Thursday, September 8, 2016

Zoos make money selling paintings made by animals. Are they art?

The Washington Post


Zoos make money selling paintings made by animals. Are they art?

In 2005, three works of art by a relatively unknown artist sold for more than $25,000 at an elite auction house in London. That’s not a huge amount as art sales go, but it made headlines because the painter was hardly typical. The artist was an ape, and the amount was the largest ever paid for art by a nonhuman.
Zoos have since taken note. Art by animals sells.
Yes, that preposition is correct — art “by,” not “about,” animals. This unlikely yet widespread practice generates a modest ongoing source of income in U.S. zoos, dependent on paintings made by gorillas, elephants, sea lions, birds and even stingrays and snakes, all sold in zoo gift shops and online. There is even a wider transnational market for art made by animals, with dolphins painting in Lithuania, elephants painting in Thailand, and primates painting in Australia.
This phenomenon raises several intriguing questions: Are animals really artists? Do captive animals want to paint? Should you invest your savings in seal squiggles? And how in the world would you teach a gorilla to paint anyway?
Paintings by animals surged into the public imagination when the prominent British ethologist Desmond Morris featured Congo the chimpanzee on his television show “Zoo Time” in the 1950s. Congo, sitting in a high chair and grasping a paint brush, appeared to enjoy making marks on paper with tempera paint, and some of the abstract images were quite arresting. It was Congo’s works that U.S. collector Howard Hong paid thousands for in 2005.
Howard Rutkowski, the auction house’s modern art curator, was shocked: “We had no idea what these things were worth,” he said. “We just put them [on sale] for our own amusement.”
Congo was not the first primate to paint, just the first to become so famous for doing so. And his sweeping brushmarks sold in part because his timing was right: In the 1950s, the U.S. and European art worlds were just embracing the post-World War II gestural works of abstract expressionist painters like Robert Motherwell.
Scientific studies on primate painting before and since have explored whether the origin of human art could be traced to our evolutionary histories. Biological anthropologist Anne Zeller, for example, has compared hundreds of young children’s’ drawings to those by apes to see if there is an evolutionary developmental link. Both human and nonhuman primates, she concludes, make highly intentional color and spatial choices. Perhaps these ways of making marks are linked to animals’ sense of communication, even if it is not clear to us humans.
But art-making is a social and cultural practice, with specific histories. Evolutionary questions, while provocative, can take us only so far, and they certainly don’t explain the popularity of painting by animals today. In modern zoos, many captive animals paint as part of “enrichment activities,” whether or not their creations catapult them to fame.
Enrichment activities are designed by animal caretakers in zoos, sanctuaries and even research labs to help provide stimulation in a captive environment where daily routines vary little. Puzzle feeders that require an animal to solve a problem to obtain a treat are a great example. Painting has the added benefit of providing one-on-one interaction time with the keeper who trains the animal through positive reinforcement. Whether to paint is always the animal’s choice, zookeepers explained to me. Some primates have been known to actively choose painting from among a number of offered enrichment activities — indicating, we can assume, that they regard it as pleasurable in some sense.
I observed this type of training “backstage” in the off-exhibit areas at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, where gorillas like Gracie and her silverback father, Tatu, were being taught to paint by primate keeper Jennifer Davis. First, a gorilla is offered a brush and taught (or enticed), through praise and the reward of a tasty morsel, to give it back to the keeper, passing it through the wire mesh that separates them. This is more difficult than it sounds, because sometimes the gorilla wants to keep the brush to chew on.

