Elephant Painters

As Good As The Human Masters?

You could say elephants backed into a controversy two years ago when a man used their dung to adorn or deface - depending on your point of view - a portrait of a Christian icon to create art. Now elephants are using their trunks to paint their own canvases, which two New York artists proclaim to be abstract expressionist art, no better or worse than that produced by human giants of the art genre. Bob Simon's report on the painting pachyderms of Thailand will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, Feb. 17.

Prominent New York City artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid went to Thailand to teach elephants to paint so their works could be sold to support the elephants and their masters, out of work since the forest logging industry that employed them was outlawed. Holding up a print of a work by renowned abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and placing it alongside a similar-looking painting from the trunk of an elephant named Lukop, Melamid says the two examples are "absolutely" in the same genre.

When asked by Simon if he means that Lukop is as good as de Kooning or that both are examples of nonsense, Melamid replies, "It's either or, but it doesn't really matter as soon as the people buy it and enjoy it... you have to believe it," he says. Art or nonsense, people are buying it. Auctions at reputable houses such as Christie’s have seen elephant art sold for as high as $2,000, out-doing many works produced by two-legged artists.

Critic and curator Mia Fineman tells Simon why. "What I like about the quality of her brush strokes is the sort of slowness and sensuality, the way she sort of swirls the brush, mixes the colors on the paper," says Fineman of the work painted by an elephant named Pratida.

Melamid, pressed by Simon to reveal what he really thinks of such opinions, keeps a straight face and gives a straight answer: "I am thinking, 'Good for the elephants.'"

The money raised goes to support the 2,500 elephants left in Thailand, many of which are reduced to performing tricks and begging to survive. At one time, there were 100,000 domestic elephants in the country.



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