vs.

Perhaps the best summary of Christo’s work came out of a conversation I had with a critic friend of mine. When I asked him what he thought about The Gates, Christo’s much hyped project in Central Park, he responded that, before the other day, he never thought more than three minutes about Christo. Now, like every New Yorker, he needed to have an opinion about him. “I rather liked it the old way,” he concluded.

Christo is an artist who can’t keep his art to himself. His art is based in spectacle (no surprise that the Bulgarian-born Christo was influenced by Eastern-bloc pageantry). His “art” includes preparation--draft drawings, negotiating with city planning--the theater of people walking among his installations, and the public discourse surrounding the impermanent presence of his objects (relics, as he calls them).

From a critical point of view, Christo and his partner Jeanne-Claude have got their bases covered. There is, of course, very little for one to criticize about The Gates: the cost--nope, with money coming from their foundation, the Gates won’t cost the City a cent and may bring in tourist dollars; the use of materials--the tons of metal and plastic will be recycled; environmental and long-term impact--not a tree branch will be removed and the gates will go down in sixteen days; artist ego--Christo shares the limelight with his “partner” Jeanne-Claude. To give The Gates a formalist critique based on placement or height or whatever is deliberately complicated by their ubiquity and the scale of the project. It is near impossible to get a handle on something so large and so meandering, and to walk the twenty-three miles of park paths beneath each gate is undermined furthermore by the artist’s own statements:

The entire park is the work of art. The Gates are distributed over walkways from park border to park border, the entire thing. Please keep in mind, there are 7,500 separate gates. No part of the park has more or less of them. If you plan to be any where in Central Park, you will be in the best part of the artwork.
So the point of the Gates is not about the gates but about you--about your good feelings, about communing with nature, about going for a walk with your fellow man and feeling good about the city so nice they named it twice! Easy! Who can’t get that? And indeed, therein lies the subtle fraud that is Christo. His is an art for everyone and for no one. The Gates may be art, but art of the most debased design. The Gates is ultimate kitsch offered up as high art. One criterion separating the two is the ability to criticize the latter but not the former on aesthetic grounds, and on aesthetic grounds (like the spectacles of old Bulgaria, one imagines) ’The Gates’ go beyond critique.

Let’s then compare Christo to an artist we can all recognize as pure Kitsch. Thomas Kinkade, the best-selling artist in America, combines Norman Rockwell with Tony Robbins. On the surface Kinkade would seem to be the farthest thing from a museum-level artist like Christo. But the similarities are astounding--from the feel-goodness of their work to the gemutlich choice of iconography to the way Kinkade and Christo rely on reproduction and licensing to generate revenue. In The Thomas Kinkade Story, Kinkade’s biographer, Rick Burnett, could be describing Christo in this paragraph on reproduction techniques:

Media Arts Group, Inc., Kinkade’s publisher, introduced some innovative enhancements to the limited edition print market. Collectors could now choose from two to three different sizes of the same image. Also, limited-edition authentication was ensured by using DNA-encoded ink when Kinkade’s signature was applied to a print. Although they scoffed at this practice at the onset, other art publishers began providing similar benefits for their clients shortly thereafter.
Think you can tell the difference between Christo and Kinkade? Take my quiz. And Michael Kimmelman, let’s just say that this one’s for you.

Below I have assembled quotes from three sources: 1) the Christo website, 2) Michael Kimmelman’s review in The New York Times, and 3) The Thomas Kinkade Story. Mark your guesses and click on each link to find out who said what. In the meantime, I’m off to the Thomas Kinkade Store. Why go to a culture mall like the Guggenheim Museum--where Christo and Jeanne-Claude will be signing their book on the Gates next week Friday--when you can go, simply, to the mall?

  • A gate is an invitation to explore!
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  • I’ve been fascinated with the inviting mystery of gates.
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  • Every gate has its season.
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  • Open gates are an invitation to visit, especially when lights glow warmly within an English cottage beyond them. If you’re in the mood to chat, you might wander up the rutted lane and knock briskly on the old, weather-worm door of the charming home.
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  • [the artist] regard[s] [his] artworks as babies, created jointly in love, that come into the world with their own strengths and frailties, living things that are cherished.
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  • Paths have become like processionals, boulevards decked out as if with flags for a holiday. Everyone is suddenly a dignitary on parade.
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  • [g]ates will seem like a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees and will highlight the shape of the footpaths.
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  • being so sensitive to nature, they make us more sensitive to its effects.
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  • Every blooming gate promises to lead us into a paradise where love and peace prevail. In ___, I try to fulfill that promise by leading [viewers] to a vernal paradise.
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  • Even at first blush, it was clear that __ is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence
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  • Lights are always a favorite subject of mine, especially when they seem to call me toward a cozy setting.
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  • In the winter light, the bright fabric seemed to warm the fields, flickering like a flame against the barren trees.
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  • The very unevenness of the cobbled walkway adds a sense of adventure that awakens our senses; we hear birdsong, feel the bracing mist of the morning, pluck a ripe apple to savor its sweet juice, smell the mingled senses, and enjoy the play of sunlight and shade.
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  • Now more than ever, New York is America’s city--a symbol of our indomitable spirit, our energy, our roots in a proud past, our confidence in the future.... The essence of the great city, as the essence of the country it so nobly represents, remains the same throughout decades past and into the future.
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  • Our memories of this experience are how the artwork changes us--perhaps the most powerful force of art, that the changes made are not in the [art], but in us.
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  • How did you do? Better than Michael Kimmelman, no doubt.