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October 22, 1998

The goat standard

Chemists use pH meters and light chromatography. Biologists huddle over cell stains and cultures. Physicists defer to graduate students. Every science has concrete techniques for extracting quantitative results from raw data or material.goats.jpg (14113 bytes)

But for art and the humanities, these sorts of techniques have proved elusive. Who is to say what art is good or bad? Which opinion right or wrong? Which designs tasteful or tacky?

In a previous article I proposed that art be qualitatively characterized in terms of quantities of butter. Clearly, such is useful only as far as it goes. In the months since its publication I have found reason to question its efficacy. Butter qualified an intuitive reaction, but was of limited use for some of our beta-test group. Many didn’t "eat much butter."

I took it upon myself to develop a comprehensive solution. The methodology had to be objective, easy to understand, reproducible, and consistent. Given these guidelines I referred to an article in Guns & Ammo, as I often do when seeking a quick solution to a troublesome problem.

Which leads me, as ever, to goats. Goats frequently volunteer as test subjects for scientific analysis.

Case in point: several years ago goats starred in an experiment quantifying the lethality of ammunition. The goat handlers tied the volunteer to a post, shot it, and — with a stopwatch — timed how long it took the goat to fall over, and then — watch still ticking — die. The name of each bullet was noted, along with its adverse effects on goats, as measured in "expiration" time. Hundreds of bullets were tested and a modest granite monument to the goats was erected at the site.

It is clear that:

• There is a dangerous surplus of goats in America.

• Goats accurately parallel humans in the effects of getting shot

• The preceding fact was somehow determined

• Goats are scientifically uniform in the way they die after being shot

• All goats are equally hardy

Why, then, would these same principles — with minor modifications — not apply to art? I would propose that literary editors use goats to evaluate manuscripts, as follows:

1) Feed manuscripts to an Editorial Goat. Step back, and — wearing protective eye goggles — watch for a reaction.

2a) If he gurgles contentedly and seems well-nourished, authorize the manuscript for publication.

2b) If the goat looks nauseous or has diarrhea, burn any copies and send stern and threatening letters to the author.

2c) If the goat sways drunkenly and dies shuddering with foam coming out of his nostrils, cremate the goat immediately. Place any remaining hard copies in a bag with tongs, seal the bag, and send to competitive publishing houses anonymously.

3) Bill the author for the goat.

This methodology could be expanded to all art forms — a humanities litmus test, if you will. One might feed the goat a screenplay, or stuff a music score in its ears, or, say, beat it with a sculpture.

Regardless, observing art is an art in itself. Whether you choose goats or butter is up to you.

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