February 13, 2005

Is anyone saying anything interesting about "The Gates"?

You can go to Central Park and see "The Gates," or you can look at the pictures of it that are everywhere, and we all know what it looks like by now. But my question is whether anyone is saying anything interesting about it. There are hundreds of MSM articles, presumably thousands of blog posts, and a million conversations, but are we getting anything beyond the basic facts (Christo and Jeanne-Claude spent $21 million of their own money and accepted no grants), the obvious starter question "Is it art," and the snap judgments (from "I love it" to "Get this out of my park")?

I went looking.

Kenneth Baker, in The San Francisco Chronicle, attempts political analysis:
It may have no political intent, but "The Gates" does achieve something radical. It makes vivid an idea eclipsed by the ideological fog of official propaganda -- the idea of the commons.

Ordinarily, Central Park is too large and, to some, too unwelcoming to symbolize shared realities preserved at everyone's cost for everyone's benefit. "The Gates" -- for the next 16 days at least -- has brought this idea back to life by making the park intimate again.

Everyone present felt it. Conversation among strangers flowed easily as it seldom does in Manhattan or in any American city. Having felt it, how can they sustain it?

Put less foggily: "The Gates" awakens us to what the park already is.

Blake Gopnik has an elaborate piece in The Washington Post. His main point is that "The Gates" has no depth of meaning that has to do with the time and place. He compares it to Christo's 1976 project "Running Fence," which "seemed to talk about the fencing of the West; about the American Dream's obsession with open space; about competition between man and nature" and which "had the grandeur of a splendid folly" because it was set out where few people would see it. And he compares it to "Wrapped Reichstag," Christo's 1995 project that spoke of "muffling ... the past" and becoming a cocoon out of which "the newly unified nation" would emerge. The Gates, by contrast, was conceived in 1979 and meant something in the context of that earlier time:
There is an era in which the gates seem to belong, but that's three decades back. They remind me of a certain kind of celebratory public sculpture that you could see in the 1970s, and that represented a kind of last-gasp moment in grand modernist abstraction. Imagine huge sheets and beams of brightly enameled steel, set down in public plazas everywhere, and you'll get the feel I mean. Postwar optimism still hung on in this art, mingled with a bit of flower-power energy: It was the Mary Quant moment in public sculpture, and it didn't last....

It strikes me as passing strange than any artist would imagine that a piece that might have been a good idea at one moment would still matter just as much half a career later. When the "Gates" project was first proposed, New York was near bankruptcy, the middle class had fled and the filthy walkways of Central Park were where you went for a good mugging. The idea of using cheery orange fabric to lure strollers up to Harlem Meer had all the ludicrous energy of a bedsheet strung up across the West. Now, with Meer-view condos going for a few million bucks, the artists' gates just seem like the latest thing in bourgeois beautification. (Crate & Barrel must be due to launch a home-and-garden version any day.)

I'm going to assume Gopnik is rather young, because he seems to be blurring the 1970s in to a single moment in time. 1979 was so not the time of Mary Quant and flower power. The early 70s were thematically one with the late 60s. But 1979 is part of the era of the 80s: the time of yuppies, dressing for success, and the chrome-and-glass high-tech look in decorating.

At the end of his piece, Gopnik switches to the fashions of the 1950s: the fabric looks like "the deeply pleated, below-the-knee skirts the well-dressed woman wore in 1950s middle America." Now the gate posts look like legs, and he's got the feeling he's walking between the legs of these presumably strait-laced women and in a position to look up at their crotches. Well, that should be racy, but he imagines it to symbolize some reactionary turn in American politics:
Somehow, despite seemingly unending war and nuclear-armed tyrants and gaping social safety nets, we've decided that it's time to revive the look and feel of America at its most buttoned-down. And Christo and Jeanne-Claude have managed to channel our complacent retrospection.

Or maybe it does not have much to do with them at all. After all, it was New York's corporate mayor, and the gentry that he leads, who decided that the time at last had come to fill the park with elegant day wear.

It seems to me that "The Gates" are providing a chance to review whatever ideas you already have sloshing about in your head as you go for a long walk in the park. These gates mean ... these gates mean ... these gates mean George Bush is eeeevvvvviiiillllll!

Much more down to earth, Geraldine Baum, in The L.A. Times, has a nice collection of vignettes from different sorts of people:
[A]s Naomi Liselle led her three children, ages 6, 9 and 12, to their favorite playground, she tried to engage them in the art of it all. "Look up — look at the symmetry of the poles. Look over the hill and see the orange sticking out among the gray trees. Listen to the flapping of the panels. Doesn't it sound like the sails of our boat when we're in the Hamptons?" asked the young mother, who studied art history in college. The children looked at her dully as they used the legs of the gates as makeshift soccer goals. "Mom," said Marcus, the oldest, "what are you talking about?"...

"I don't know whether [Frederick Law] Olmstead would have liked this great work of art in his great work of art, but as a Jeffersonian he would have approved," said art critic and historian Irving Sandler, as he sipped champagne and gazed out at the park from a 10th-floor apartment on Fifth Avenue.... "Nobody would like it if it was still here in March"....

"Why didn't they bring snow too?" a jogger, who'd clearly been unable to finish her run because of the crowds, complained as she exited the park at 72nd Street. Out of nowhere a man walking his dog chimed in. "Yeah, look back at the great view," he snarled. "It looks they left their dirty laundry hanging!"

The best thing about having this in Central Park, as opposed to somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, is all the people who are there to provide their endless comments. Let the ooh-ing and the carping continue.

UPDATE: 1. Welcome Instapundit readers. 2. Best headline goes to The New York Post for: "The Big Apple Gets The Big Orange." 3. (Same link) One of the volunteer workers on the project is former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who said: "Isn't it spectacular? It's so full of life and energy, and all these people are having a great time." 4. And no, I'm not in NY. I'm just reading the newspapers here in Madison. I did go to Lodi yesterday, however. I did contemplate traveling to New York just to see it though. And my colleague Nina Camic is there and blogging, with photographs. 5. Did I really write this post at 4:25 a.m. Central Time? Yes, I did. It wasn't the sheer excitement of "The Gates" (or blogging) that had me up that early, though. It was just ... just nothing.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Roger Kimball reprints a Spectator piece from mid-January. He's quite negative:
Christo and his wife are geniuses at self-promotion. They have gulled municipalities around the world into letting them stage their pranks, and the result is celebrity and riches.

I must admit that's what I thought of Christo for decades, as I read about his projects in various news reports. But I completely changed my mind about him when I watched the Maysles Brothers documentaries ("5 Films About Christo and Jeanne-Claude" -- linked in the sidebar). I was won over and came to believe that Christo is an art saint.

AND STILL MORE: Vast, non-art-related claims are made for "The Gates." This is from the Christian Science Monitor:
City officials are touting the massive undertaking as a sign that New York has recovered from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They hope to impress not only the tens of thousands of tourists from the United States and abroad who are coming to see "The Gates," but also members of the Olympic site-selection committee who will visit during the installation.

Most significant -- most touching -- is the social, psychological aspect:
Everyone's talking about it," [one woman] said. "You know, because we need it, our souls need it -- the beauty which this brings."...

"As New Yorkers, I think we gravitate towards anything that lifts our spirits and makes us happy, especially in the middle of winter," [another woman] said.

MORE: Here's a strong new entry in the "Get this out of my park" category.

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