Art lesson

Miss Scarlet-Blue, the pouting sex-kitten of South London, has sent me some pictures to look at. Not indecent photographs of herself, I should hasten to add. She knows better than to distract a gorilla with fatuous images of that kind. No, the pictures she has forwarded are works of art – created, she assures me, by the great masters of history. It’s part of her high-minded mission to share the finer aspects of human culture with her hairy cousins. I shall reciprocate, in due course, by showing her a few things we gorillas are good at.

Apes are no strangers to the creative use of textures and dyes. Gibbons were doing remarkable things with elephant dung long before your ancestors were daubing the walls of their caves. Had I been a prehistoric cave-dweller, I would have left the walls alone and painted a picture of a hideous monster above the entrance to scare off predators. Art must have a practical side when survival hangs in the balance. Only a species obsessed with impressing visitors would spend so much time on interior decoration. If I want to dazzle my dinner companions, I scratch my face with my toes. Try it yourself before jeering.

I‘m not sure what to think about Miss Scarlet’s exhibits. We gorillas appreciate art in a holistic way, where the personality of the creator is as important as the work. It seems to me that a lot of human maestros had major character flaws: Da Vinci was a know-it-all; Michelangelo was a drama queen; Picasso was a devious weirdo. The ones we esteem most highly are painters like Titian and Reubens – honorary gorillas who preferred their females to have a bit of meat on them.

Strangest of all, to be sure, are the contemporary practitioners who imagine that pickling a dead creature in formaldehyde is a form of artistic expression. Damien Hirst is a name Miss Scarlet has mentioned on a number of occasions, although not necessarily with approval. This piqued my curiosity and inspired me to do a little research. What caught my eye was not the artefacts he has created but a photograph of the man himself. I immediately recognised him as an apprentice clown who had spent a summer with the circus I was in. He went by the name of ‘Daffy Sucks’ and obviously wasn’t cut out for clowning; but he did paint landscapes which he showed to anyone who was interested. I commented on his collection once:

“Master Sucks,” I said, “the market for pretty pictures is saturated. The kind of work you are doing is found on greeting cards which sell for the price of a condom. Consider your fellow humans who pay thousands to go on safari. Do you suppose they part with their cash to see beautiful sunsets and flowers blooming after the first rains? Not on your nelly! What they crave is the sight of lions gorging on dismembered carcasses, their faces reddened with blood, and entrails scattered across the savanna. Treat art collectors like the crowd in a Roman amphitheatre – the more you shock them with offal and gore, the more they will pay for your creations.”

My well-intentioned advice prompted him to walk off in a sulk, and I didn’t expect another viewing. How surprised I was when a few days later he asked me to inspect a new painting. This one depicted a hedgehog. Two halves of a hedgehog, to be precise, for the animal had been bisected with a machete, leaving its internal organs clearly visible. Inside its stomach were the partly-digested head of a mouse, an earthworm and a pickled onion (or something resembling it). Having just eaten breakfast, I felt the bile rising in my throat.

“A overpowering piece of work!” I spluttered. “If you’ll excuse me I have some business to attend to in my trailer.”

He left the circus a short while later and has never looked back. How I wish I’d made an offer for that painting! I believe he called it The Physical Impossibility of Appreciating the True Value of a Hedgehog Autopsy in the Mind of Someone Living.

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