This Is All of Us: On Cows // Janey Smith
Why are cows so fascinating? In the arts, as in everyday life, cows seem to breach the common and the mysterious. They signify a paradox that doesnʼt neatly resolve itself in repetition, brutality, docility, or kitsch. To understand ourselves a little better, we make them human. To fortify ourselves a little worse, we eat them. Cows are reputed to have a particularly vapid and intent gaze. They are a symbol of days that pass us by, without question or concern. They are the perfect animal that, on the surface, appears to be doing nothing precisely because it gives them something to do.
1. The Cow by Ariana Reines (2006)
Ariana Reinesʼ The Cow is a book of poems divided into two parts each of which complements and informs the other. Each poem in TheCow is framed and at times prompted by the suffering of this animal. A consistent reading of this book tends to note that Reines used The Merck Veterinary Manual and Carcass Disposal: A Comprehensive Review as source material for some of the poems. Here, Reinesʼ poetry is syntax disordered by a different sound, punctuated by surprise, so that where there is expectation of syntactic convention, there is a poetic flood of whoa and moments you can carry around with you in pockets of yes. The much talked about “Item” one-third of the way through The Cow offers perhaps a glimpse into another world of reading these poems: this item, which fixates on the cannula, a porthole or open window fitted into the side of a living cow so that the animalʼs digestion may be observed, is not unlike Marcel Duchampʼs EtantDonnes and, in a sense, sets the scene, provides a kind of peep hole through which these poemsʼ magnificent pornography becomes visible.
2. The Cows by Lydia Davis (2011)
This chapbook is a close study, a dramatization without drama, of three cows that live across the road from Lydia Davis. What begins as theater quickly turns into a documentary. Despite the size and complexity of her subjects everything is rendered in the simplest, most precise terms. The pace of the writing matches the pace of the cows: graceful, cantered, almost aristocratic. A rumination on cows taken to the level of philosophy Davis never seems to be above her subjects. We share the same distance with the cows as we do with the writer: everyone is a stranger. The beauty of this little book is that it doesnʼt really do anything because there isnʼt very much for it to do. It is a report that masks a superb poetic fiction. Against the blinding light that marks the constant reception of Davisʼ writing, this little book proves that in the dark night of these dark times not all cows are gray, and if we slow down just enough we may notice the living beauty in something all-too-familiar.
3. Go West, Dir. Buster Keaton (1925)
A silent movie that tells the story of the friendship between Friendless, played by Buster Keaton, and Brown Eyes (as herself), a cow. Traveling west to seek paid work, Keaton scores a job on a ranch in the desert and encounters a limping, milkless milk cow. Keaton fixes the cow, removing a rock from her hoof. Moments later, Brown Eyes puts herself between a charging bull and a frightened Keaton, protecting the luckless ranch hand. A friendship is born. A classic tale of two misfits, who have very little to offer the world of capital but who find each other amid desolation and potential slaughter, the film is a tender, rough-and-rumble, slapstick portrayal of two inseparable, adorable losers. The anthropomorphization of non-human animals will, for now, as it was then, always be fashionable: the stuff of art, film, and song. It is so easy to see ourselves in them and to locate aspects of their comportment and behavior in ourselves but in Go West we are treated to a comedy of what the upside of a friendship between a human animal and a cow might be like, and for dreamers the future belongs to us.
4. “Andy Warholʼs One-Dimensional Art: 1956-1966” in Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (2000)
In 1970 Andy Warhol proposed to install only Cow Wallpaper as the exclusive objects of his retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York. The curators refused. Rumor has it that Warhol referred to the Cows as “This is all of us.” Buchlohʼs essay argues that with Warholʼs Cow Wallpaper “all the elements of modernismʼs most radical and utopian promises . . . are annihilated.” Buchlohʼs essay questions Warholʼs devaluation and inversion of modernist pictorial strategies. It defends all the stuff that makes up modernist painting—serial repetition, monochrome panels, empty space, light reflected work, readymade imagery, mechanization—but attacks Warholʼs playful use of these same techniques. The essayʼs concern is not that Warholʼs Cow Wallpaper could make great art, nor that art—in Warholʼs hands—could make great wallpaper (although Buchloh critiques the effects of this possibility). What seems to interest Buchloh is the concept that wants to put cows on wallpaper and, at the same time, seeks institutional acceptance as art, thus, undermining any challenge of the traditional assumptions about uniqueness, authenticity, and authorship that constitutes the foundations of modernist art.
5. “Walking the Cow” on Hi, How Are You?, Daniel Johnston (1983)
This song contains all the imperfect, spare, patty-cake repetitiveness of a light Sisyphean task without the painful feelings that something tortuous is being worked out. It is also a nasally sweet, mystically sincere meditation on the paradoxes of existence, memory, and longing—and Johnstonʼs relationship to something that feels like love as he walks a cow. Or maybe itʼs not. Whether Johnston is also walking alongside the memory of a loved one or actually ambling with his lover, one thing seems certain: He is walking a cow. Johnston tries to put it all together but he seems to fail with each nocturnal step. When he tries to remember how he got to that place in his life where he is now, his feelings betray him. Not sure why heʼs content to remain where heʼs at in his life, he comes back to what is certain (even if he only imagines it): He is walking the cow. The irony of the lucky stars that shine in somebodyʼs eyes—and the mystery of whose eyes those are—only complicates the story. When Johnston reaches for that memory that could magically explain it all, itʼs gone.
6. “Grazing as Pure Meditation” in Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House by Bill Viola (1995)
This note, included in Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, a collection of writings by the video and sound installation artist Bill Viola, provides a reminder as to where the conditions and state of mind for an idea for living with grazing animals—as an art piece—came from. Alone on a desolate prairie, Violaʼs attention shifts from filming a storm system over flat, barren landscape to focusing on the cows sitting all around him. For eight hours, the cows and the artist sit. But the communion is interrupted. Viola feels not as “at home” as the cows, whose prairie mind and sedentary oneness with the landscape disturbs but, ultimately, drives Viola to make a note of the encounter. The note seems to function as another crystallization of Violaʼs mindful concern with an ecological drama whose outcome rests on our realization that we and the natural physical environment are one and the same and that nature itself is a form of mind. Perhaps one way to weather the storm of climate change deniers is to simply sit, all around them, like cows.
See the rest of our back-to-school feature Syllabus-ness here.