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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Chazen goat sculpture by Beth Cavener Stichter is a true work of art
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What it is trying to say and why is it affronting?
What it is trying to say and why is it affronting?
Credit:Courtesy of Beth Cavener Stichter

Let me be clear: I am not on any level revolted by the kissing-goats-with-boners sculpture at the UW-Madison's Chazen Museum. But I am shocked -- on both a visceral and intellectual level.

Titled "A Rush of Blood to the Head," the title of a Coldplay song, the sculpture by Washington state artist Beth Cavener Stichter depicts two male goats standing on their hind legs, their mouths locked in a passionate embrace, their you-know-what's engorged with some of the blood that isn't rushing to their heads.

On a visceral level, the sculpture initially struck me as gratuitous and affronting. I understand art that denigrates national and religious symbols, because this forces viewers to ponder what those symbols mean and why our culture is so protective of them. But this sculpture struck me as seeking shock for its own sake.

Which brings us to the second part of my reaction -- intellectual shock. I was and still am astounded that the Chazen would acquire this sculpture (albeit entirely with private funds) and put it on prominent display. It's a much bolder gesture than I would have thought the museum would be willing to make.

Obviously, the museum must have known this work of art would stir controversy, in a culture that thrives on it. My guess is that, unless Britney Spears gets busted with a crack pipe or Tiger Woods is caught texting more barely coherent come-ons to some new paramour, it's going to blow into a big national story, arousing the passions of folks like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. The UW will be lambasted for its irresponsibility, and clucking conservatives will demand some human sacrifice -- the firing of the museum director, perhaps, or the termination of all government funds to the university.

And it's the prospect of such regrettable overreactions, motivated by meanness, that prompt me to further reflection on the goats-with-boners sculpture. What it is trying to say, and why is it affronting?

It's not the boners that, pardon the pun, stick out. Sexuality is natural, and so is homosexuality, occurring in every culture throughout human history and in an array of other species.

And yet the sculpture does strike me as depicting something unnatural. It's not the organs or the state of arousal. It's not the goats rearing up on their hind legs, although I've never seen a goat do this, the way horses do.

It's the kissing. That's what's wrong with this sculpture. Goats do not, to quote a memorable turn of phrase from On Golden Pond, "suck face." And the ones in this sculpture are really going at it, with one goat taking in the entire mouth of the other.

According to Channel 3, which broke the story last night, artist Stichter "is known for using animals to express human emotions and feelings."

The goats are not engaged in goat-like behavior; they are behaving like humans. And the only unnatural thing about the depiction is the kissing, if you can call it that.

So when the museum covers the sculpture's bottom half, as it's promised to do when groups of school children visit, it is not covering the most shocking part of the piece.

Beyond that, I'm struck by what reaction to this sculpture says about us. Not long ago, the Chazen included a photo showing Salvadoran children looking on in horror at a row of freshly decapitated heads from a photo exhibit of the war photography of Michael Kienitz. So far as I know, that truly sickening and obscene image prompted no outcry, the way this one is likely to. Even truly gratuitous violence, à la Quentin Tarantino or shows on FX, are given a pass, while a bare boob sets off alarms.

In other words, the Chazen is doing something remarkable, and indisputably courageous. It is presenting art that does what art is supposed to -- get people to think. For that, the museum deserves our gratitude and support.

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