About the bright orange gates that have lately been erected in a defenseless Central Park in the name of art, there are no neutral opinions. Everyone has either seen or heard about this massive assault on the most beloved of the city’s parks, and everyone has formed some sort of opinion on the worth or worthlessness of this extravagant and somewhat absurd episode in our urban history. My own view is that the gates are nothing less than an unforgivable defacement of a public treasure, and everyone responsible for promoting it-including our publicity-seeking Mayor-should be held accountable, not only for supporting bad taste but for violating public trust.
What has to be understood about this whole affair is that it’s not only an assault on nature, but also the wanton desecration of a precious work of art. After all, Central Park is the creation of two of the greatest landscape artists in our history-Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-and it’s entitled to the kind of care and protection that civilized societies normally accord to works of art that belong to the community. If some barbarian entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art and proceeded to drape orange banners on the paintings and sculptures, we can be sure that the police would be called in to halt such a flagrant violation of a treasured art collection. The news media, too, would be in an uproar about it.
Yet about these gates the media has been, with few exceptions, idiotically admiring. It’s hardly a surprise that The New York Times has been especially fulsome in its coverage of this outrage: Nothing less was to be expected from its chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman, who once performed a similar feat of critical stupidity by favorably comparing a Calvin Klein billboard advertisement of a young man in bikini underwear to Michelangelo’s David.
Thanks to the media blitz, which has lavished almost daily attention on the draped orange nylon fabric, the gates’ creators-Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude-haveachievedAndy Warhol’s famous 15 minutes. Not all the media coverage has been favorable, to be sure, but that hardly matters. The perpetrators of this extravaganza have won their wager in the only coin that has any meaning for them: publicity.
What their wager will mean to our city’s reputation as an international art capital remains to be assessed. It’s worth recalling that it was the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School-Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning et al.-who put New York on the map of the international avant-garde in the 1950’s. As a consequence, our town emerged as the successor to Paris as the world’s reigning art capital. For young, aspiring talents everywhere, New York City became the place to be: where new artistic standards were established and new ideas were acted upon. The itinerary that once compelled American artists to pursue their professional fortunes abroad was reversed, and more and more Europeans felt it imperative to make themselves known right here.
Nothing even remotely similar to this culture-changing reversal is to be expected from an event as shallow and transitory as the erection of these gates in Central Park. Indeed, to the extent that they have any impact on international opinion, the result is likely to be negative. For what they signify is New York’s surrender to a kind of tourist trade devoid of artistic consequence. Except as some sort of ultimate parody of Minimalist art, all those orange curtains fluttering on their orange steel frames contribute exactly nothing to the realm of artistic achievement. On the contrary, they make our city look more and more like a pushover for provincial charlatans-which is decidedly not how a great art capital ought to conduct its public affairs.