Animal painters at the National Zoo

Play Video2:49
As part of the Zoo Enrichment program at the National Zoo, animals are getting in touch with their artistic sides. Painting engages animals’ senses of touch, smell and sight. (Smithsonian National Zoo)
Next, she is taught to touch the brush to a piece of paper held by the keeper on the other side of the mesh — this is called “targeting,” and it was the step Gracie was on after two months of training, when I observed. Each successful touch evokes praise, encouraging the gorilla to repeat it. Eventually the brush is loaded with nontoxic paint, so that as the gorilla passes it back to the keeper, the paint hits the paper and makes a mark. As the marks accumulate, a “painting” emerges.
But while the products get called gorilla paintings, they’re really a cross-species collaboration. Usually the caretaker selects the colors, manipulates the paper so that the brushstrokes fill the page instead of smearing into muddiness, and decides when the piece is done. Occasionally, the publicity department even gets into the act, deciding what color schemes will sell best. Occasionally, the animal selects the colors, as does Toba the Orangutan at the Oklahoma City Zoo, and sometimes the animal refuses — despite entreaties — to add another stroke, as Congo reportedly did. Yet despite this control, paintings by animals are always an ironic reminder of their captivity, because no animal paints in the wild.
These paintings are often sold in gift shops, with the proceeds going back to the primate division. The fundraising angle has been taken up not only by zoos nationwide, but also by sanctuaries like Florida’s Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary, which provides a home for rescued monkeys and those retired from animal research, and even by local animal shelters as part of their fundraising events.
Prices for the pieces vary: Paintings by cheetahs, penguins and other species at the St. Louis Zoo go for up to $100 each; Houston Zoo animal paintings command $250 each. But the revenue can be significant. Paintings by brush-wielding seals at the Virginia Aquarium, for example, generated $15,000 in less than two years from gift shop sales in 2007. For a nonprofit organization, every thousand dollars counts, and art by animals can be an important source of income.
But are animals really “artists?” And is this really “art?” That depends on your definition.  If art is in the eye of the beholder, then Congo’s sweeping blazes of color can rival those of Jackson Pollock. If your notion of art is an exterior expression of an inner self, then maybe Chandra the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant’s paintings reveal less about her subjectivity than, say, how she might communicate through sounds and movement as the matriarch of a group of elephants in the wild.
But for primates such as Washoe, a chimpanzee who was raised like a human child by American scientists and died in 2007, the case may be different. Like Washoe, a few other primates have lived bicultural lives in human worlds as the subjects of language and cognition research, and can “talk” to us through signs and symbols. We may see something different in their creations, especially when they can title them themselves.
In the meantime, if you really want your pup to paint, you too can purchase the Pup-Casso painting set of nontoxic “finger” — paw — paints and have a go at getting her to walk across the canvas (the maker also sells a Kitty-Casso product).  It’ll look great on the refrigerator and your pet probably won’t mind, especially if the activity includes some treats at the end of the session.
Jane Desmond is an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of “Displaying Death/Animating Life: Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science and Everyday Life.”


well, they are abstract expressionism... so...


Abide with Mao

Abide with Mao

China still struggles to stuff the Great Helmsman underground

A MERE 18 years after the death of Mao Zedong, it was possible for a notable Sinologist to give his book on Chinese reforms the title of “Burying Mao”. And who was to quibble? The point of all the market-led economic change that Deng Xiaoping had promoted seemed to be to put as much distance as possible between his China and the era of Mao’s rule, so full of violence, trauma and human suffering. And yet. With the 40th anniversary of Mao’s death this month, a Sinologist now would think twice before choosing a similar title. “Mao Unburied” is more like it.
For China still struggles to stuff the monster underground. Mao himself said he wanted to be cremated, and liberal intellectuals occasionally petition for his incineration and the return of his ashes to his hometown of Shaoshan. But his corpse still lies at the heart of the Chinese polity, in a glass sarcophagus on Tiananmen Square, attended by streams of visitors. Though most images of Mao have been removed from public places, his picture still hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It is 14 months in jail for you if you throw a bottle of ink at it. Mao would have been appalled at China’s present materialism. Yet his portrait is also on every banknote. It is as if he is having the last laugh.
Taxi-drivers hang icons of Mao on their rear-view mirrors. When recently asked why, one replied that it was because Mao was a “kick-arse leader” who had had the guts to go to war with the Americans (during the Korean conflict of 1950-53). For younger Chinese, Mao has retired to the position of avuncular founder of the country. And in Shaoshan, Banyan has been to a restaurant that serves Mao’s favourite dishes to hordes of tourists. It even has a shrine to the Great Helmsman. Plastic flowers are around his neck, incense and oranges at his feet—along with Mao’s multiplying banknotes. The revolutionary atheist has become another god in the Chinese folk pantheon.

