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February 17, 2003

Putting the Politics in Park

I’m on record as being dubious about Presidents Day as an appropriate Holiday, but it’s here again and I’m stuck with it. At the risk of trivializing the impending war, I’m going to use the occasion to discuss a meaner use of political power, in as much as we have a current situation directly affecting Central Park.

The go-ahead has been given for a large-scale art installation in the Park, a project by the husband and wife artist team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude entitled The Gates. These gates are banners of bright orange fabric, supported by metal poles. Thousands of them are to be erected, lining miles of the Park’s pathways and dominating the landscape for two weeks in February of 2005.

The project was first proposed in 1979 and was rejected by the Parks Commission. It’s not hard to see why. People who are concerned with the Park for its own sake will generally have a negative reaction to such an imposition of ego and hardware onto “our” Park. That the idea has resurfaced, and been accepted, appears to be the direct result of the current mayor’s friendship with the artists. Such are the perks of power.

Of course the birdwatchers are against it. And I must admit that I partake of the revulsion. Indeed, the resistance is so febrile that it must itself bear investigation. Certainly there is an element of not-in-my-backyardism. We haven’t come up with any truly powerful ecological argument against the project. After some basic concessions, like using self-supporting bases instead of digging holes for the poles, it looks as if the piece can be mounted without leaving a permanent scar. It’s said the billowing fabric could disturb some birds, but this doesn’t seem to be a terrible problem. They’re known to acclimate to such things, and February is a time of relatively little activity. When I was asked for arguments against it, I offered that Christo is a lousy artist. That’s not really a practical argument, and was said as a joke, but it’s more or less what it comes down to.

I’ve never liked Christo/Jeanne-Claude much. Again, I want to question my motives, as the attitude goes back to my days as an art student, when it was just “Christo”. I thought of him as a vulgar popularizer of the then contentious “earth art” movement. I don’t think the critique is entirely wrong, though I’ve tried to give him a chance, and some of the works are at least attractive, but the artist I compare him to unfavorably is Robert Smithson, the main protagonist of earth art, and an important figure in my own development. From the mid-sixties until his untimely death in 1973, Smithson was a provocative and invigorating force in the art world, and his influence was still strong when I came to New York a few years after he died. He moved sculpture beyond formalism and out of the gallery with his landscape-based “earthworks” like The Spiral Jetty, and, just as importantly, with his writings.

One landscape of particular interest to Smithson was Central Park. In his last published essay, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape, Smithson adopts the Park’s designer as an ancestor: “America’s first ‘earthwork artist’ ”. (As usual, Vaux gets short shrift.) Smithson was interested in contrasts and contradictions; Olmsted’s picturesque remaking of what was then a bleak wasteland in mid-Manhattan served as a mirror image of his own abstract incursions into the disrupted or “entropic” sites he favored for his projects. This “dialectical” equivalence serves to remind us that the Park is a work of art in and of itself.

This may be the most substantive argument Park lovers have against The Gates. It’s not about the Park’s ecology, but the Park’s place in the cultural ecology of New York City. Central Park is a sacrosanct work of art which should not be subject to the humiliation of having another work of art superimposed upon it. It was with good reason Smithson preferred to do his work in the desert, or a quarry, or an abandoned salt mine.

Well, this is almost true. But a park, however artful, is not quite the same as a work of art. It is used in a different way, and its use is subject to political pressures. Olmsted himself was finally forced out as the Park’s Commissioner by changing political (and demographic) tides which “democratized” the Park. Throughout its history there has been a dialectic between an “elitist” and a “populist” concept of the Park. It was conceived by cultured (and wealthy) people who wanted a park to match the great public places of Europe, and also to increase the value of real estate uptown. Theirs was a Romantic view of Nature, by way of American Transcendentalism. The Park would be for quiet contemplation and relaxation. The lower classes, in so far as they had access, would be edified by the models both of Nature and of their social betters.

I will say that my own use of the Park is basically in this elitist tradition. I do find that close contemplation is instructive, on many levels. And not that I’m jealous of it, but there is a certain elitism inherent in birdwatching; in seeing what most others do not see. I hope I harbor no class animosities, but I avoid the noisy crowd. Still, I fancy myself, like Smithson, a dialectician, and I have sought in these pages to give fair consideration to that which I have rejected. I am certainly dedicated to the proposition that the people of the city, all the people, should be able to enjoy their Park. Unfortunately, in so doing, we are apt to destroy it.

The story of the Park since Olmsted’s day is generally of a shift towards serving this broader public, with “natural” and picturesque features sacrificed to accommodate active recreation, team sports, and larger gatherings. The nadir was reached under the autocratic Commissioner Robert Moses, when paving proliferated and automobiles were encouraged. These remains the worst desecrations the Park has ever suffered, and a great deal of its artistic integrity must have been sacrificed in the process.

Once the postwar money ran out, the Park was allowed to deteriorate. Maintenance funds were cut while age and heavy usage took their toll. By the time Smithson wrote about it, in 1973, Central Park had numerous decrepit features, and a reputation as a mugger’s playground. The pendulum didn’t start to swing back until the next decade, with the creation of the Central Park Conservancy.

The Conservancy is a sort of public/private partnership, in which the City has ceded the better part of its management authority in order to obtain the philanthropic benefit of a group which somewhat resembles the original patrons of the Park: high-minded, well-intentioned, and not above self-interest. They have raised huge amounts of money, and accomplished a lot of badly needed restoration. In the process, they’ve also pimped the Park to various corporate interests, allowing massive events like the Disney movie premiere which trashed the Great Lawn immediately before its restoration. The same thing happened to the North Meadow, where a stadium-scale concert was held prior to a year-long maintenance project. By incorporating destruction into the rebuilding process the Conservancy has engaged in its own sort of dialectic, but they’re running out of places to work with. Lately it’s the smaller East Meadow that has been used for rallies and concerts, and it has been reduced to a dustbowl, with no sign of immediate improvement. Meanwhile, I’m starting to hope that they never get around to “fixing” the old Lily Ponds and the rest of the North Woods.

The Gates project, I think, belongs with the Disney movies and the amplified concerts, and none of them belong in the Park. The Christo/Jeanne-Claude team has become an artistic trademark which can be applied to any landscape, without regard. Their pretense of incorporating the planning and construction activities into the artwork per se seems to me a hollow borrowing from the techniques of conceptual and process art, delivered in a sort of corporate happy-speak. The account of their Umbrellas project given on their website does not even mention that two of their workers were killed in the service of their “art process”. They do not develop what Smithson would call a dialectic of the landscape; they simply put their mark, orange fabric, upon it.

At the end of his essay Smithson actually proposes an artwork for the Park. Despite his fascination with entropy and decay, Smithson felt that Olmsted’s great work should be maintained. Viewing the debris strewn mud slough that had developed in the Pond, he envisioned a “mud extraction sculpture”, a real process piece, including a documentary film following the transportation of the mud from point of extraction to point of deposition on “a site in the city that needs ‘fill’ ”. In typically dense fashion, Smithson combines public works with avant-garde art to the point of self-parody. Such humor seems alien to Christo’s pompous work, and his overweening project does the Park no service, either.

Needless to say, Smithson’s film was never made, but the Conservancy did finally finish rehabilitating the Pond, just last year. It only took three decades. Still, that’s the sort of thing they should stick to, and not go getting mixed up in the art world. But I guess we have the mayor to thank for that, and as long as politicians are getting such fringe benefits, I’d say they’re well enough compensated, and not in need of Holidays of their own.

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