"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

But Is It Cow?


In decades past, public art meant statues of war heroes sitting on horses. Later it meant dauby murals packed with crowds of heterogeneous citizens working hard to open food co-ops in blighted neighborhoods or build playgrounds in vacant lots. Nobody loved these murals, which had more in common with the illustrations in The Watchtower than with Diego Rivera, but passersby learned to ignore them. Sometimes, famous artists were hired to create outsized sculptures for the empty plazas in downtown business districts. Some of these, like Richard Serra's Tilted Arc, proved too forbidding for bankers and lawyers scurrying off to work. The Claes Oldenburg model — you can't go wrong with household objects made gigantic — won out, and the essential blandness of that model has only recently come to full, underwhelming fruition. This summer, Jeff Koons's monumental public topiary Puppy dominated Rockefeller Center like the world's biggest mascot, it's giantism made friendly by its cuteness. Whatever Koons intended, no one really complained. Maybe the piece was a commentary on Disneyfication, maybe Koons just likes puppies; maybe it belonged in front of FAO Schwartz, maybe it loomed as a reproach to a dumbed-down world. It's gone now, anyway.

The cow parade is over, too, but only in New York. Everywhere else, cattle are becoming cosmopolitan fixtures. Mural-painted fiberglass cows — like horses without their generals — are the landmarks that make it easier to herd tourists and workers through town. They keep the eyes occupied so nobody's spooked into a stampede. Cows on Parade, as this outdoor celebration of bovinity that premiered in Zurich in 1998 is called, has rumbled into America's heart since its US debut last year in Chicago. As the parade of cows turns our cities into the exploded living room of an Elmer's Glue memorabilia collector, art has never been more vagrant. It's been ushered from the scene as quickly as a wino standing in front of a liquor store window with a brick in his hand.

Dozens of cities are embracing the cows' non-aesthetic. Art cows have been installed in Calgary, in Plainview, Texas, and in Waco, where evidently the "wacows" are re-establishing the civic pride bulldozed over by the FBI. (Did the town reject the slogan "I'm wacko for wacows"?) According to a preface in the coffee table book Cows on Parade in Chicago, "CowParade WorldWide, which is headquartered in West Hartford, Connecticut, has been entrusted by the Zurich Retail Trade Association with the responsibility of bringing the Cows on Parade concept to a variety of challenging venues." "Challenging venues," here means "cities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere." Other towns have gone forward without the Swiss-by-way-of-Connecticut seal of approval. Cincinnati and Peoria have installed art pigs. Belfast, Maine, has art bears. Lexington, Ky., features horses (minus soldiers). Toronto and Whitefish, Mont., went in for moose. Buffalo, N.Y., in a fine display of civic predictability, chose buffaloes. Some cities ignored the artistic possibilities inherent in mammalian forms altogether. Instead of armadillos or opossums New Orleans picked fish. So did Boston, which has a Cavalcade of Cod chosen not so much to honor the Sacred Cod that hangs in the Massachusetts State House, nor as a symbol of the industry that fed New Englanders for three hundred years, but because Cod is one letter off from Cow.

Painted cows, long used to advertise ice cream parlors and dairies, are the cherry on top of the new urban safety parfait. Now they don't just advertise specific restaurants, they're generic markers meaning "guidebook-approved restaurant here" or "photo spot." Who would've guessed a few hundred fiberglass ruminants could bring such happiness (or, in the parlance of every p.r.-driven news stories about the cows, such "udder" joy), generate so much revenue, and help out charities and artists at the same time? All the world loves a cow. Newspaper story after newspaper story trumpets the windfall trifecta of corporate sponsorship, tourist dollars, and charity auctions. Faced with normal-sized fiberglass animals, even vandals are overcome by cuteness. In Chicago, graffiti was replaced by art cowshit; in Boston, cigarette butts are routinely stuck in the cods' mouths. And there's no killing floor for these heifers. After corporation-chosen artists slap a little paint on them and they're put on view for a few months in spots frequented by out-of-towners, the art cows are auctioned off to raise money for charity. Buyers can then display them in the lobbies of their offices or on their roofs at Christmas or in the shallow ends of their swimming pools. The corporations, the cities and the charities who benefit from the art cows have reason to be happy. Chicago figures it made $200 million from the cows (more than the 1996 Democratic National Convention brought in), and then raised $3.5 million for charity when it auctioned them off. As a civic project, that's good with a capital G, but a prediction is in order: by the year 2015, the phrase painted cow will have replaced white elephant in the lexicon of worthlessness.

Unlike the massive, rusted metal walls that have inspired loathing in the past when placed as art in public thoroughfares, friendly cattle reproduced on a human scale and painted in bright colors threaten no one and don't arouse active hostility. Made for the most part by an army of anonymous artists with names like Gallery 37 Apprentice Artists and Flair Communications, they lack the monolithic intent of most conceptual public art. Far from making statements, artists aren't even making reputations on them.

Nor are they using commissions for down payments on summer places so they can escape the city while poorer urbanites have to dodge their work in the heat. An artist who made three of the fish in New Orleans estimated that she earned about 27 cents an hour for her labor, a rate more likely on the floor of a Jakarta pants factory than in the lobby of a corporate office tower. Maybe that's because as art, the art cows fall short of even the kind of paintings found in hotel rooms. This is what art becomes when the Darth Vader suit from Star Wars becomes the centerpiece in a museum tour — art as an advertisement for entertainment to come.

And if the art cows aren't really art, are the people who make them artists? Parade 0f Cows-style projects continue the family-friendly makeover of our cities by dispensing with anything recognizable as art. Childish — babyish would be more accurate — parodies of real art abound in the Cow Parade. "Picowsos" make up a good number of the plastic herd, including one in New York called "Mooma" positioned in front of — guess where? — MOMA. In another clever play on words, there's a "Moondrian." Van Gogh is victimized repeatedly, as he always is in displays like this.

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