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Jewish World Review April 9, 2004 / 19 Nissan, 5764

Mark Goldblatt

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Unreasonable ‘art’: Christo & Jeanne-Claude prepare to wrap-up Central Park | We do not build meanings, we do not build messages, we do not build symbols...we only build art." So said Jeanne-Claude, wife and partner of Christo, at the Metropolitan Museum on Monday. She was describing their latest project, The Gates. The work, scheduled to "open" next February, will consist of 7,500 iron frames, set at 12-foot intervals, from which saffron-colored fabric panels will be hung to flap in the wind. The installation will occupy 23 miles of selected walkways in Central Park.

The project has been on the drawing board since 1979. The exhibit at the Met, called "On the Way to the Gates," chronicles the early sketches and revisions, as well as the couple's efforts to sell the concept to dubious community boards and standoffish politicians in the New York City. The Gates might never have gotten the go ahead — it was rejected outright in 1981 — except, in Jeanne-Claude's words, "a miracle happened in our life...a friend was elected mayor of New York."

The Gates was officially approved on January 22 by Michael Bloomberg.

Setting up miles of cheerful-looking "gates" in Central Park is a cute idea — which in essence is Christo and Jeanne-Claude's shtick. They've previously surrounded a couple of islands in Bicayne Bay, Miami with 6.5-million feet of floating polypropylene fabric, wrapped a Swiss forest with polyester and rope, and erected 1,760 twenty-foot-tall umbrellas in California. But does a cute idea amount to art? Cute ideas, after all, are a dime a dozen. Stuff the St. Louis Arch with brightly colored balloons. Stick a baby booty on the Washington Monument. (Try one yourself.) Is there a coherent sensibility that underlies their work? Jeanne-Claude insists there is. Artists of the past, she explains, have utilized qualities such as realism and abstraction; she and Christo, by contrast, wish to utilize "love" as an aesthetic quality. That claim could be made, in a sense, for Andres Serrano's 1990 photograph Semen and Blood. Unlike Serrano, however, Jeanne-Claude and Christo do not accept public funds. They put up their own money and make back what they can selling off chunks of their installations afterwards. Thus, they're answerable to no one but themselves. "Our work," she declares, "is a scream of freedom."

Her husband agrees. "Coming from a Communist country [Bulgaria], I will never do something for a reason."

That comment drew a couple of snickers from the press corps at the Met.

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Still, I don't want to be too hard on Jeanne-Claude and Christo. Perhaps the kindest way to classify them is as performance artists — as Jeanne-Claude, in a roundabout way, acknowledged: "All the preparations are the work of art." It's the making that counts, not the thing made. Tellingly, when I asked her whether their current project could possibly fail, she replied that it couldn't. The plans were laid out, she said. Even in the event of both of their sudden deaths, their life insurance policies would cover the project's completion.

But of course that wasn't what I meant by the question. I was asking whether it was possible for the project, once completed, to fail aesthetically. Is there a wrong way to arrange 7,500 gates in Central Park? If not, then in what sense is its realization an artistic success? Proposition: If difference in a work of art does not affect its value as art, then maybe it isn't art to begin with. If Beethoven had written di-di-di-deem rather than di-di-di-dum, the result would have been not merely different but discernibly worse. If Shakespeare had written "Should I or shouldn't I" rather than "To be or not to be," the result would have been not merely different but worse. And if Raphael had painted Plato and Aristotle out of proportion with the rest of the figures in The School of Athens, or if he'd painted Aristotle gesturing up and Plato gesturing down, rather than vice-versa, the result would have been not merely different but worse.

If Jeanne-Claude and Christo had arranged 5,000 gates instead of 7,500, or if they'd picked the Mall in Washington instead of Central Park, the result would have been merely different. Not better or worse.

Perhaps the right way to think of Jeanne-Claude and Christo is not as artists at all but as hustlers — in the non-pejorative sense. It's the hustle that separates them from you and me, their capacity to talk people up, to work a room, to charm skeptics, to assuage fears, and to regurgitate pseudo-intellectual claptrap with a straight face. About surrounding the islands in Biscayne Bay, Christo remarked, "The great power of the project is that it's absolutely irrational. And that disturbs, angers the sound human perception of a capitalist society. That is also a part of the project, this is the idea of the project, to put in doubt all the values."

Ah,'s subversive.

If, as Jeanne-Claude insists, they do not build "meanings," "messages" or "symbols," they nevertheless know how to trot out agitprop. Thus, Christo, after reiterating that neither he nor Jeanne-Claude expects to make money from The Gates, adds, "This is why affluent people living around Central Park were so upset with the project.... They think that generosity is only the privilege of the wealthy."

Yeah, it's silly. But what's the harm? So a couple of refugees from the 1960s go into hock setting up giant Tinkertoys in Central Park in the middle of February...and then, maybe, earn back their money selling off the bits and pieces to nouveau-riche marks over the next few years.

It's bound to cause people to argue about the definition of art.

What better conversation to have on a frigid New York City afternoon?

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JWR contributor Mark Goldblatt teaches at SUNY's Fashion Institute of Technology. His new novel is "Africa Speaks". Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Mark Goldblatt