Cows parade, but is it art?

Posted: Aug 22, 2001 12:00 AM
Across America, everything is coming up cows. The smashing success of the Cow Parade, first in Zurich, then in Chicago, finally stampeding to New York, is spawning an explosion of wacky, bigger-than-life flora and fauna in the streets of American cities.

In Baltimore, 6-foot tropical fish, resplendent in feathers or stars, turn the city into an open-air aquarium. Orlando, Fla., has 6-foot reptiles crawling the streets in a display of Art Gecko. Rochester, Mich., is having a Ewe Review. Look to Dallas for more than 200 winged horses, while Lexington, Ky., settles for the more pedestrian kind. Los Angeles chose to make angels visible. In Tampa, Fla., loggerhead turtles on are parade. "I am not wild about the cow-crazed merchandising machine," sniffed organizer Jay Goulde to The New York Times.

Turtles, you see, raise environmental awareness, while cows raise only cash.

Oodles of it. Chicago's cows brought in an estimated $200 million in tourist trade, and the cows themselves, expected to reap $250,000 when auctioned for charity, instead brought in more than $3 million for good causes as American paid up to $100,000 each to take them home. Lawn decoration, anyone?

Is it kitsch? Duh. So what? The problem comes when conservators of high culture mistake kitsch for great art, or art (I might add) for a kind of religion. A Los Angeles critic denounced angels on parade as "garbage on the street." A citizen of St. Louis said artists who participate in such public spectacles "should all be made pariahs." "It is hard to consider it real art," agrees urban historian Mary Gray. "... The whole thing has perhaps gotten out of control. I don't think it's dangerous, but a lot of them are very ugly."

Great art, like religion, can make visible truths of the spirit. But so can other forms of human creativity. Too many artists disdain the uplift game, preferring to litter public space with their hulking Tilted Arcs and Piss Christs designed to epater and uglify the bourgeoisie simultaneously.

Must everything be Art with a capital A? I love the cows. The giant chairs. And the fish! And it's not just me.

This summer, Chicago, which started the cow craze, has created a kind of ersatz Americana museum in the local zoo from examples of this "art" from all across America. "An incredible number of people are coming into the zoo and having their pictures taken with these creatures," zoo director Kevin Bell told The New York Times. "Something about them really seems to grab people."

Connoisseurs may sniff, but I think I know what it is. Promise not to laugh? The unexpected sighting of a silly cow, or an oversized lizard created for no other reason than an excess of high spirits, reminds us for a moment of our true status as beings made in the image of the creator. For a moment, we spot our true selves -- not just consumers, but makers. Of course, we use our creative energy and gifts for more serious purposes -- to build industrial empires, invent new products, discover the cure for cancer or even create great works of art that will stand the test of time. But so overflowing with creative desire are human beings that sometimes, for a silly season, we make huge parades of cows ex nihilo. Just because we can.

In Baltimore, a giant Elvis Presley fish swims through the streets with a peanut butter and banana sandwich under one fin. Is it Art? Who cares!