers off a memory. The cry of a crow, the moving warble of a group of flying cranes. All contain possibilities of song, chances for communication, someone trying to speak. Never forget the elephant. Or the dinosaur, the vulture, the plunging waterfall, or the oldest living tree on Earth. They all contain infinite stories and must never leave our memories empty

Art does not belong to us. It abounds everywhere. When it works, it goes somewhere we were not aware of when we began. We are responsible for how little we know; it's no one's fault but our own. And yet the more one learns, the less sure anything seems to be. That's the danger of education. That's the fault of the information society Too many images, too much trust in our ability to classify what we see. Throw as much of what you know away as you can, and you might at last be able to see.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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End Notes.

1. David Gucwa and James Ehmann, To Whom It May Concern: An Investigation of the Art of Elephants (New York: W.W. North, 1985). This book is much more honest and heartfelt than the more recent, somewhat snide When Elephants Paint (New York: Harper Perennial, 2000) by Russian conceptual artist/humorists Komar and Melamid. They describe the opening of an elephant art academy in Thailand, and are as interested in making fun of the art world as they are in supporting elephant conservation. Musician/ neuroscientist David Sulzer has also made a recording called Thai Elephant Orchestra (Mulatta Records MUL004, 2000; www.
for more information), where the Thai elephants are playing marimba-like instruments with mallets in their trunks. So there is no doubt that these elephants are up to something creative. The question is: are we brave enough to try to appreciate it.


This essay originally appeared in Terra Nova, and more recently in David Rothenberg's book Always the Mountains.

Read Terrain.org's review of Always the Mountains, appearing in Issue No. 14.


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