Portrait of the Artist as a Young Simian
"It is part of ape nature to paint. Apes like to use crayons, pencils and finger paints. Of course, they also like to eat them." - Roger Fouts
"And now it's time for Ape or Artist!"
[cue Paul Schaeffer's bouncy "Ape or Artist" theme]
The lovely models unveil a painting, not unlike this one, and Dave Letterman is put to the test.
"Well, was it painted by an ape or an artist?" Paul asks with a smirk.
"Well, I'm trying to tell. I want to get this right. I think it'a an artist this time. I mean, it just looks like a human did it."
"That's what you said the last time."
"Yeah, and I was wtong the last time, wasn't I?"
"In fact, I've been wrong the last six times, haven't I?"
"How many times have we done this?"
"Oh. Well, this time I think it really is by an artist. Which is it?"
"An ape did this one, too."
Dave Letterman is an unlikely philosopher, but that he has moments of real and surprisingly deep insight is indisputable. The Dave persona is a quirky, compulsive one, a tic-laden eccentric. But at heart, he's a boy from Indiana. He regularly mentions Ball State University, his alma mater. He goes home to Indianapolis for the holidays. He has even had his mother Dorothy do a stint as the Late Show correspondent to the Winter Olympics, for heaven's sake. His ties to Middle America are as big a part of his schtick as the double-breasted suits.
So when Dave confesses his befuddlement about Modern Art, we hear the cri du coeur of ordinary American guys. He always gets it wrong, It's always by an ape. This is the regular guy's conundrum and a perfectly legitimate comment on the modern artist's inability to create art that is manifestly human and the Darwinist's insistence that we are all just species on a continuum, that there is nothing special about us: we're apes, only more so. In Ape or Artist, Dave takes on no-less-grand a topic than cultural annihilation in a double-pronged poke at interspecies communication and the pretension of the Modern Art Establishment.
We assume that the ape/artist featured on The Late Show is Koko, a female silverback gorilla, or her deceased friend Michael. Koko (her website is here) has been the subject of decades long study and is famously fluent in sign language and can understand spoken English, about two thousand words worth. At some point, she and Michael were given paints and canvasses and told to go to town, in so many signed or spoken words. The gorillas were given acrylic paints and canvasses and proceeded to paint various subjects. The actual directives given to the gorillas remain a mystery, because first and foremost, this website is for the promotion, in all respects, of Koko. We aren't told, for instance whether the subjects are suggested by the human pal or if they are painted spontaneously and then named, or if they have no name until the human suggests that it could use a name. In no case could you call any of the paintings representational, although there seemed to be color matching: the "bird" is blue, like the real bird, the dog "Apple" is black and white, like the real dog. To help us see what the gorilla is trying to tell us, photographs of the subjects are provided.
Michael: Untitled IIKoko's art, as presented by her human friends, reveals more about how little regard we modern humans have for art, especially painting, than it shows how Koko is one mutation away from Rembrandt. There are several Koko "galleries:" portraits, still lifes, emotional representations, and abstracts. This is not meant as a joke. Furthermore, only some of the abstracts are titled. Some are untitled. So, Michael called one painting with a handprint "Handprint" and another painting with a handprint, "Untitled" and both are in the "Abstract" Gallery, even though "Handprint" is, in fact, the only painting that clearly is what it says it is, i.e., representational. One does wonder, if Koko were presented with any of the "representational" works by Michael, could she correctly identify the bird, or Smile the dog or even his self-portrait. That would show that at least he was communicating something that gorillas understood and so wasn't abstract to them. For obvious reasons, we potential KokoPals are not asked to clutter our brains with questions like this; such thoughts might distance us from our hirsute sister.
Had enough? The Koko Foundation Folks want to make money and if they have to redefine "representational" to tweak the heartstrings of a gullible public, it's all in a good cause, right? In any case, you can hardly blame the Koko Human Friends for confusing her work with art, as the Modern Art Establishment has done more to close the gap between ape and artist than a thousand Kokos could. This convergence has occurred as art itself has been devalued by the nihilism and self-centeredness of our popular culture. Make no mistake: art is a human endeavor. It is ours to degrade, to throw away, to dumb down to the point where primate fingerpainting passes for human creativity.
Artist or Ape? It depends who you ask.
Robert Motherwell: Automatism B