By now we’ve all seen it, and many have shared it: a video in which a baby elephant in Thailand holds a paintbrush in its trunk and paints a picture. The comment section is usually filled with exclamations of how smart these animals are, or jokes, such as “this elephant is a better artist than I am”. It’s easy to get caught up in the novelty and cuteness of such a vision, but have you ever thought about it beyond what meets the eye?
What is it about elephants, and other animals, that excites us when we see them do human things? Do they learn how to paint because they are smart? And if they are smart, what do we mean by smart? Smart by whose standards?
Anthropomorphism of animals has been a recurring theme in the arts. A well-known example might be the painting series “Dogs Playing Poker” by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, which included, among others, a 1903 series of oil paintings commissioned by Brown & Bigelow to advertise cigars. In this series, dogs are depicted in various poker game situations, seated around a table as though they were human, cards in their hands, sometimes with cigars or pipes, dressed in human clothing. It’s an amusing fantasy that brings about a smile…after all, dog is man’s best friend.
When we “humanize” animals in art, is it a way of trying to relate to animals? After all, one wonders what they might be thinking, how they relate to each other, what their social codes are.
This sort of thing is repeated in cartoons, books, films, social media memes, and live entertainment, particularly the circus: elephants with paintbrushes, bears on bicycles, chimpanzees dressed in suits.
Unfortunately, this can come at a cost to them, in terms of their identity and bodily autonomy.
Luckily, there are plenty of other options. For those who want to enjoy the circus, for example, it’s possible to support local or international companies (the most famous being Cirque du Soleil) which employ only human actors, dancers and acrobats. If we wish to observe and learn about animals and their ways of relating to each other and experiencing life, we can support our local animal sanctuaries or find them when we travel. We can also seek out and support artists who depict animals in their natural state. There is something to be said about learning about animals as they are, letting them be, and remembering that they are here with us, rather than for us.