By Alexandra York

First published in the June 2005 issue of The Living Resources Newsletter, an online publication of Dr. Michael Hurd, and again in the Summer 2005 ART UPDATE Newsletter


Art or con art? A festival or an offence? Sacred or silly? Jolly good fun or a sneaky snide joke? Whatever one may decide, THE GATES—Christo’s orange stretch of “fabric” that lined 23 miles of Central Park walkways in February (2005)—was surely a phenomenon that succeeded in frenzy feeding our shallow, starved-for-distraction culture. Of course, like Chinese food, after consuming the meal, one is hungry an hour later. [That’s a New York joke, friends]. But viewed for a moment as a serious phenomenon, whatever one does conclude, individually, is determined by each of us via our value systems. The response of every viewer will be in direct relationship to his or her own subjective, personal values, whether affirmed or assaulted by that artificial installation running through New York’s most treasured mini-countryside. On the other hand, there is an objective artistic judgment to be made. So how do we arrive at that?

For starters, let’s quickly consider “a Chinese menu” of possible definitions in order to choose a category for THE GATES from which to critique its success or failure. The first definition (of art) is my own, taken from a 1997 speech I gave at Hillsdale College in Michigan, titled THE FOURTH “R” in EDUCATION, which was subsequently published in Vital Speeches of the Day. The rest are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Art: an intelligible representation of the world and humankind that manifests an artist’s conceptual visions in perceptual, aesthetic form.

Entertainment: The action of occupying (a person’s) attention agreeably… That which affords interest or amusement. A public performance of exhibition intended to interest or amuse.

Amusement: Distinction or diversion of the attention…; beguiling, deception. Idle time-wasting diversion or entertainment.

Novelty: Something new or unusual; a novel thing or occurrence.

Annoyance: The action of annoying, vexing, troubling, molesting or injuring; molestation.

Offense: The action of attacking or assailing. The act or fact of offending; wounding or displeasing the feelings of another; usually viewed as it affects the person being offended; hence… displeasure or annoyance or resentment caused (voluntarily or involuntarily) to a person.

Of course, Christo’s installation was voluntary (meaning intentional), and intention counts in our choice of categorization for judgment of his work. In fact, the question—and it is a question—of intent is one of the reasons many New Yorkers declined to spend time going to witness something we considered to be an annoying (albeit temporary) “molestation” of our precious urban/country retreat. For many of us, it seemed like nothing more than an orange stain, preventing our normal enjoyment of the park.

I have, however, reports from people who did go. I also have seen pictures of the display and have prior knowledge of Christo’s presentations on which to base my reactions. But just as I, personally, don’t need to see TV programs that glamorize the Mafia or Broadway shows that find Hitler funny, I know that I am not interested in any of his projects, that there is no value exchange for me and that, at root, there is something very wrong at play from both an artistic and philosophical point of view.

The title itself was abstruse: Gates (usually swinging contraptions) serve to open or block an entrance or exit path to or from something. In Central Park they installed many miles and spent millions of dollars creating a glaring orange corridor of some industrial fiberglass or “rip stop” nylon chute of fabric, which lined the already-existing walkways of the park and led to nothing but its own end. It wasn’t even akin to the yellow brick road that led to a phony Wizard of Oz; it didn’t “go” anywhere for any purpose except to outline the thoughtfully and aesthetically designed paths originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, whose motive was to create a “natural” country haven as a retreat in the midst of an increasingly fast-moving urban environment for inhabitants dearly in need of respite—Olmstead, by the way, didn’t even approve of skating rinks or any man-made objects that would intrude on his carefully designed “natural” environment, so we can imagine what he would have thought of this stunt.

To be fair, though, the construction did take a great deal of planning, time and effort, and the “fabric” did sometimes blow in the wind. And I’m told that the plastic post and beam structures that held the fabric in place exactly matched the same color of orange as the fabric. Now that’s a technological feat? So should we give Christo and his red-haired wife-partner credit there? Maybe her hair should have been changed to orange for the occasion?

“But, even though it was considered ‘spiritual’ by some art reviewers, I found nothing ethereal or spiritual about the whole production,” an older male writing colleague reported, “even though they said the color was ‘saffron,’ evoking the color of Buddhist monks’ robes. It really was orange. Yet, on some level, it was an aesthetic experience. The sky was blue, the snow was white and the trees, bare of leaves, were brown, so the color combination was actually quite striking.” His most telling observation, however, was that all the spectators seemed to have had a good time. “A sort of sixties-type ‘Happening.’ A gala get-together.”

