Philip Hensher: Art that makes a monkey out of us all

Congo founded no school, failed to pass on his skills to others of his kind, and had no insight into his paintings
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The Independent Online

The silly season arrived early this year with a story about a sale of paintings at Bonhams. It is as well to remember that auction houses sell anything they think they can make money out of: the fact that something features in one of their sales doesn't imply anything about quality, or, indeed, whether something can really be called art at all.

In this case, an uncharacteristic but quite interesting work by Andy Warhol went unsold. What got the room excited were some paintings, about 50 years old, by a chimp called Congo. Congo was a chimpanzee at London Zoo in the 1950s who was encouraged to pick up a paintbrush by his keepers, and who, with some guidance, produced a large number of canvases.

He became a celebrity when the anthropologist Desmond Morris introduced him to a television audience, and the ICA, amazingly, staged an exhibition of his "work" in 1957. Various international artists, their tongues firmly in their cheeks, praised Congo's painting. Picasso and Miro bought some. Salvador Dali, in a characteristic paradox, said that "The hand of the chimpanzee is quasihuman; the hand of Jackson Pollock is totally animal!" - a comment which demonstrates clearly that he had more interest in Pollock than in some semi-trained chimp.

At the time, people argued that Congo's work could be considered art for various reasons. For instance, we are told that he was able to draw a circle, though I haven't seen anything by him that fulfils this description. Morris said that when he drew a shape on one half of a piece of paper, Congo would make marks on the other half "to balance the structure" - a necessarily vague way of implying intention. Moreover, he seemed to know when he had finished a painting, and when he was not yet done.

On the other hand, most of his paintings seem to share the same rudimentary scrubby fan-shape, something which derives from the chimpanzee's habitual movements rather than anything resembling intention. Nabokov said that his paintings were of the bars of his cage; a sad, poetic thought, but sheer wishful thinking.

In short, this is a perfectly ludicrous story. There is no evidence at all that any of this could be regarded as "art" in any rational way. Congo founded no school, failed to pass on his skills to others of his kind, did not develop, had no insight into his paintings, and the results are fantastically ugly anyway.

The story comes up in different forms from time to time; elephants have been encouraged to swish a paint-brush to and fro in their trunks; poor dogs and cats have had brushes tied to their tails, and the results sold. You would have to have no eye at all to compare Congo's paintings to the work of abstract expressionists. They look like what they are; paintings by a chimp. And yet three of them sold for £10,000 the other day - not to another chimp, who of course have no interest in such things, but to an American collector. Fair enough: people have the right to spend their money on all sorts of absurd memorabilia which you and I place no value on; a wooden spoon owned by Jackie Kennedy, a baseball mitt, a boiled egg once served at a vernissage by an Italian conceptual artist.

But is there not something rather sinister about anyone presenting any of this as "art", or as anything other than a piece of mild curiosity about the way animals were once coerced in zoos? After all, once you describe anything as art, you open it up to the possibility of comparison; and the comparisons, in this case, can only be designed to denigrate.

Crazed for sensation as, say, Dr Johnson's age was, they did not discover a painting monkey, and could not have done. The event had to wait until the notion of art had expanded to include not just abstract art - since no monkey could produce anything resembling a Kandinsky - but specifically gestural painting. The rudimentary gestures of a Congo are placed, by his knowing keepers, in the same category as a Jackson Pollock, and exhibited with a high degree of unspoken malice.

But the way that Congo's "art" has risen again to public attention, 50 years on, contains within it an even nastier little meaning. Since he first made his appearance on Zootime, things in the art world have been changing rapidly and apparently unconnectedly. Then, the art market interested itself exclusively with Western art, with the occasional diversion into the products of elaborate Asian cultures.

Since then, the art market has diversified greatly, and we have developed an interest in the products of very alien cultures once considered primitive. Art from urban Africa, graffiti artists, Aboriginal painters, manga; the art world has seemed to embrace cultural diversity with an exemplary openness.

But the degree to which this was just a question of money and saleability is apparent with the sale of Congo's paintings. That £10,000 seems to say something insulting not just about abstract expressionism but about all those products of cultures which are not ours. A great painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, say, can't lift itself, in the eyes of the market, above the level of a painting by a trained chimp.

That's why it's important to say, humourlessly, that Congo's paintings are not art; they don't display the abilities and self awareness of any human art; and their physical resemblance to human artefacts is entirely accidental, and as manipulated as their meaning. It's not just a funny story; behind it are some very unpleasant assumptions.