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Grayson, Henry & The Concrete Cows…

October 22, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I saw this photo online recently, a new look for the Concrete Cows of Milton Keynes and after the smile it brought to my face had faded, it got me thinking about other aspects of such an act and whether it represents vandalism or creativity…


Grayson Perry has been on the radio over the last couple of weeks, discussing issues relating to the meaning, understanding and value of art: what makes it good or bad, who says its good or bad, can anyone make it…

With regard to the Concrete Cows, I remember one of our many family outings in the late 1970’s, when we went to see the newly opened Milton Keynes shopping center (the 70’s were heady with such excitement…) and on the way home, dad took us to see the newly completed (and already infamous) works of art.

I’m sure I remember them being more brown and white than black and white but I think we were all a bit nonplussed at seeing them in the flesh as it were… They were a tad lumpen and bore only a passing likeness to actual cows and their setting (intentional I’m sure) was very mundane, i.e. they were where cows are usually found, standing in the middle of a field.

Over time, the colour, location, arrangement, quantity and appearance of the 6 animals has changed and mutated, due to either planned Council maintenance, kidnapping, vandalism or as in this recent episode, a guerrilla art attack…

And that’s what made me think of Grayson Perry and what art is. If I read that a similar thing had been done to a Henry Moore (his draped reclining figure and baby is shown below for comparison) or a Jacob Epstein or one of Frank Dobson’s figures, for instance, I’m sure I would be as up in arms as any other Guardian reader, outraged by the wanton vandalism and destruction of such a masterpiece…

Moore exhibit

Trying to discern why this might be though is slightly more troublesome…

Is it that Moore’s figure is better than the cows? It’s certainly not carried out with any greater degree of anatomical accuracy. Is it that Moore’s sculpture is made of bronze, a material with a much greater intrinsic value than concrete. Is it the quality of the surface finish, or is it maybe, that it looks more like art should look, with forms willfully distorted and exaggerated rather than just badly or oddly  formed.

Or is it, as I suspect and as Grayson argues in his first Reith Lecture (listen again here) that it’s the name of the artist that counts and the implied cultural weight that it has accrued, thanks to an academic or gallery based system of approval. Everyone’s heard of Henry Moore, very few will know the name Liz Leyh (the Canadian artist responsible for the cows in 1978), therefore it follows, that Moore must be better…

My friend William Mitchell is affected by the same system. His signature work from the 1960’s and 70’s is of a quality that without doubt rivals that of Moore, Barbara Hepworth or any of his contemporaries, however it’s commission by Local Councils and it’s execution for a fixed rate, and in prosaic and utilitarian materials such as concrete, means that he is forever overlooked by the cognoscenti.

In the end, it’s as much about materials and context as it is reputation and acceptability… Concrete in a gallery can be art whilst concrete outside will always struggle. For it to be art outside, it needs to made of a more precious material such as bronze or marble..

Hence the Concrete Cows are acceptable as a target as they are in a field and no one knows who made them. They also have a history of abuse which adds legitimacy to their plight, whilst at the same time devaluing their worth as acceptable works of art..

Makes you wonder what might have happened if Henry Moore had turned some of his beautiful sheep sketches into concrete sculptures and left them lying around the Yorkshire Moors… (although I think we already know the answer to that don’t we; they’d have been stolen or galleryised..) Moore sheep

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