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Speak for Yourself

     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 adult fairyland.

     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 [email protected]$%!-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, doesn't it?

 

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