From GENE LOGSDON
Years ago, a popular folk story told of a farmer who went to a museum and discovered abstract art, especially free-form sculptures. Some of the latter looked vaguely familiar to him. Back home, doing chores, he realized why. The salt block his sheep and cows had been licking on looked remarkably like some of the sculptures in the museum. Hmmm. By and by he arranged to get one of his half-eaten salt blocks into an art display. The block, worked on for weeks by dedicated sheepish tongues, had been turned into a glistening white flow of curve and undulation, its evocative indentations and protrusions suggesting the erotic and exotic, a creative energy yearning to break loose from the chains of gross matter, a deft hint of the eternal verities… and all that horse manure that art critics know how to spread so well.
Yes, you guessed it. The sheep-sculpted salt block won first place in the art contest and someone paid a couple thousand dollars to take it home and display it proudly as an example of the grand height to which abstract art had climbed in these oh so modern times.
Never make too much fun of human folly. The craziest stories have a way of coming true. I just learned (a segment on NPR) that out in Oregon, farmers and ranchers regularly hold The Great Salt Lick Contest, at which salt block sculptures formed by the tongues of sheep, cows and deer are auctioned off to connoisseurs of abstract art. Oh sure, it is all for a worthy charitable cause, but while some blocks sell for only a hundred bucks, some go as high as a thousand. No doubt about it. Some are better than others in the eyes of abstract art.
I have been overlooking the most profitable enterprise on my farm. My sheep sculpt amazing abstractions out of their salt blocks but I can’t show you at the moment because they just ate the one they were working on completely up. If only I could find out which ewes have the more talented tongues, I could segregate them and in a few years I might breed a sheep whose genius rivals Michelangelo’s.
Salt block art gives me an excuse to launch into two of my favorite prejudices. Agriculture, I say, is the mother of all art, especially if you define it as the love/hate relationship between mankind and nature, between human determination to turn food into an economic product and nature’s refusal to cooperate. It takes art to make that unquiet partnership work, and the portrayal of that partnership in word, paint or music is the prime matter of made art. Surely salt block sculptures are a perfect example of that partnership.
But in a different conversation, let’s get serious here. What would the masters of art criticism have to say if they were comparing the art of a Corriedale ewe with that of a human abstract artist? Especially if they didn’t know which work belonged to which artist? I have seen sand and snow sculptures created by the wind surely as beautiful as human abstract art. If I dipped a cow’s tail in various cans of paint of different colors and then let her swish repeatedly against a canvas, who’s to say whether what resulted might be as worthy of display in a museum as Jackson Pollock’s swishings? Andrew Wyeth told me about how he once literally threw some black ink against the top of a canvas he was working on (“The German”) and watched it puddle and then run down the canvas, forming rather abstract tree trunks and foliage, exactly the kind of background for the painting that he was striving for.
I am thinking of putting my ewes’ next work of art on our mantle and waiting for visitors who have never seen a salt block or a farm animal licking it. I wouldn’t say a word about my art piece. What would they say?