| In February
of 2005, a fellow named Christo made news for
putting several thousand bright orange gates in central park. It was a simple,
repetitive gesture, which is the big thing in the art world these days, and,
according to the press coverage I saw, art lovers loved it. I have not seen a
poll asking whether the average man on the street thought highly of it or not;
most of the people I spoke to thought it was a great idea, and some were
thinking of actually traveling to New York just to see it.
I didn't make the trip myself; somehow the eight-hour
commute seemed too high a price to pay for the chance to see central park decked
out like an Olympic slalom course. It might have been my loss. After all,
something that massive, boldly cutting a swath through the ordinary with an
artistic machete you don't get to see everyday. People may have seen it as
simply quirky, or even liberating, and there did seem to be no shortage of
people on news reports seen placidly strolling among the gates rapt in wonder as
if entranced by the opportunity to experience that rarest of all things--an
Christo didn't get what he most wanted, which was the
chance to get into a big fight with the city bureaucracy. They sagely told
him that they thought his proposal was a great idea and to just go ahead with
it. Christo had already managed to get the German Reichstag wrapped in plastic
over official protests and was responsible for that long fabric fence in
Northern California, so he had a record of getting governmental officials to bow
to his irrepressible artistic will. It could be that New York just didn't want
to spend the money on legal battles. Or maybe they just have more imagination.
One thing New Yorkers didn't have to worry about was who was going to
pay for this art. Christo pays for it himself out of the proceeds of the art he
is able to sell. He has quite a few admirers and supporters as befits someone
who likes to make a big splash through bold gestures and it allows him to
circumvent the biggest obstacle of all to the installations of gargantuan art:
public funding. It gives Christo's art some integrity. He may be forcing the people who visit central park or who live nearby to see his exhibit whether
they want to or not, but he is not forcing them to pay for it.
But it is Christo's wife,
Jeanne-Claude, who gave us all something to chew on. She made a comment after
the installation was unveiled that seems consistent with the similarly
bullheaded artistic partner of a bullheaded artist's character. She was asked
what the art was for. And she replied "We are creating works of joy and
beauty. Like all works of art created by all other artists, it is only a work of
art. It has no purpose. It is not a symbol. It is not a message."
On behalf of all other artists,
I'd just like to say: thanks a lot, Jeanne-Claude. You have, for starters, given
hungry legislators just the ammunition they need to cut art programs in schools
all across this country.* And you have played right into the typical
man-on-the-street attitude that art really isn't that important. It has no
purpose, after all! Artists of all stripes have often
struggled for recognition or simply for financial survival in a society that thinks
they ought to be doing something important with their lives like--I don't
know...commerce! Selling stuff. To have read of the number of artists
through history who were shunned because they weren't doing something that
mattered to merchant and upper classes is to take a tour through the history of
snobbery--not artistic snobbery, but the snobbery of folks who, while
understandably impressed with the power of trade and manufacture to improve
their lives through financial gain, ended up worshipping the accumulation of
wealth and coupled this attitude with a palpable contempt for anybody who
thought there were other things in life that were just as important, such as the
cultivation of intellectual and spiritual life. It is, and has been, a
typical attitude, particularly in places where industry and technology are
making impressive strides, where the all-too-human response has been that what
does not give an easily discerned boost to the bottom line is, after all, not
really that important. Keeping in mind that this sometimes includes human beings
as well as what is going on inside their minds.
Arthur Loesser wrote a very interesting social history about the
piano and people who played it. Particularly relevant here are the chapters on
England after the industrial revolution. He relates how many fine concert
pianists were unable to gain acceptance for doing what they did so
extraordinarily well (we're not talking about mediocrities here, these are
people who, if they could throw a baseball in today's America half as well as
they could play the piano back then in Europe would be millionaires)...instead, some went into the manufacture of pianos to gain
some legitimacy, or became merchants of piano-related paraphernalia. At least one
pianist was only granted permission to marry a merchant's daughter on the
condition that he stop playing the piano, which the family considered unbecoming
a gentleman. After about a dozen episodes of this
sort of thing, Loesser finally loses patience and, in place of his usual
linguistic virtuosity and biting wit, writes of yet another pianist being lured
from his art "by that bustling b@$%!-goddess commerce"!
