They say if you put a monkey behind a typewriter, sooner or later it'll knock out another Hamlet. But what if you give an elephant a paintbrush and put it behind an easel? Would the Old Masters be threatened?
No where near as much as the behavioral scientists.
Five years ago, about the same time Babar was celebrating his 50th birthday, word was getting out about a lesser known pachyderm, a 14-year-old Asian elephant named Siri that had a trunkful of talent: She drew pictures. Good ones.
"An elephant that draws?" skeptics will snicker. Tusk, tusk. This elephant is no Dumbo. And no elephant joke, either. The 8,400-lb. elephant's artistic bent went unnoticed until David Gucwa, a newly hired handler at the Burnet Park Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., began feeding Siri and cleaning her cage. He saw her picking up pebbles with her trunk to scratch calligraphic-like designs in the concrete floor of her cellblock. Gucwa decided to provide her with pencil and paper.
The results were startling: Unforgettable lines and squiggles forming unusual compositions that Gucwa figured could hang side by side with much of the art showing in big-city galleries. Her work was unsolicited and unrewarded. Gucwa simply provided her with tools more sophisticated than stick and stone and let her draw when she wanted. He would steady the pad on his lap while she gripped a pencil, a crayon or a paintbrush with the end of her trunk and created. Not the gimmicky and random slap-paint stuff Carol the Elephant of the San Diego Zoo had painted a decade earlier, the stage act that got her on the "Tonight" show. Siri's work was no stunt. But was it science or art? Or neither?
Never formally trained in art or research science, and with more experience in fork-lift operation than animal care, Gucwa didn't consider Siri's drawings a scientific experiment. And neither did many behavioral experts who winced at the notion of an elephant artist. "He saw it as something useful to do -- to entertain and keep company with an intelligent creature," says James Ehmann, science editor for The Syracuse Post-Standard, who with Gucwa wrote the just-published To Whom It May Concern (W.W. Norton, $14.95), Siri's art biography. "David was just spending time with a friend . . . he was interested in art; she was interested in drawing."
Gucwa and Ehmann have a McLuhanesque interpretation of Siri's desire to draw: Unable to say it with words, the elephant was trying to communicate to her human companions that more was going on inside her head than they might have thought. The medium here is most certainly the message.
That kind of logic sends behavioral scientists into fits of ridicule. Talk of interspecies communication always reignites the Great Unfinished Darwin Debate. Staunch behaviorists are the last to give up the claim of a monopoly on intelligence. It is what separates us from other animals, is it not?
How to test animal intelligence still confounds scientists. While theories and experiments abound, the mind of the elephant has been neglected. Ceremoniously used by Republicans and abused in LSD studies in the early '60s, Elephas maximus ranks far behind mollusks as intelligence research subjects. Most cases of animal IQ are brushed aside by scientists as just "another Clever Hans."
Clever Hans was a stallion that bewildered turn-of-the-century scientists with his ability to solve mathematical problems. Its owner, a German schoolteacher named Wilhelm von Osten, would write a problem, say 5 + 3, on a blackboard and Clever Hans would tap his hoof eight times.
Europe was amazed with Clever Hans, until psychologist Oskar Pfungst unraveled the mystery. Hans, it seems, was clever only in recognizing inadvertent head and body movements that cued his answer. Hans detected subtle shifts of posture of his questioner that told him when to stop tapping. Pfungst's proof: The horse would consistently get the answer wrong when the person before him didn't know the right answer.
Is Siri another Clever Hans? Whatever the conclusion, science remains unable to determine why Siri draws. A better question: Is Siri's work art?
For some objectivity, Ehmann and Grucwa asked noted artist Jerome Witkin, an authority on Abstract Expressionism who was teaching art at Syracuse University, to critique a collection of drawings -- without knowing the identity of the artist.
"These drawings are very lyrical, very, very beautiful," Witkin said. "They are so positive and affirmative and tense, the energy is so compact and controlled, it's just incredible." Pointing out that the drawings contained motifs and repeated lines and shapes, a balance of positive and negative space, and placement of images, he added, "I can't get most of my students to fill a page like this."
Witkin decided to guess the identity of the artist: The drawings, he surmised, had been done by a female with a Far Eastern connection. After learning the artist's identity and studying 170 of Siri's works, Witkin said, "I consider these to be very good drawings by any artist, whatever her race, origin -- or weight."
Ehmann sent some of Siri's drawings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Associate curator Lowery Sims responded ambiguously, "Needless to say, we are speechless." They sent a sample to famous Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, who replied, "That's a damned talented elephant."
Artists tended to see Siri's oeuvre as art. Nonartists were divided. Hope Irvine, chairman of the education department at Syracuse University, insisted that art depends on intent.
The elephant's drawings, for instance, show remarkable variation in pressure of the pencil or crayon to create thicker or broader strokes as well as thin and light strokes. It's a technique most elementary school children haven't mastered. If Siri used the technique because she recognized it as making a better, more esthetically pleasing drawing, the result is art, says Irvine. If she randomly happened to do it that way, it probably isn't art.
Siri also demonstrated a startling ability to know when to quit. The best human artists wrestle with the endings of paintings and drawings. An extra brushstroke or line can ruin it. If Siri stopped because she judged the work complete, it is art. If she stopped to scratch her leg, it is not.
And, of course, no one knows.
For the time being, the Old Masters and behaviorists are unthreatened. Siri's career was truncated when Gucwa was dismissed from the Burnet Park Zoo, which temporarily closed for renovation. Without his attention, Siri spent an artless two years in Buffalo before returning to her new quarters in Syracuse, which are now equipped with a protective rubber floor -- easier on an elephant's knees but no good for doodling with pebbles.