Another middle-aged friend of mine (who, incidentally, tips the ends of her long blonde hair with touches of orange) did not visit “the atrocity” on principle: “Millions of dollars spent on a ridiculous folly! Why would I go? The money would have been better spent on extra soup kitchens with hot meals for the homeless in the middle of winter. At least, then, there would be some good come from it on a human level. Besides, the Park is supposed to be nature. So I might go for a walk in the snow to be with nature in the middle of our rat race that is New York, but to walk through a bunch of goopy fabric that looks like monochromatic laundry hanging out? Give me a break!”

A Turkish-American friend (in her twenties) decided she didn’t want to see the spectacle—“too obviously commercial and self-promoting!” But one day she happened to find herself at Columbus Circle and thought: Well, why not? I’ll take a look. Three minutes later, she stomped out of the park muttering, “We have enough construction going on in New York. I don’t need to see any more orange!” [Steel netting and barriers surrounding construction sites in NYC are orange—did the “artist” think of that? I doubt it. But she did]

A Japanese friend mused that the post and beam construction reminded her of the Shinto gates (sans fabric) that provide an entrance to a particular temple in Kyoto, so that was nice. But my Italian hairdresser was furious, not at the billowing fabric that gave him a great emotional rush but at all the people he heard who kept asking, “What does it mean?” “Everything doesn’t have to have a purpose or a meaning,” he declared. “If it makes you feel good, that’s enough!” Of course, the meaning was passed out in written form to any passersby who wanted it, and people were stationed here and there throughout the route to explain what it was all about. The visitors I know who read the literature or talked to the explainers couldn’t figure out quite what any of the meaning meant, but it was there for the taking and talking. Finally, a teacher I know, who walks through the park every day to work, found the daily, physical construction of THE GATES more interesting than the finished product.

The one common denominator I heard from all those I queried, who actually enjoyed wandering around the phenomenon was that the event was fun in a lighthearted party atmosphere sort of way and everybody attending seemed to have a good time.

So what’s the problem? How could this “creation” be offensive or threatening to anyone? It provided a destination point for out-of-towners who came to collect memories and pictures for back-home-cocktail-chatter and New Yorkers who would rather have been in the Caribbean but had already read the Sunday paper and seen all the awful movies at $10.50 per ticket, nibbled at $5.00-a-bag popcorn and had nothing better to do, or else New Yorkers who were just curious and wanted their own first-hand opinions.

So how can I postulate that this spectacle of sorts was artistically and philosophically wrong? A couple of reasons: If you love nature and do not wish the most important nature spot in New York City to be “molested,” even temporarily by a frivolous intervention, you were prevented from enjoying the park for sixteen days. Or if you love serious art that is intelligible and does have ideational content as well as aesthetic beauty, you will be offended by the transformation of the walkways of a beautiful, purposeful “natural” and cherished Central Park into an avenue of orange that the tastemakers have termed “art.”

Values. If you want to call THE GATES free amusement and a fortnight’s “fun” distraction, then the project was a success. Fine. But don’t call it art! This is the crucial point. Call it a party, but don’t call it art because that denigrates the definition of true art. And that is dangerous to our culture because it encourages the elimination of objective artistic standards, turns art criticism into promotional commercialism and throws the whole subject of art into a free-for-all grab bag.

Therein lay the peril and the offense. Whether Christo’s intent was to give a bright orange public party, or to put up an artificial entity so that once it came down people would appreciate real nature better, or to nihilistically destroy any definition of art altogether, I do not know because I don’t believe any rationale that these type of “artists” give. Is Christo malicious? Is he consciously attacking objective standards of “fine” art? Or is he just having childish, impish fun, thumbing his nose at the seriousness of anything at all, all the while promoting himself as his greatest product and (I am told) making money from sales of his many drawings of projects to collectors, plus (I am told by a friend whose business partner owns one) sales of framed pieces of the “fabric” itself.

Well, fine. Free enterprise, caveat emptor and all that. After all, he doesn’t physically hurt anyone or any thing—except for the time when his umbrellas flew away and nearly decapitated onlookers—and his installations are always of short duration, so even if he offends our values, it’s not for long. But the fact remains: whether voluntarily or involuntarily, he does succeed in offending not only serious art but also values as such, thereby helping to confuse and degrade the whole subject of values on a most fundamental level. This undeniable fact is neither fun nor funny.

I can’t resist suggesting that if Christo’s act had been billed as a circus—“Banners and Circuses,” maybe, instead of “Bread and Circuses”—it might be judged by more appropriate criteria. But we still run into a snag don’t we? Because even a circus act requires specific skills and employment of craft, and the performers can be judged objectively by audience appreciation commensurate to the excellence of the act; that is to say if an acrobat flies gracefully through the air and catches the bar, he has succeeded and deserves applause, but if no one laughs at a clown, he has clearly failed and everybody, including the clown, is unhappy.

