Cave Paintings and Christo's "Gates"

Art in Individual Minds and Public Places

Copyright (c) Dianne L. Durante 2004. For permission to reproduce this essay, email me.

To see photos of the The Gates project, go here.

The Gates belongs on a slalom course rather than in New York City’s Central Park, because it doesn’t fulfill the purpose of art. This essay was written before the Gates was installed. I stand by it, after seeing the Gates a dozen or more times on my commute through Central Park.

In the depths of a cavern thousands of years ago, a figure laboriously scratched designs of animals and hunters onto a wall. Even if you stalk your beef at the supermarket, you can still grasp the ancient artist’s message: that hunting animals was a dangerous business (the men are tiny compared to the animals), but that having the courage to hunt them was crucial for survival. Simply because the artist chose to represent these particular figures in this relationship, the message is clear.

In the millennia since that drawing, all paintings and sculptures have conveyed some message about man and the world he lives in. Even a mediocre work - think of the bronze Seward at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street - tells you that this particular man and his accomplishments were once honored and considered significant.

A great work of art goes far beyond that. It transforms the artist’s message into an unforgettable image. Such a work is not merely pretty décor: it gives you a guide to living your life. It suggests what you should pay attention to, and where you should focus amid the chaos of impressions that assaults your senses every minute of every day.

At its best, art can literally help you keep your goals in sight. A work of visual art condenses a whole view of the world. You can hold it in your mind as a single, concrete image of what sort of person you’d like to become: a person with the pride of Michelangelo’s David, or the elegance of Madame Recamier. You can use it to recall the sort of world you want to live in: the peace of a Constable landscape, the bustle and energy of Canaletto’s Venice, the drama of a Delacroix. “Since man lives by reshaping his physical background to serve his purpose,” wrote Ayn Rand, “since he must first define and then create his values – a rational man needs a concretized projection of these values, an image in whose likeness he will re-shape the world and himself. Art gives him that image.”

Bearing that in mind, consider husband-and-wife team Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates. New York City officials have granted permission for The Gates to stand in Central Park for 16 days, beginning February 12, 2005. According to the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where a 3-month exhibition devoted to the project will open in April 2004), The Gates “will consist of 7,500 saffron-colored gates placed at 10- to 15-foot intervals throughout 23 miles of pedestrian walkways.” Each gate will be 16 feet high, with 8 feet of fabric suspended from the crossbar.

What message will The Gates convey? None at all. If you examine every fiber of the million square feet of fabric, you won’t be a nanometer closer to knowing what sort of person you’d like to be, what you should focus on, what sort of world you’d like to live in. Prominent art historians and critics at the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and The New York Times haven’t even tried to proclaim any meaning in The Gates. They merely assert that it will draw attention to Central Park. “It might work and it’s not permanent, so why not give it a shot?” asked the publisher of the New York Observer.

The twenty-year controversy over whether to allow  The Gates to be erected in Central Park was driven largely by fears of the work’s environmental impact. In fact, there’s a much more basic reason for rejecting the project: the lack of any impact on the minds of those seeing it. If it conveys no message, it isn’t art. And if it isn’t art, why allow it in the Park? We might just as well grant permission to The Picket Fences or The Discarded Taxi-Bumpers.

If you want to enjoy art in Central Park, do your best to avoid Christo’s giant slalom poles. Instead, seek out the dozens of figurative sculptures scattered through the Park, from Duke Ellington to the Delacorte Clock, from the Maine Monument to Samuel Morse, from Still Hunt to the Untermeyer Fountain. Like genuine works of art ever since the caveman’s time, these have the potential to speak to you - to inspire, provoke and amuse you – in a way that Christo’s Gates never will.

An Exasperated Addendum
to those who’ve sent me angry and indignant emails about this essay

February 20, 2005

I've gotten dozens of responses to this essay. Many were unsubstantiated ad hominem attacks: "You’re so narrow-minded!" Others were emotional rants, and still others were appeals to authority: "Who are you to disagree with Famous People!" None of them affected my opinion of the Gates. Here's why.

Respect for reality and for other peoples' minds requires that you attach specific meanings to words, rather than spewing out what you kind-of sort-of more-or-less think you mean. You will have a problem with reality if you call a tiger a pussycat. You will have a problem with your neighbor if you have the government confiscate his land for your building by claiming it's for "the public good." And you will eventually have a problem if you call a grandstanding boondoggle such as the Gates "art."

Art has a nature and a definition. It isn’t "whatever any self-proclaimed artist produces" – else you and I could both be turning out art while watching CSI. It isn’t "whatever a museum curator or gallery owner decrees to be art" – otherwise the Ancient Greeks and the Renaissance Italians wouldn’t have had any art at all, poor dears. Art isn't "anything I find pretty or spectacular," either - if it were, lilac bushes and giant inflatable Spiderman balloons would be art.

To repeat what I said above: What separates visual art from other forms of human endeavor is that its creator, by his choice of subject and his emphasis in presenting it, conveys a message to viewers. He says, in an image, "Pay attention: this is important about man or the world." Michelangelo’s 500-year-old David makes a statement about what man can and ought to be that we can still grasp and react to. The Gates says nothing. It’s as "artistic" as my bedroom curtains.

I don't normally get wrought up about curtains (indoors or out). I wouldn’t even bother to discuss the Gates, if it had been erected, for instance, on a private farm in upstate New York. But since it's taken over a magnificently designed public space where many of us can't avoid it without serious inconvenience, it annoys me quite a lot. Letting it pass for art also sets a precedent for allowing other such gargantuan objects in the Park, and eventually having the government (which means me and you) pay for them.

A proper definition of art would be a big step toward preventing that. I recommend Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto for literature. I discussed her definition of art with respect to sculpture in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.