Of course the history of this
belittling attitude toward art would take up several more essays, but rest
assured, 21st century America is replete with it. Just recently I overheard one
student counsel another about a projected course overload "be sure to drop art
before you drop a real course." I suspect at least 90% of Americans
would agree with this sentiment, and think nothing of it.
Now I'm perfectly willing to
grant the premise that your art has no purpose, Jeanne-Claude. That's certainly up to
you. But then you have to go and throw in the phrase "all other art by
all other artists" by which you presume to speak for everybody, living and
dead, who has ever created a work of art! Not that this is anything new. Lots of
bullheaded artists past and present, claimed to speak on behalf of everybody,
because naturally, their ideas about the role of art were the only true
ones. It doesn't surprise me that you would take this opportunity to educate
everybody about what art is, particularly since there are so many diverse--I
mean, wrong, opinions out there among the populace, and even other artists. It
must be tough being the only person who knows what's going on.
I know why you did it, though.
There is an ideological war going on and you just couldn't resist joining in.
There are artists whose work is laden with symbols, with meanings, overt and
hidden, who have a programme, a message. Sometimes it gets to the point where
the art is mere propaganda, where the art itself is not art but merely a not
very well cobbled tool for an intolerant ideology or an authoritarian ruler.
There was a time when such art was on the ascendancy, and some artists wondered
aloud whether such tendencies were destroying the quality of art, and the rest
told them to shut up. Even today museum-goers scratch their heads when told that
everything they see actually stands for something else and that to understand
art they need intimate knowledge of the philosophic system from which it sprang.
The twentieth century in part gave us a nice respite from this over-intellectual
but artistically impoverished tendency and it is nice sometimes to be able to
rest our heads and simply take joy in what is beautiful and not ask what brought
it about. Let us put away these bothersome words and look at the world with the pleasant
innocence of children not yet burdened with the pale cast of thought.
But there is a problem with this philosophy
as with so many others. Messages in art have given rise to an abundance of
over-cleverness and arcane idiocy. They have also allowed artists to speak of
things that could not be adequately explored in words. They have given artists
the ability to communicate with a society that would not listen to broad
polemics and speeches. Artists living under totalitarian regimes have been able
to speak out in the only way that will not get them killed (and even then it may
be a dicey proposition). Artists living under oppression and in poverty have
shown us the inherent joy of living mixed up with the tragedy of their social
conditions; of persecution, of war. They have spoken in a multi-dimensional medium that penetrates
us to our core, and for those few who are willing, disturbs and profoundly
changes us in a way that only that strange mixture of fantasy and reality that
we call art can.
I don't know if you considered
any of that when you made your statement, Jeanne-Claude. Enemy combatants in a
war frequently don't give much thought to what they are destroying in their zeal
to get at their foe.* Your vision of art has something to recommend it. Putting away
stale symbols and heavy-handed messages and simply enjoying with the senses what
is before one is certainly one way to love art. But art need not always be
beautiful. It need not be intoxicating.
When the Berlin wall fell, the
unified Germany celebrated with what has become one of its most important
artistic symbols--Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The Finale exhorts in the words of
the poet Schiller that "All men are brothers"; Beethoven choose that moment to
slow the tempo down radically and over the perhaps sappy solo violin the chorus
sings this moral in hushed tones just before the final joyous outburst that
concludes the Symphony. Beethoven believed very deeply in this vision for
mankind and he would have produced a very different work of art if he hadn't.
Similarly, the religious works
of Bach are steeped in symbolism and doctrinal meaning. While it is
still possible to enjoy the music on a purely aesthetic level without an
understanding of the philosophies that drove its composition, I would not
presume to tell Bach that those things didn't matter. Nor should we assume that
having such things present in art weakens the art; surely not in the case of
these two men!