To be clear about his rule: he emerged as the Chinese Communist Party’s leader from ruthless party purges in the early 1940s. From China’s “liberation”, ie, communist victory against the Kuomintang Nationalists in 1949, violence was, as Frank Dikötter, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, puts it, not a by-product but the essence of Mao’s rule: a reign of broken promises, systematic violence and calculated terror. The genius of Mao’s violence was to implicate ever more people in it. Between 1950 and 1952 perhaps 2m “landlords” and “rich peasants”—wholly artificial definitions, imported from the Soviet Union, for a country without big landholders—were singled out and killed. A parallel campaign was waged against “counter-revolutionaries”. Mao and his accomplices laid down execution quotas for each province: up to four people per thousand. Perhaps 5m were killed between 1949 and 1957—a golden era, relatively speaking, before the horrors of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine (up to 30m dead) and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s (over 1m killed). How can a man with as much blood on his hands as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin be deemed acceptable?
The question is not confined to China. This month, concerts glorifying Mao were to be held by a China-linked group hiring public venues in Sydney and Melbourne. Until they were cancelled because of threats by protesters to disrupt them, city officials defended the concerts as expressions of free speech. They would surely not have done the same for events in honour of Hitler or Stalin. Elsewhere, a restaurant in London plays on the theme of the Cultural Revolution. A high-end Western but Chinese-themed department store long sold playful watches featuring Mao’s arm waving to the crowds.
One answer is that a personal side to Mao shines through in his early years that inoculates against the memory of the monstrous later ones. The early Mao had a gift for empathy and friendship absent in Hitler or Stalin. He was, moreover, hugely well read, and though it is not hard to be a better poet than Hitler was a watercolourist, Mao was in fact one of the finest Chinese poets of his day. Last, as Kerry Brown of King’s College, London, points out, Mao’s rise to power was accompanied in the turbulent China of the first half of the 20th century by a moving personal trauma: not only the deaths of so many of his chief colleagues, but also members of his family. In 1930 his second wife was executed by the Nationalists for refusing to renounce Mao. His son, Mao Anying, was killed in 1950 by an American air strike during the Korean war. The trauma engenders sympathy among those who know the story. Some suggest that the suffering Mao experienced early in his life may have numbed his senses to the destruction he later unleashed.
Yet the more forceful answer must be that, whereas Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes have long crumbled, China’s Communists continue in power. And, says Mr Brown, the national story that Mao crafted, of bringing together a nation after a century of turmoil and humiliation at Japanese and other foreign hands, remains emotionally reassuring and satisfying for many Chinese—despite a great many holes.
It means that China’s Communist rulers have to put up with Mao. His craze for permanent revolution and popular attacks on the party are anathema to President Xi Jinping. Confucius, whom Mao reviled, is much more Mr Xi’s fellow, with his precepts of order, hierarchy, loyalty and uprightness. But Mr Xi has a problem. As Mr Brown puts it, a party with its roots in terror, illegality and revolution has today to present itself as the bastion of stability and justice. Mr Xi knows that Mao remains the bedrock of his power. It is why the regime allows no chipping away—recently closing the only Chinese museum dedicated to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and shutting down a journal that questioned Maoism. Mao positively oozed power, thrilling even Henry Kissinger. Mr Xi knows his power is merely borrowed.

Current Mood, Purple

Maybe it’s the changing season but today’s got us feeling all purple-y, what with it being that intermediate shade between red and blue, a colour with its own strange allure. And it’s fun to say too.
Whatever it is, take a look at these gorgeous gifs and images for all your purple needs.


Nomadic nudes by Simon Lohmeyer

Orange County
Simon Lohmeyer is a photographer taking nudes to the extreme. He has a penchant for butterflies, animal masks, and non-stop travelling. Exploring his native Germany, the US, Mexico, Cambodia, Iceland and other far-flung destinations with a troupe of equally naked friends Simon’s photos are liberating, erotic and ebullient. We caught up with him to learn more about his au naturel style.
Follow Simon on Instagram @SimonLohmeyer and check his website here. Do we need to say it’s NSFW? It’s NSFW.
Cold Beers
Hey Simon, you and your subjects are naked a lot. What is it about photographing nudes that you like so much?
I love the rare and real body – the look of everyone from when they were born. I was modelling for almost 10 years and I’m sick of being the doll of the fashion industry – so no clothes is good clothes. Also I guess I am a sexually-driven character..
Do you think society would be better if we were exposed to more nudity? Are we too censored?
Yes more nudity please! And what is this thing with censoring women’s nipples? – I don’t get it!
Runway, St.Martin, Caribbean
Pink Hour, Mexico City, Mexico
Which photographers have influenced or had an impact on your creative style? What is it you like about them?
There a few. I love Ryan McGinley, he speaks my language of freedom. Also Tim Walker, he is as romantic as I want to be.
Someone who I just discovered is Harry Gruyere, so random but he creates a look I love.
Taken, Kampot, Cambodia
Pillow Ride, Lima, Peru
As an artist, who or what are you currently obsessed with?
Rayya. She inspires me <3
Peace&Pussy, Sydney
Dope Mountain, Ketama, Marokko
Electric Blue with Bonnie Strange, Ibiza, Spain
Elegant Elephant, Munich, Germany
Pleasure her, New York, USA
Lupin Flower. Self-Portrait
The World is our Stage, Berlin, Germany
Pleasure Him, New York, USA.


This is what 1997 looked like