Finally, I will pose one psychological reason as to why so many from so far wished to witness and be part of THE GATES: a psychological desire that has caused people throughout history and throughout the world to want to witness and “be part of “ one-time-only experiences, like the (now unlawful) Indian ritual of suttee, the execution of a satanic heretic, the launching of a first space ship, or the last race of a famous boat—All subjects of interest, of course, are determined by one’s value system as to what one wants to witness and be part of . But the psychological urge, I believe, comes simply from the wish is to declare: “I was there!” “I have the story to tell my grandchildren and/or pictures of me in front of the ‘whatever’ to prove I was there!” Oh, glory!

So ponder the definitions above and see what you think of those now media-fossilized GATES that no longer exist in real life (except that the remaining fabric has gone into a recycling bin, so it can come back in another form—Ah, reincarnation!). You do not need to see certain so-called “art” to judge it, if it’s this far afield, especially “art” sadly misplaced in actual fields of nature, so carefully designed by an architect with all aesthetic and horticultural sincerity.

Art and the meaning of serious art are crucial, life-serving values, nourishing our personal spiritual existence and our cultural identity. We must not let charlatans walk in our midst, lauded for the wrong reasons and without criticism from those who seek not celebrity (like the rest of them) but truth to values.

To end my commentary where it began, on another Chinese note, just for my own fun and symmetry’s sake: a Chinese-born friend of mine took her young niece to see THE GATES because she thought the girl might want to report the event during “Show and Tell” in school the next day. At first, she was just bored. But then she was reminded of the Great Wall of China (which, of course, had been built for serious purposes, not for frivolity), and her boredom turned to annoyance—“Those orange things had no significance or purpose,” she told me. “A waste of time.” She also told me that when she asked her American-born niece how she liked THE GATES, the ten-year-old child responded: “Well, could we go over to F.A O. Schwartz (the most beloved and lavish children’s toy store in New York)? I like it better there.”

The following excerpts from Alexandra York’s novel, CROSSPOINTS A Novel of Choice, pertain directly to the criticism in the above article:

From Chapter Seven:

In college, Leon found the artistic outlet he needed: “constructions” or "stunt" art, he called it. He was learning at last (and to his relief) that art need not aspire to be beautiful or uplifting but would better succeed by simply being different and unexpected… or as offensive as possible. Laughing at the idea of love and having sex with countless females had canceled (and corrected) his childhood idealism. Now he found he could also laugh at art and mindscrew everyone in the art world, too. Once one caught onto the irony of it all, the rawest and most distorted real replaced the highest and most beautiful ideal with shocking ease in every part of life. That was what the twentieth century was all about, wasn't it? And the twenty-first? Cashing in, of course.

Leon was finally, completely, happy. In life and in art. His acerbic wit and contagious good humor became a trademark for him. In college, he "created" everything from a gigantic sunbaked pretzel twisting through a Harlem housing project to a mammoth hot-air "kite" tethered to an abandoned building in the Bronx. He constructed a ladder, which led viewers to a tree house to look through a knothole at a deeply pitted “earthwork” he had dug into a hill a mile away across the Hudson River and listen to Rap music amplified through tree branches hardwired for sound. And he laughed to himself at the people, critics and public alike, who actually climbed the ladder to see his "art" and attend to the bruising lyrics that turned the grotesque charade into a multi-media event.

From Chapter Twenty-two:

“You’re wrong,” he said. “One could ignore it. And one should! But no one ever has. It’s a fair trade. My art is a joke to me and a commodity to them. But they are the fools, not I. They’ve climbed ladders to see it, they’ve walked around it so as not to muddy it with their shoes, they’ve stood in the cold while I burned it at a ‘public corroding ceremony’. They don’t want art, they want theatricality: something to write about, something to prattle about at cocktail parties. I give it to them. One critic, for years, called me the ‘last Enfant Terrible of Art’. He didn’t give a pig’s eye about what I made. He loved me because I was a brat who gave him his headlines, his reputation. But what have they all given me in return? Their independent judgment. And why is that? Because what once were called standards by which to judge no longer exist, proof positive that most of the last century defined art as just what an artist does. And who is an artist, you might ask? Why anyone who says he’s an artist and can get a few other influential people to believe him. It’s all a big joke! Why shouldn’t I cash in on such a society? Some people still think art means something. Some brainwashed fools even really think that a heap of horseshit means something if it’s varnished and shoveled into a gallery or a museum. But at least I’m honest with myself. It all just a big, sad mercenary joke!”

Copyright © 2005 Alexandra York. All rights reserved.