A Well-Dressed Orangutan

In Disney’s Jungle Book, King Louie the orangutan sings to the boy Mowgli: “I’ve reached the top and had to stop, and that’s what botherin’ me. I wanna be a man, mancub, and stroll right into town and be just like the other men. I’m tired of monkeyin’ around! Oh, oobee doo! I wanna be like you! I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too. You’ll see it’s true. Someone like me can learn to be like someone like you.”

It’s a great song because it is a fanciful song. An orangutan strolling through town dressed in slacks and a blazer is still an orangutan. King Louie is no more human for having donned Ralph Lauren.

That says something.

Because evidently, Neanderthals painted.

So says the latest research conducted on Spanish cave drawings. As scientists continue to debate whether to categorize Neanderthals as a separate species from modern man or simply as a variant population of humans, at least they can agree that they painted.

Maybe they were wearing animal skins rather than Ralph Lauren, but they did more than stroll through town—they created art.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a British essayist, poet, and lay theologian who had a way of seeing things simply. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton suggests that cave drawings reveal skill: “They were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.”

Chesterton imagined a young boy looking at such art, and argued that no child would expect to see his house cat “scratch on the wall a vindictive caricature of the dog,” for animals do not create art. I realize that people sell paintings made by elephants and dolphins and orangutans—which says more about human taste in paintings than orangutan prowess in creating them—but even here Chesterton simplifies: “It sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey,” while “it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man.”

Neither I nor Chesterton wish to denigrate those who celebrate King Louie’s paintings, but Chesterton appeals to common sense when he writes: “Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race-horse a Post-Impressionist.”

Instead, Chesterton recognizes: “Every sane sort of history must begin with man as man,” for “this creature was truly different than all other creatures.” This creature created art.

And only man makes art.

Or designs slacks and blazers. Sorry, King Louie.

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