And, like all icons, the Buttercow adapts to symbolize prevailing social issues and political perspectives. What was once a symbol of progress, now has come to be a nostalgic representation of a disappearing way of life. As family farms disappear and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations replace them, the Buttercow stands as a testament to the idealization of the past and the values associated with it.
With intimate knowledge of dairy farming and cows declining, those with the expertise to sculpt accurate likenesses in butter are disappearing as well. Duffy sculpted a buttercow for the Illinois State Fair as well, from 1969-2001. In 2003, many people felt the new sculptor’s work did not live up to the standard Duffy had set. I overheard numerous dairy farmers and others experienced in bovine anatomy talk of the sculpture;s shortcomings. Duffy, who had earned a degree in Animal Science from Iowa State University, had an intimate knowledge of bovine anatomy. She sculpted specific breeds, and even the veins on her sculpted udders were anatomically correct. However, when the new sculptor’s cow was unveiled, a long time Dairy Association employee scoffed: “This one just looks like a mule with tits!” As lifeways change, old customs become endowed with new meaning. Butter sculptures may act as a reflector of the agricultural community. As knowledge of small family farms disappears in the wake of the rise of factory farms, these artworks lose part of their realism. However, as contexts change, art and tradition take on new implications and their relevance becomes increasingly valuable as symbols for examining the past and considering the future.