In the twentieth century,
soviet artist Dmitri Shostakovich commented that "there can be no art without
propaganda." As he was living in fear of Joseph Stalin it is hard to know
whether he actually meant these words--art was being made to serve the state
then, and Shostakovich was surely saying what the communist party wanted to
hear. Whatever prompted the comment, it is hard for me to escape the conclusion
that in some regard he was right. Particularly when one notes how hard it is for
a simple comment, no matter how innocently intended, seems connected (at least
in the minds of its critics) with a whole slew of underlying assumptions and
philosophic postulates. Thus, however much Jeanne-Claude might wish to liberate
art from ideology, I can't help but detect a strong whiff of nihilism in her
statement. A sense that art must be scrubbed clean from anything human the way
racial terminology in this country is changed with each generation out of a
sense that each term is soon wrecked by the pejorative meanings that hateful and
bigoted persons practice upon it.
Of course I must also present a
vigorous defense of Jeanne-Claude. It may be no accident that she is French, and
our two representatives of ideological mean in art were German. Germany during
the 19th century was virtually the capital of meaning, symbolism, and ultimately
religion in and then as art. Wagner's art in particular served as
a replacement for religion, with disastrous consequences. As Hitler swept
through Europe, armed with the music of his favorite composer, whose music
became (not innocently) a symbol of fanatical racial and ethnic views, France
particularly (which had until the German invasion changed its mind practically
worshipped Wagner), and then the rest of the world, recoiled from this horror in
art as it reflected on humanity. Surely it was time to separate art from the
service of such horrid ideals as this.
But to remove all that is human
from art because it can sometimes be bent towards evils like this? Should we end
the rule of law because there are sometimes bad laws, or corrupt judges? If art
is to mean nothing at all, is it really of much use? But you've already answered
that question, Jeanne-Claude.
I think your husband had a
wiser answer to the reporters at the press conference. In your defense, those
reporters were probably pinheads who, although blissfully ignorant of the larger
issues at stake in the history of art and the purposes it has been made to
serve, they had probably heard somewhere that art was supposed to mean
something, and like the good pseudo-intellectuals they serve, they figured there
was a hidden code in this work and that the ones in the know needed the code in
order to keep their place as the ones in the know. Like many artists Christo
seemed to know that this approach is really a shortcut for really standing
before a work of art and allowing it to affect us in a way we cannot know until
we've done it. It is like trying to get the answers rather than working out the
problems for ourselves. Here is what he said:
"This project is not about talking.
You need to spend time, walking, cold air, sunny day, rainy day, even snow. It
is not necessary to talk. You have to spend time, experience the project."
I have a lot more sympathy for
this statement. It sounds like it was made by a real artist and not a rabid
disciple. It doesn't presume to tutor us on what should be excluded from our
appreciation of art or life. It is much less assuming. It says simply you need
to be there. The art can't tell you anything unless you bother with it, are
perhaps bothered by it. The reporter who wrote up the press conference in The
Sun missed this entirely. Disappointed that its creator wasn't revealing the
work's secrets in convenient sound-bites, she chalked up the remark to, I
suspect, typical artist's loathing to give away too much. As if he could.
Jeanne-Claude, on the other
hand, wasn't using this ignorance as an opportunity to invite contemplation but
as a chance to fight more battles. She seems like one of those groupies that are
constantly clustering around artists that are making noise in the world and is
fighting with words against everything she thinks is a threat to his vision,
including (with a special relish) other artists.
It brings to mind an anecdote
concerning another French artist, early 20th century composer Claude Debussy.
Debussy had, through no fault of him own, a group of vituperative supporters,
so-called "Debussyites." One day a friend of his said to him "Claude,
these Debussyites really annoy me." Debussy's response is illuminating: "Annoy
you? They are killing me!"
But if Christo's comment seems
a bit vague, a disappointment to those who can't wait for the publication of
Artistic Meaning for Dummiestm the words of an American composer
might prove even more apt. Aaron Copland studied in France during the early part
of the last century. His words don't insist on art as an ideological battering
ram, but he doesn't dismiss the idea that art has meaning, either:
"The whole problem can be
stated quite simply by asking 'Is there a meaning in music?' My answer to that
would be 'Yes. And 'Can you state in so many words what that meaning is?' My
answer to that would be, 'No'.
That seems to say it all,