for 17 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
But Is It Cow?
Dear Mr. S.,
Kudos on your critique of the cow phenomenon. However, I can't believe you didn't mention David Lynch's submission of a blood-soaked, fork-impaled cow for the New York City debut, and it's subsequent rejection.
Seems to me this dovetails quite nicely with the inability of just plain folks to stomach "difficult" art, no matter how bovinified. Keep fighting the good fight.
I had mentioned the art-cow contribution of the director of The Straight Story, but my editor cut it. I called Lynch's art cow a steakhouse nightmare and very eloquently described what happened to it. You could acutely feel in my prose the loss our culture experienced when the Lynch art cow was vanished by the public-art powers-that-be. You would've wept for that loss, the way it was evoked by yours truly.
Looking back, I realize my editor was 100% right to chop that out with his savage and blunt axe. After all, who are we to try to compete with the New Yorker, who covered the story in their always hilarious and incisive "Talk of the Town" column around the time the Lynch art cow was removed? Now you provide this link, proving that info about the anti-Lynch censorship is pretty much everywhere.
You're absolutely right, A. S. If a headless cow with a fork up its ass is too much for our kids, then they're just plain wimps. You know what I think the problem is? That Harry Potter. When I was a kid we had Roald Dahl, we were scared shitless, and we liked it. Banning Lynch shows that civic paternalism has once again gone too far. Only happy cows from now on, no matter what.
Wow great piece! As a composer who writes ugly avant-garde music that no one wants to hear, I especially appreciated the Adorno reference and Terry's tribute to Marcel Duchamp. And perhaps this is a related art phenomenon: I live in Frisco, TX which has the dubious distinction of being the "fastest growing city in the country". They recently wiped out an entire prairie to build a huge shopping mall here. After building the shopping mall, they decorated the parking lot with sculptures of all of the animals that used to live in the prairie before it was paved over (steers, jackrabbits, foxes etc.)! Isn't that sick?
It's like the airport here in Boston. The walkways to the new parking garage over the Bay feature exquisite mosaics of the sea life that was there before they paved over the fish and put up the parking lot.
No matter what happens to our wildlife, E., it must be comforting to be the leading composer of "ugly avant-garde music" in Frisco, Texas. Get the Knitting factory to open a franchise there and you'll be all set. Maybe Columbia or Princeton will set up a sound lab and start putting out albums. All I'm trying to say, EHT, is this: Get out before they lynch you!
Worried about your future,
Loved your article. The main question for me, though, is why anybody gives a damn about a bunch of cutesy fiberglass sculptures. But if I start asking that, I might be led into the heart of darkness that is eBay. In any case, as a former New Orleanian, I thought fish was an odd choice for that city. Mammals, though, are out. Opossums and armadillos are almost non-existent. The only four-legged candidates are nutria and rats; I'm all for nutria, but obviously a lot of people wouldn't be. Still, why New Orleans passed up the most obvious of all, the crawfish, is beyond me. Maybe for once they were trying to avoid a cliche.
As a former resident of the Crescent City myself (921 Elysian Fields Avenue, if it hasn't burned down yet or been completely overrun by salamanders), I always thought that the most charming thing about New Orleans was its unapologetic embrace of every cliche in the book. That and the fact that the bars are open 24 hours. And that you can buy fireworks at the gas station. And ammunition.
I also liked the Wal-Mart in Algiers a lot. It was my first one. There's nothing like a Santa ringing a bell in front of a Wal-Mart in December in 85-degree humidity to remind you what Christmas is all about. That reminds me: Next year, dress the bums up as Santas, cover 'em in paint, and voila! Art Santas! I bet the Salvation Army will make more money with a Bucket of Blood-esque project like that than with their usual apathetic bell-ringing.
Can't imagine why they didn't choose the nutria or their beloved alligators or shrimp. Art shrimp sounds a little unpleasant, though. Like you could get food poisoning just by looking at it.
Hey, why not call fiberglass cows, in various poses, "art"? If you can stick a crucifix in a jar of urine, or photograph a male with the handle of a bullwhip inserted in his rectum, or attach elephant dung to an icon, and not only call them art but also receive public subsidies while doing it, then cows, fish, and cartoon characters are also fair game. Unfortunately, pretentious snots have a harder time calling the work "brilliant".
