I’ve been dismayed by the media’s uncritical adoration of Christo and Jeanne- Claude’s “The Gates,” which I saw in Central Park today. In the arts, as in politics, the media are often content to retail official handouts. This is an attempt to provoke some more critical discussion than I’ve heard.
I firmly believe in the complex of ideas around art enhancing our perception of reality. To take one related example: some years back, I saw Red Grooms’s subway car, full of wonderful New York stereotypes in three dimensions. After that, you couldn’t look at New Yorkers in the street, or in subway cars, without seeing them in some ways through Grooms’s lens.
So I have no objection to the general idea, nor do I object to the careful use of Central Park that has been made by this project. (I don’t see here any of the kinds of obstruction issues that were raised in the 80s around Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc.) But, as I say, I am concerned about the uncritical adoration. What we have heard from Christo/Jeanne-Claude is contentless claptrap: art is art; we have no purpose; we do this for ourselves and don’t care whether other people like it; etc.
One of the justifications offered has been that “The Gates” is not only art, but the occasion for a great public event. Certainly that’s the way it looked today. But Central Park is hospitable to some public events and inhospitable to others. It should be kept in mind that Central Park is partly privatized, under the control of the Central Park Conservancy. Readers may recall that the great anti-war demonstration of August 29 was prevented from going to Central Park by the Conservancy and city government, and the organizer, United for Peace and Justice, yielded. Nonetheless many of us (estimates indicated about 25,000 all told, though at different times) did make our way to the Great Lawn on that day, and it was just glorious. A sixties be-in; warm feelings; clown shows and billionaires for Bush; pot and nudity, and all over the Great Lawn, political debate. (All this was watched over by the Fuji blimp, which Fuji had graciously given to the New York Police Dept. to facilitate their surveillance.) In short, what does it mean that the Central Park Conservancy says yes to C/JC, and no to a great political event?
There was no political debate in Central Park today. Nor, interestingly, was there much discussion of art. Indeed, the snatches of always wonderful New York conversation heard today — “I’m getting more confrontational”; “there aren’t many Jews in Vietnam” — rarely included comment about The Gates. I think we all enjoyed them, but they were nowhere near as great as the hype had suggested they would be, and people didn’t have much to say about them. Indeed, I spent a large part of my time in the park enjoying the weekly roller dancing, with great music, wonderful exhibitionism, cross-racial and cross-generational partipation and sexual frisson. I like The Gates, but the roller dancing (which has been penned up and restricted over the years) is more compatible with my own ideas of what makes New York great.
Then there is the money question. Christo has been working like crazy, grinding out drawings, some of which sell for as much as $600,000. Much has been made of C/JC laying out 21-24 million dollars to get this thing done; but they will clearly come out way ahead. And of course the value of the Christos already owned by Mayor Bloomberg will be enhanced. Indeed — not to introduce a vulgar economic determinism — the whole thing reeks of enormous profit and conflict of interest, and the media hasn’t even considered the question.
In short: I like The Gates, but it’s not the big deal it’s been made out to be, and there has been no serious discussion so far. I hope we can have it here.