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What Cookie Monster Can Teach Us About Art

From art critic, to poet, to journalist, the Sesame Street character is always hungry for cookies — and in pursuit of beauty.

Cookie Monster as a journalist on Season 49 of Sesame Street (photo by Zach Hyman, courtesy of Sesame Street)

It was 1983 when Cookie Monster took a life-altering trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first of several special visits Cookie Monster has since made to the institution. This particular field trip was illuminating; he announced before even entering, “Oh, boy! Cookie Monster in Metropolitan Museum of Art! Me going to find great painting of something important — like coo-oo-oo-ookies.”

Once inside, Cookie Monster would become enamored with a painting of Amedeo Modigliani’s mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, not for its plaintive beauty for its potentially esculent quality: “See pretty picture with lady inside/It look delicious, me fit to be tied!/Me love to eat it with sugar and cream/But no no no!/Me know the rules!/Picture exciting, but not for biting!” As he sang, a trio of blue angels encircled him like a wreath: “Don’t eat the pictures, no, no, no/When you go to museum!

Don’t Eat the Pictures is a one-hour Sesame Street special in which Big Bird gets locked in the Met while searching for Snuffy. The two then liberate the spirit of a young prince, whose soul had been trapped in an endless purgatory. The film takes ancient mythology and the kindness of new friendship as its dually intertwined themes, but it’s titled in the spirit of Cookie Monster, the true protagonist, who nearly eats works by Paul Cézanne, Philippe Rousseau, and James Peale. Cookie Monster loves to eat, especially cookies, and it takes great pains to quell his imagination — his pareidolia is specific, interpreting any stimulus as dessert. “Me don’t know art,” he explains, “but me know what me like: food.”

As a child, I deeply loved Cookie Monster, his sloppy gluttony and goofy humor. I couldn’t imagine that I’d admire, later, how he simultaneously lampoons and reveres the institution of art, rendering it delightfully — delectably — accessible. His reimaginings of famous poetry on Twitter, his public appearances in museums, his numerous stints in writers’ rooms: Cookie Monster, this newly christened media-savvy figure, eats everything, but he seems to eat a lot of art — he seems, in fact, to really love art, and literature, too. He grants young viewers access to it, then eats it; biting a Cézanne certainly skewers its austerity, but only in the name of education.

In 2012, boosting its already robust programming, Sesame Street incorporated a STEAM curriculum, integrating the theatrics of music and visual art into programs designed to teach math and science. But Sesame Street has always utilized the arts as its own kind of exploratory education: the animated spots produced collaboratively with the Keith Haring Foundation; the Renoir painting exercise; the very French Salvatore Dada; the myriad instances in which the gang paints, writes, and cooks. In “Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck,” Cookie Monster is a curious but ravenous chef, continually clearing the pantry.

Cookie Monster was born Sid Monster on November 2 (year unknown). As a baby, he was “mild-mannered,” never having tasted a cookie; things changed after his mother baked a batch. Now anything is a potential cookie, and cookies make anything more beautiful. With Misty Copeland, he learns that dancing, too, is a form of art, before the two share a snack. As the host of Sesame Street’s “Masterpiece Theater,” which debuted in 1978, Cookie Monster was Alistair Cookie — a play on journalist Alistair Cooke (who, like Cookie Monster, was a Scorpio). Besides poetry, Cookie Monster often posts cookie-themed versions of lyrics (“Me just took a DNA test, turns out me 100% cookies … ”); he’s been part of the writers’ room at The Washington Post and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where he struggled to write jokes without employing a cookie reference. Perhaps his best foray into the world of literary arts was a brief journalism gig: he attempted to negotiate a contract that included pay, benefits, and time off, before settling for a cookie. So long as the medium or the message is a cookie, Cookie Monster is lyricist, writer, dancer. Through his tutelage, each discipline becomes, to the rest of us, digestible.

Cookie Monster still frequents art museums. Earlier this year, there was his trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he posed with Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and got busted for snacking in the galleries. In 2015, he spent a day spent at the Guggenheim, the Met, and the Museum of Modern Art, pondering deeply and mingling with staff and guests. In Mashable’s coverage of the day, crowds gathered near MoMA’s entrance “in hopes of capturing the ultimate selfie.” Elizabeth Margulies, Director of Family Programs and Initiatives at the MoMA, said the crowds were giddy with an excitement she hadn’t seen “since Lady Gaga visited the museum.” The trip coincided with a new special, “The Cookie Thief” — not to be confused with “The Mysterious Cookie Thief” — in which Cookie Monster is accused of stealing masterpieces at the Museum of Modern Cookies. “Me never steal painting,” he insists. “Me might take a nibble.” 

The true culprit? An anthropomorphic cookie, who deeply loves cookie art. “I just love cookie art so much,” he sighs, after his capture. Cookie Monster empathizes: “Me got it! Little cookie can make his own cookie art.” In the ensuing song, “Make Your Own Art,” Elmo and company sing: “Whatever is in your head/whatever is in your heart/you can make your own art.

I’ve suspected there is something life-affirming in Cookie Monster’s unabashed love and joy for cultural stimuli — so pure and brash that if he could eat it all, he would. Cookie Monster was once a bad example, designed to teach children about self-control — one mustn’t always eat cookies — but so much of Sesame Street’s ethos is about love and kindness for others, for the nuances of the human race, for oneself. He has no shame, and thank goodness. In his googly-eyed gaze is profound simplicity, happiness in himself and in his desires. Like Hemingway before him, Cookie Monster “reduce[s] the veil between [cookies] and life.”  Art is for everyone, not for an elite few; so is being yourself, no matter how absurd.

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