In fact, I predict that, soon, artists will receive subsidies to not produce public art, much like our fabled farmers now receive subsidies not to raise beloved cows. And what a better world it will be.
Paul E. Clark
For years, I've been predicting that artists, writers, and filmmakers would be paid by the government not to produce work, just like farmers are paid not to grow food. Or that they'd be paid to make their work, but would then be forced to store it in a silo unshown or unread. But now I see I was a little off in my prediction. The Internet is that silo.
I'm not sure that the artists to whose work you refer received any public subsidies to make it. The elephant dung guy had his work shown in a city museum, but that's not quite the same thing. But whether you like those guys or not, there is a distinction between art that is actually trying to do something as art and stuff like the art cows, which is solely a form of entertainment. And it's not even good entertainment. Conversely, whether Mapplethorpe, et al, created successful art or not, at least they made good entertainment! The art cows lose on both counts.
Pretentious snots may be loathe to describe the art cows as brilliant, but regular folks, it seems, aren't. The coffee table books produced to make even more money from these cash cows include a lot of encomiums to the genius-level work that is achievable in painted fiberglass cow-form. It would be a better world, you're right, sans crappy public art, but hostility to lousiness isn't the same as sanctioning the cartoon-characterization of the entire visual world. I like Daffy Duck on the screen. On a necktie I could live without him. In a plaza in front of a city building he loses all his charm and makes me not want to see him in his cartoons anymore, whether they're brilliant or not.
Thanks for writing in.
I live in New York, and I didn't even notice the cows were gone.
I know a few people with a seething hatred for the cows that I just can't figure out. Who cares? They're not permanent. They won't be staring at me day after day like the horribly drab NYU dorms popping up all over the place or the ceaseless construction (which happens to be on an NYU dorm in the lot the Palladium once graced) across the street from my apartment. They don't disrupt the landscape as much as the occasional hordes of Giuliani's blue-clad foot soldiers in Tompkins Square Park do.
The cows were amusing to me. Then they dropped below my radar and I stopped seeing them. Trust me, we don't need cows to shield the homeless from us; most New Yorkers can't see them anyway.
I appreciate your disgust for kitsch, puns, and innocuous fun, but the whole world doesn't agree with you, and they deserve to have cows if they want them. No one's stopping you from going to the Guggenheim or the Whitey, er, Whitney to enjoy the art you appreciate or protesting against the strenuously trendy art theatre to which you go to be entertained. Is corporate art for the masses that dangerous? Isn't there more obvious advertising all over the same areas the cows are? It's possible that more people than you think understand what the cows are about, they just don't see the big deal that you see.
But what do I know? I don't think all art has to disturb, or be transcendent. Drawing the lines between art, craft, and decoration is a task I don't want, as I can't imagine I'm enough of a black-and-white moralist to decide where those lines go. Do you want the job?
Thanks for a thought-provoking article. No matter what the subject is, I always get sucked into your essays.
You must not read the paper or watch TV, either. The removal of the cows was, for some reason, big news. Anyway, Guiliani's foot soldiers march alongside the parade of cows. One announces the arrival of the other. It's all the same in all our newly safe cities.
Whether most New Yorkers have stopped seeing the homeless and whether some stopped seeing the cows (what do they see? window displays?) isn't the point. You can ignore the cows into oblivion, but go to the next city down the line and there they'll be again, waiting for you. How many times will that have to happen before you admit that they suck?
The whole world may not agree with me, but I'm not sure that means they deserve lousy, unavoidable public art. Nothing's too good for the people, as a Chicago ward heeler once said in the days when public art meant a soldier on a horse.
How did you guess that as my principal form of entertainment I haunt the dark cavern that is the Performing Garage? And as for the job offer, how much does it pay?
Thanks for writing in. I hope you keep reading.
Loved it. Of course, out here in the Great Merrikan West, kow worship has been institutionalized for 125 years and the level of collective cud-chewing, complacent and distinctly uncritical acceptance is frightening.
