February 15, 2005

"The Subtle Fraud That Is Christo"

James Panero on "The Gates":

From a critical point of view, Christo and his partner Jean-Claude have got their bases covered. There is, of course, very little for one to criticize about The Gates: the cost--nope, with money coming from their foundation, the Gates won't cost the City a cent and may bring in tourist dollars; the use of materials--the tons of metal and plastic will be recycled; environmental and long-term impact--not a tree branch will be removed and the gates will go down in sixteen days; artist ego--Christo shares the limelight with his "partner" Jean-Claude. To give The Gates a formalist critique based on placement or height or whatever is deliberately complicated by their ubiquity and the scale of the project. It is near impossible to get a handle on something so large and so meandering, and to walk the twenty-three miles of park paths beneath each gate is undermined furthermore by the artist's own statements:

The entire park is the work of art. The Gates are distributed over walkways from park border to park border, the entire thing. Please keep in mind, there are 7,500 separate gates. No part of the park has more or less of them. If you plan to be any where in Central Park, you will be in the best part of the artwork.

So the point of the Gates is not about the gates but about you--about your good feelings, about communing with nature, about going for a walk with your fellow man and feeling good about the city so nice they named it twice! Easy! Who can't get that? And indeed, therein lies the subtle fraud that is Christo. His is an art for everyone and for no one. The Gates may be art, but art of the most debased design. The Gates is ultimate kitsch offered up as high art.

By way of supporting his point, Panero sets up a little taste-test in which he substitutes Christo-crystals for real kitsch and asks readers to spot the difference.

Heh. Panero's analysis perfectly skewers many of the comments I've heard around Dee Cee from those who either have gone to see the display or are planning to (some of whom are so excited by the prospect that they practically need to be restrained). Indeed, his pop-art "point" could have come verbatim out of the mouths of at least three people I know.

In the end, I'm afraid I can't get very excited about the whole business. My reaction to Christo for years has been a shrug and a muttered, "Hasn't that man got anything better to do with himself?"

UPDATE: Terry Teachout isn't very impressed either, although he's willing to give it another go.

MORE: Sidney Goldberg (Jonah's Poppa) chimes in with a good, old-fashioned cranky-pants rant.

LAST UPDATE: In honor of Sheila, who we think is way cool and with whom I have been chatting about this business in the comment section, I present you this exchange from a classic Monty Python episode:

Cut to a book-lined study. At a desk in front of the shelves sits an art critic with a mouthful of Utrillo.


Critic: (taking out stringy bits as he speaks) Mmmm... (munches) Well I think Utrillo's brushwork is fantastic... (stifles burp) But he doesn't always agree with me ... (belches) Not after a Rubens, anyway ... all those cherries ... ooohh ... (suddenly looks down) Urgh! I've got Vermeer all down my shirt...

Wife: (bringing in a water jug and glass on a tray and laying it on his desk) Watteau, dear?

Critic: What a terrible joke.

Wife: But it's my only line.

Critic: (rising vehemently) All right! All right! But you didn't have to say it! You could have kept quiet for a change!

Wife cries.

Critic: Oh, that's typical. Talk talk talk. Natter natter natter!

Go here for the rest of the episode. And did those teeeeeeth, in Ancient Times.....

Posted by Robert at February 15, 2005 01:17 PM

I think Christo's a riot. I don't take his stuff all that seriously, but I think his stuff is really cool. I say it proudly. I'm excited to go see The Gates, too. Sunday!

Posted by: red at February 15, 2005 02:50 PM

We hope you'll do a full review!

Actually, I think most of the criticism is being leveled at people who do take him too seriously. There's nothing wrong with strolling about and saying, "Hey, that's cool." But that's all it really is. It's the folks hell-bent on reading more into it than a bunch of pretty fabrics strung up all around Central Park that awaken the fiend within the art critic. From some of the commentary I've heard around here, you'd think the guy has discovered the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

Posted by: Robert the LB at February 15, 2005 03:02 PM

But that's the deal with art critics. Some people will take it seriously - because that's their job. It's their job to ask questions like: what does it mean? What does it say? To take a project like this seriously - not like it's a cure for cancer or anything, but to take it seriously. To judge it on its aspirations: If it's trying to say THIS, then does it succeed? That may be obnoxious to people who think even asking these questions are stupid - but to a lot of people, that dialogue is really interesting. Count myself one of them.

I always thought Christo's stuff was kind of whimsical, and beautiful - in a weird surrealistic way. He wrapped an island in pink cloth. Why? I have no idea. I don't really care - but to me, it was a startlingly cool image.

A lot of art criticism (and music criticism - actually any criticism of any art form - architecture, dance, theatre) is, of course, obnoxious and pretentious. But I'm still glad that there are people in the world who like to look at stuff like The Gates and ask questions about it, and come up with ideas about what it means. It may sound overblown to some folks - but I like it when art of this magnitude, a project of this size, is taken seriously. Even if it gets a terrible review, I like it when art is given weight, and seen as having some higher purpose.

Sue me. :)

I will indeed give a full review, even if it's: "Hmmm. What the heck??" I'll take some pictures, too, even though I don't think anyone wants to look at any more pictures of The Gates at this point in time.

Posted by: red at February 15, 2005 03:16 PM

This strikes me as one of the traps of abstract art- and one of the reasons I've never cared for it. Just to take painting and sculpture as an example, a representative artist would seek to get across a specific idea in a manner that has some inherent aesthetic value. Any viewer - whether critic or layman - with a reasonable amount of intelligence and experience can decide for himself what the artist is about and whether or how well the artist succeeds. (For some odd reason, I'm thinking of Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" while I'm typing this. I suppose I remember studying it in school.) The trouble with abstract expression is that you can't answer the question because you can't know the question. The art can mean literally anything. And the result is that it means nothing.

At least that's my grumpy newly-minted old fogey view of things. ; )

Posted by: Robert the LB at February 15, 2005 05:10 PM

D'oh! Forgot to make my point! Which was that such an atmosphere of anything-goes is very fertile ground for rampant huckerism, which is what I think the folks I linked were driving at.

Posted by: Robert the LB at February 15, 2005 05:15 PM

This is probably a matter of personal taste as well. I'm not into abstract art either. I like Vermeer, Rubens, Winslow Homer ... that's what I respond to. But I also think Christo's stuff is really FUN. It just IS. I don't really ask questions about it ... it's kind of a spectacle to be enjoyed, if you're into that kind of thing.

And I am.

Well, let me qualify what I just wrote:

I can appreciate abstract art ... if it doesn't strike me as pretentious. A lot of it does. This is why I don't go to the Whitney Museum anymore. I can't take the pretension.

Is pretension in the eye of the beholder? I don't know the answer to THAT one!

Posted by: red at February 15, 2005 05:41 PM
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