But Is It Cow?


It's the very young and the very, very young at heart who constitute the only appreciative audience for the cow work. Implicit in the cows is the idea that art is scary and needs puns to make it kind. When each city isn't claiming that "we do things different around here," they're reminding us that it's all for fun. In St. Paul, where the civic fathers have installed art Snoopys in honor of favorite son Charles Schulz, they claim that the project "celebrates the joy of being Snoopy." It's hard to think of a theme less controversial than "the joy of being Snoopy." Even elephant dung couldn't water that up. This is gift shop art displayed outdoors, yard decoration brought in from the suburbs and deposited on safety islands in the city, garden gnomes in spats. In most cities there are still places with names like Outdoor Glamour, parking lots offering unpainted concrete Virgin Marys for sale. How are the cows (which anyone can buy, too) different from these bathtub Madonnas? This is concrete art at its most literal. The pasteurized, suburban embrace of cow art had already shown how completely removed the image of the cow is from its fly-buzzed origins; now that banal, folksy nostalgia is forcibly inserted into city life. Supposedly a celebration of innocence, it's really folk art mass-produced for the child in all of us, the one who likes to go into town and spend money on trinkets and slushies.

Appeals to the kid in all of us aren't an accident. If people's reactions can be reduced to the most childish level, no one can really criticize. When something is all about the kids, noticing that it's lousy becomes an act of cruelty. Just as First Night celebrations turned that most adult of holidays, New Year's Eve, into a kindergarten field trip, the cows reduce art to the level of construction-paper turkeys made by tracing your hand. The cows' literality assumes people need colored-plastic coverings on the handles of their scissors to tell right from left. This is art for the Garfield sticker crowd. Abstract art used to be jeered at by the yahoos, but now even representational art is too much for people to be expected to take. Today, art has to be character-based before it gets the stamp of approval. In order to make public art palatable, figures familiar from Saturday morning cartoons have to be licensed and put into service on its behalf. This has been a success beyond Lynne Cheney's most vat-separated dreams. There's no better way to avoid controversy in public art than by turning it into a kiddie ride at the fair. So much for the carnivalesque. The art cows, intended with the best wishes of their civic herdsmen to introduce children to the kooky world of art, instead prevent them from understanding it by making it dumb as a cow. T. W. Adorno reminds us that the important thing about kitsch is that it "sets free for a moment the glittering realization that you have wasted your life." We can thank The Parade of Cows for allowing the entire world to experience Adorno's realization all at once. Traveling from city to city, we can rest assured that a cow made to look like a piggy bank will be there to greet us, just as a cow in a skateboarding outfit will bid us au revoir in the city we left behind. What could be more comforting?

Bovinalia has always been popular. Cows are a familiar, soothing image. Who doesn't immediately associate them with complacency? It's not hard to understand the appeal of a herd of silent, helpful animals, each a gaily painted individual. Look, this one's dressed as a waiter! Here's one that looks like a construction worker! How did we get to the point where being depicted as a cow is a tribute to your profession? Is cow-like a compliment now? It may seem that public art has sunk to a new low (that's the only pun the CowParade publicists forgot), but this isn't public art, it's public entertainment.

And if that's entertainment, I'm a Hottentot. That people put up with the art cows proves our cities are now officially too safe. In an alert society, the cows would've been rejected as the corporate shills they are, not greeted with hugs of recognition and flowers around their necks. To their credit, art cows have proved truly exceptional in one area: They're perfect for blocking the homeless from view. But the corporate world can make up for its inadvertent slight to the outdoor living community. It's not too late to turn the Cow Parade into a project that benefits everyone. Corporations, sponsor a bum! Assign each one a cow and give him a can of gas and a book of matches so he can torch it. Not only will that provide a little warmth, it'll also give tourists the impression that our bums aren't going hungry. The Parade of Cows On Fire is one hobo barbecue we can all get behind, and the pretty blue flame that burning fiberglass produces would be a work of art to rival any Picowso. People, can we pencil that in for First Night?


courtesy of Slotcar Hatebath

pictures by Terry Colon

Slotcar Hatebath