You see, the Kattle Kulture was promoted by the government in the second half of the 19th century as an excellent means of getting white folks to occupy huge swaths of land and put it to "beneficial use" where rainfall was far too sparse for even the most optimistic of farmers (this was before centrifugal pumps and the era of huge federally-funded dams, mind you). By the turn of the last century, much of the semiarid western half of the US had been overgrazed to desert-like conditions. As the tumbleweeds rolled where grass once grew, unhappy Kattle Barons began a long, proud and stunningly effective tradition of proud individualism and self-reliance: they applied for government assistance.
Now, as the business of raising fat and sassy beeves on stunted, abused pasture -- even with the generous subsidies, tax breaks and other largesse -- is becoming practicable only by telecommuters, VC bull-marketers and multinational corporations, many of the increasingly urban-dwelling Westerners are eyeing the public rangeland as something other than pasture and bovine bathroom. But everywhere you turn, there are symbols of the glorious herds: 75-foot plaster longhorn replicas decorating tourist-trap freeway exit restaurants, innumerable icons of civic pride such as lariats and ten-gallon hats emblazoned on official letterhead, and whole cities shutting down for part of a week because the rodeo's on.
Whimsical, cartoonish milk faucets aren't really as much of the urban landscape in a land where the critters are unabashedly being grown in order to off 'em and harvest their flesh. Kattle Kitsch in Kattle Kountry is markedly macho, typified by angry, arching steers, glowering or imminently charging bulls, branding irons and juicy steaks. Far from a Picowsso telling the tourons where to aim the viewfinder, in the land of sirloin and bullshit the most sacred cow is the one rented by the multimillionaire land speculator to qualify his next stucco monument to suburban sprawl as agricultural property subject to minimal state taxes while he gets the glossy sales brochures printed up.
Wow, that's a mouthful of prime chuck, and I don't think I can chew it without a little more Dentu-Grip. It occurs to me that you should've written the article!
Traveling through South Dakota once, I marveled at the fierce plastic steers in mid snort that threatened to stampede off their pedestals at every motel and tractor dealership I passed. I knew the cows were a stand-in for an agrarian past harried city dwellers often long for. Thanks for reminding them their bucolic dreams are for naught.
What is your beef with the art cows? When I was in New York a couple of months ago they seemed clever enough, and between the urine smell, the crime scene tape, and blood stains the city could use some Disneyfication. Besides, where is it written that every single artistic endeavor must be a searing red hot poker into the human condition? Isn't it the relative banality of Hamburger Helper that gives (some spicy fancy food) its evolved appeal? Without Wal-mart fashion sense who would hipsters be condescending to?
Warming up my art grill,
Clay, I worry that a man with the word "crayons" in his domain name might be the kind of guy who'd be all too comfortable with the description "child-like." If your idea of clever is a cow painted to look like a waiter or a Picasso, I think your fractals might be bunching up. I don't know what part of NYC you were in a couple of months ago, but that smell wasn't urine, it was Gap perfume. If you visited Times Square, I can't imagine you'd think New York actually needs more Disneyfication. It's not necessary that every work of art be imbued with heavyosity, but let's be grownup and face it: the art cows are failed whimsy. Is there a genre sadder? And as far as the fashion sense of hipsters goes, it goes as far as Wal-Mart. If you're proposing that the artistic equivalent of Hamburger Helper be installed in public, I'd hate to see your kitchen.
Thanks for reading and writing in.
How this escaped your attention, I won't presume to guess.
You will be interested to know, this cow-ntroversey was played out in classic Animal House form at Northwestern University earlier this year when one of these cows came to graze on campus and was promptly (and some say, mercifully) stolen. Much bovine bellowing and nattering ensued.
