There’s a lot of modern sculpture in the museum as well and on the other side of town there’s a foundry with its own sculpture garden so the motorists passing by can get an eyeful of the newest fashions of oversized lawn bric-a-brac on their way home from work. A lot of modern sculpture is in what’s called mixed media, because today’s hot young sculptors, not content with the traditional materials of stone, wood, and metal, employ a wide variety of materials not usually associated with sculpture in their works, materials like cloth, paper, broken glass, and plastic. I suppose it was because of the bold vision of these artists in creating these works that I am surprised that Tibetan butter sculpture is not as popular as it might be.
Obviously, using butter instead of marble, wood, or bronze as a medium for statuary expression has certain disadvantages. A detailed study of the masterpieces of Tibetan butter sculpture shows that most of these great works have been lost to the vagaries of time, who like their rolls buttered and smothered with strawberry jam, and they’ll usually have some pancakes and sausages with their rolls and coffee. The rolls and pancakes alone would cut a buttery ‘David’ down to Davy size well before the lunch crowd comes rolling in looking for something to eat. In addition to this, you have to keep a butter sculpture, like an ice sculpture, in the freezer, lest it get soft and start to collapse under its own weight. You would not want to read the Declaration of Independence, for instance, anywhere near a half life-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty made from Land O’Lakes finest butter on a hot and humid Fourth of July. Many of us have great goals in life; some people have goals that are not quite as ambitious as those of others, but all of us share one great goal: no one wants their obituary to be an occasion of mirth, a condition you cannot aspire to if Lady Liberty’s buttery torch breaks away from the rest of her and lands on your head, thereby crushing you to death as you proclaim Jefferson’s great words to the assembled multitude. Most of us, I think, aspire to irony-free deaths. And, of course, ice sculpture doesn’t go bad; if worse comes to worse you can just refreeze the water; rancid butter is rancid, period, end of story.
These quibbles aside, I don’t understand why modern sculptors don’t use butter more often than they do. I don’t think it’s any lingering prejudice against Tibetans; the Dalai Lama is one of the most sought after men in the world, with political leaders and celebrities hanging on every word he offers, and the Tibetan cause is one of the better celebrity causes out there; it permits them to feel full of themselves without exposing them to the slings and arrows of outraged conservatives, who largely agree with them on the issue of Tibet, as strange as that might otherwise seem. So why isn’t butter having a bigger impact on the modern art scene?
I suspect that the reason is medical correctness. Butter is on the outs with the diet gurus who control the nation’s dietary fate and who profit from keeping their customers away from anything they like to eat. Perhaps if the dietary worrywarts could get the Tibetans to sculpt in margarine or frozen olive oil or whatever they think is sufficiently low fat to warrant inclusion in a museum collection then their attitude might be different, but I don’t think that’s going to happen; margarine, I’ve heard, offends the Tibetans’ aesthetic sense and their religious sensibilities in a way that butter, rancid or otherwise, does not. So for the time being the Tibetan version of Rodin’s Le penseur (The Thinker) will have to sit and contemplate just how much bad cholesterol he really represents, assuming that art, in our postmodern age, represents anything at all, and the Tibetan copy of Brancusi’s Bird in flight on display at the Culinary Institute of America will remain, at least for the time being, a flightless butterball.
Frankly, I don’t see why there should be this prejudice against foodstuffs as artistic media. I once saw a bust of George Washington made entirely of lox, with eyes carved from two hard boiled eggs and pupils made from dyed Cheerios, and not only was it a magnificent likeness of the Father of Our Country, but it was nutritious as well, especially with a bagel, a knish, and a celery soda on the side. That bust was not worse than some of the things I’ve seen in the museum or over at the foundry, whose display of statuary sometimes leads me to think that the same stuff that makes my mother’s garden grow works in sculpture gardens too. In any case, I am going down to the deli now; they’ve got a copy of Canova’s Venus Victrix in spiced ham there now that I don’t want to miss.