Barbarians at The Gates

The GatesChristo 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.’

Below: Get your saffron on. Two views of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park fantasia.

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.

  1. ROBERT LEDERMAN – This Christo – Central Park Conservancy – Bloomberg fiasco is taking on some amazing twists. Today, a representative of Christo’s German publisher informed street artists, photographers and art vendors around Central Park that they would be subject to arrest for selling any images of The Gates. I got the number of this person, Dr. Fils, and had a lengthy talk with him.

    Christo’s publisher claims a vast new degree of copyright and trademark protection. They claim they will prosecute anyone who sells their own original photos of the Gates; who makes and sells a drawing of the Gates or who even uses the words, the Gates, without their permission. They claim to have copyrighted the words, The Gates. They also claim to have an agreement with the media that media sources may only use news photos of the gates for the period the installation is up. That after that the media will only be allowed to use “official” photos of The Gates.

    They also claim that all of Central Park is now “private property.” Talk about privatization. Be sure to thank Christo, Bloomscrooge and the CPC.

  2. As Christo and Jeanne-Claude have always done for their previous projects, The Gates is entirely financed by the artists through their C.V.J. Corp, (Jeanne-Claude Javacheff, President) with the sale of preparatory studies, drawings, collages, and scale models, earlier works of the fifties and sixties, and original lithographs on other subjects.

    The artists do not accept sponsorship or donations.

    Mm, sounds like they’re in it for themselves to some degree. Or not – maybe they just try to break even. I can’t bring myself to care as long as they’re raising the money themselves, instead of charging the city $21m for a 16 day display. That’s the crux, unless one believes, of course, that the city of New York has all the money it possibly needs for its schools, fire department, police department, etc…

    Or are such concerns “deranged”?

  3. It’s not so much that they shouldn’t have spent $21 million, I just don’t get why it was so expensive. What costs so much money? Did NYC force them to pay?

    (Disclaimer: I’m not in NY so I haven’t seen them in person.) In my opinion, they’re not “spectacular” or “moving” or one of the fifty other words people have used them for. I really don’t even think it’s art. I don’t see the point, they’re not beautiful or meaningful or moving. But that’s just one man’s opinion and I’ve got no problem with people disagreeing with it.

    The Gates have created some good discussions, so if that was their goal they’ve definitely succeeded there.

  4. When compared with previous Christo works, I think “The Gates” is quite clumsy in its execution – specifically the manner in which each “Gate” is secured to the ground and the heft of its frame. Both, I think, are distracting and ultimately reduces the visual experience.

    As to whether the public agrees with Government funding of art, I think it’s important to remember that we’re talking about public money in the form of tax revenues. I think it’s perfectly reasonable that some citizens of New York object when, perhaps, important city services receive fewer funds or go unfunded. I certainly don’t see it as cause for anger or cynicism.

  5. Ah to be so blind, ignorance is bliss, perhaps New York will profit, perhaps not. What is of issue is the creation of art with the intent to simply destroy it after a time period of display. To create anything at a cost of 20 million dollars, only to destroy it in the end speaks volumes on our culture. I sometimes wonder what greatness we could do with our wealth as a nation if our priorities were straight.

  6. I’ve been negligent in replying to this thread. Raphy, I have no idea what you’re talking about. We’re certainly not talking about public money in the form of tax revenues at all. The project was entirely funded through private means, as detailed in this article. So, if you’re implying that this project diverted funds away from “important city services,” not only are you wrong on the facts, you’re starting to sound a little progressive too.

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