CowParade Holdings reports that some $20 million has been raised for such charities as Save the Children and Special Olympics (each city chooses its own beneficiaries, but children’s charities are the most popular). This is lovely, but to put it in perspective, the Chicago Office of Tourism estimated that the Chicago event alone generated an additional $100 to $200 million in revenue for area retailers and restaurants. Popular cows are given a second life as miniature “collectibles,” generating yet another revenue stream. Unsurprisingly, the whole idea has spawned myriad imitators in other species—whales, elephants, horses, moose.

CowParade bills itself as “the largest and most successful public art event in the world.” But clearly this is not “public art” in the sense of Trajan’s Column, or Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, or Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. The cows are not monumental, not site-specific, not socially or culturally substantial. The exhibitions take place in cities, but do not claim to alter our understanding or experience of urban life. And CowParade’s notion of “success” is a distinctly commercial one, measured by people attracted, wallets opened, and cash exchanged.

But the word I find most intriguing in this claim is “event.” Event—in the singular—suggests that all 50-plus CowParades, from Auckland to Xiamen, are part of a single, global, ongoing gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork). Although the Bordeaux CowParade claims that “une Cow Parade ne ressemble à aucune autre,” they do actually resemble one another—both systemically (all employ the same organizational structure and purpose) and concretely (all employ the same three cow forms—standing, grazing, and lying down—originally sculpted for the Zürich event by Pascal Knapp). In fact, this slippage between singular and plural may be the most interesting thing about the CowParade.

Prefab sculptures with a do-it-yourself component, the cows could be seen as oversize echoes of the “multiples” movement of the 1960s, which sought to exploit industrial manufacture and end-user customization to produce what Swiss artist and designer Karl Gerstner once described as “the greatest possible originality and the lowest price.” As co-director of Editions MAT, Gerstner published works such as Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1964 edition of paintings fitted with plastic bags of paint that were to be shot by the owner: an “original” concept, each of which would enjoy a “unique” execution, while still being to some degree “mass-produced.”

Seen in this light, the CowParade idea has a certain conceptual panâche: you take an arbitrary but unmistakable three-dimensional form, engage a diverse but geographically discrete population to devise and execute adaptations of the form, then install them throughout the collaborating community as a kind of ephemeral self-portrait. What is curious about the cows, however, is how they fail to reflect local cultures on any level deeper than folkloric costume. One problem is figuration. The cow may be dumb, but it is not a blank canvas. It lends itself to both cloying anthropomorphism and the stifling cleverness of the pun: the sword-wielding Sam-moo-rai and Native American–themed Geronimoo with feather taildress are indicative of the genre, as are the many plays on Pi-cow-so. (The best, perhaps, is the simple and sittable Cowch.) The formal limitations and iconographic drag of the cow seem to act as a brake on inventiveness, limiting many artists to literally superficial adaptations: cows dressed up like people, or decorated with pretty floral patterns.