Here are references to the relevant bits of The Daily Northwestern for your perusal, should you wish to retrace the "bovine tragedy":
Daily Northwestern Articles:
May 26 Dismembered cow found in Fiji fraternity house. Court orders students to pay to replace it
Yours in suckitude,
Although I endeavor to keep up with all anti-art-cow activity, I'm just one man. I can't do it alone. I rely on people like you to alert me to the latest manifestations of whimsical graffitti, kooky college pranks and general defacement. The headlines "Dismembered cow found in Fiji fraternity house"; "Carlton endorses stealing, destruction of property"; "Moo@NU theft far from activism, not 'damn funny'"; and "University campus shouldn't be 'a graveyard for pop art'" piqued my interest, and will be excellent source material should I ever decide to write a book on college students' reactions to inadequately secured public art.
Thanks for the heads up and keep reading!
Dear Terry: Not for the first time, your art has made the actual article redundant. "Get milked," indeed. You DID know that one of the cows in NYC has been labeled "This is not a cow." There's a damned good piece of graffiti art on a handball wall in NYC, just off the FDR drive in East Harlem. "Crack is Wack," it's called. It's rarely defaced and is cleaned almost immediately. Not all public art is worthless. Just most of it.
Alan S Kornheiser
Why is K such a prevalent and ominous initial for a doctor? Is it the Kafka association? There are so many 'K' or 'K'-sound doctors. In the movies alone we got Dr. Korvo, Dr. Kildare, Dr. Christian...
Anyway, thanks for writing in, even if only to let us k-now that the always excellent Kolon illustrations obviated the need for my words. Just for the record, I don't think all public art is worthless, although it's true that most of it is lousy. I miss Serra's Tilted Arc and wonder where the Riveras of today are hiding. I thought the Koons Puppy was good, too. But the cows are a trend that I can't abide. Too bad nobody asked me before they put them up!
Not all the Cows on Parade's progeny are corporate tourist-grabs. Chicago's Neo-Futurists put together a much more democratic, less publicly obtrusive version with squirrels.
Yeah, I know, as an aesthetic statement a squirrel isn't distinctly more evolved than a cow. The difference here is I got to make a squirrel.
Good piece tho. As you were.
Phineas X. Jones
Art squirrels are art animals just like cows are, as you correctly point out, my Neo-Futurist friend. I congratulate you on your efforts to thwart the art cows and their sponsors, however. I just hope all the money you raised went to charities that we can all agree are worthy of our support, and didn't go to pay the rent on your squalid apartments and to buy you people a lot of beer.
Does the "Neo" in "Neo-Futurists" mean that when you drive your car into a wall at top speed like the original Futurist Marinetti did, you do it with an airbag? That's cheating. And if you run over any squirrels while you're doing it, remember that they're not the ones who are supposed to suffer for art, you are.
Good to hear from your camp.
On our honeymoon to Chicago last October, my wife and I couldn't even leave the hotel without having to wrestle our way around a cow-gazing throng. It was hard to articulate my hostility at the completely out-of-context fiberglass cows, especially to the Chicago-area family and friends that talked about making special trips downtown to look at the cows. (The only contextual relationship to the city was really the slaughterhouse connection. Unfortunately, I don't remember seeing any Upton Sinclair cows.)
Your column crystallized what it is that bothers me about this crap, and particularly when it's described as art. (People standing around a goddamn cow across the street from the Art Institute, as well right next to the Museum of Contemporary Art, were my favorite mental images.) There's a whole world of extrapolation about inoffensiveness in there somewhere, right on up to presidential candidates. But in any case, you've given my anti-cow rantings some ammunition, and I thank you again for that.
Wow, I can't believe the suave pop genius who gave the world "Addicted to Love" reads Suck.com! And you're married now. Congrats! Did you tie the knot with one of those sleek black-clad automatons from the video? Those babes were so fly. I got your '80s revival -- right here!
You get that a lot, don't you, Rob? I apologize.
Anyone who makes a special trip downtown just to look at art cows needs to reprioritize. Are there no post offices in their neighborhoods where they can go ogle the new stamps? No video stores with life-size displays for Erin Brockovich? Paintball, anyone? Roller Disco? Slotcar Racing?
As for the Chicago slaughterhouse connection, the CowParade people played that up like crazy in their literature. (If the cows are art, I consider their p.r. literature.) They stopped short of comparing the citizenry to cows after doing so, however. Too obvious for them, perhaps, but not too obvious for me.