Sun 20 Feb
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park installation “The Gates” is terrific. I saw the work this morning in clear February sunlight, and understood instantly why they chose to erect this spectacle in bright orange (or saffron, if you must): the long, winding sequence of gates makes for a brilliant, fire-like trail snaking through the leafless trees and gray paths of Frederick Law Olmstead’s naturalist vision in mid-winter. It’s not the kind of art that makes you reconsider much of anything, superficially, except perhaps for how feasible it is after all to have a crowd of thousands converge in the cold to enjoy something that does not involve alcohol, advertising, big media or a sports championship. Which is to say in terms of challenges of attendance, at least, it’s a triumph.
On a subtler level, The Gates has a role to play in stoking civic debate, and in making me, personally, incredibly angry every time I have a conversation with someone who can only see it in terms of the work’s exorbitant cost and in relation to its relatively obscure purpose. It’s a project that uses public beauty as a provocation, and in many people I’ve encountered, it provokes them to reason that ‘It’s ridiculous to spend US$21 million dollars on such a spectacle when the artists could be feeding hungry children instead.’
That kind of logic boggles me. It strikes me as a kind of derangement to raise no objection to other so-called artists spending tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars on summer blockbusters, or on producing over-wrought music albums and obligatory global tours — and yet instantly protest an artist mounting a public exhibition of an ambitious project that charges nothing to those who wish to view it.
It seems to me that much of the American public believes not only that government has no business funding art, but also that, if artists can manage to privately fund their own works, they must do so with great humility, and never in sums that dare to compare to commercial enterprises. To spend US$21 million dollars on a work of art — or on anything — without clearly establishing an intention to profit handsomely from it is tantamount to heresy, apparently. If you’re not in it for yourself, blatantly and mercilessly, then you are suspect. Just another way in which our social priorities have fallen out of order and into distressing disarray.