Tuesday, February 15, 2005

More thoughtful art criticism from the right -- this time it's Andrea Peyser, in yesterday's New York Post:

WAKE me when these hideous things are gone!

It's time to let the truth be known: "The Gates" -- that manically promoted, ludicrously expensive sculpture project now infesting Central Park -- is the artistic equivalent of a yard that's been strewn with stained toilet paper by juvenile delinquents on Halloween.

It is the
defacement of beauty, not its creation -- a fraud perpetrated on the people by no-talent hypemasters and their chief cheerleader in City Hall.

Please, make them go away!

Walking into the park yesterday, I was assaulted by thousands of what looked like shower curtains twisting in the wind. I had found "The Gates."

Like a sucker in a game of three-card monte, I'd noticed I was about to be taken for a fool -- and I'd ignored them.

The advance buzz had been all-consuming. "The Gates" was presented as the ticket for our stubborn, precious, maddening city to be elevated into something of a quasi-Eurotrash capital (except where the natives bathe regularly)....

I led you yesterday to Roger Kimball's critique of The Gates; it was equally trenchant and perceptive, but -- perhaps because of limitations of space -- Kimball failed to make this point, which gives Christo and Jeanne-Claude's game away: French people never take showers! Really! And therefore all art by Europeans is a fraud! (Neither Kimball nor Peyser points out that, like Jeanne-Claude, John Kerry speaks French. But maybe Bill O'Reilly will get to that.)

Kimball called The Gates a "scam." Peyser says it's "ludicrously expensive" and compares it to three-card monte. Isn't this odd, given that the Christos take no government or private funding and charge no admission, and given that the Christos run a highly efficient capitalist enterprise that balances its books a hell of a lot better than the Bush administration? You'd think right-wingers would cheer for those reasons alone. Or be pleased that, decades ago, Christo fled the Soviet bloc, and his work is, in part, a reaction to his early years.

No. Their gut reaction is to recoil in disgust because art is so damn arty. Sometimes it's weird, and kooky, and often not classically beautiful! And artists, Lord help us! Duncan Maxwell Anderson took their measure in a column published last summer in the Post:

Some men claim the status of artists simply because they don't know how to change a tire. Men from the arty class can become parasites, making their try for greatness simply by throwing muck at men who are truly great.

The Gates column isn't Peyser's first venture into art criticism. Back in 2002, she joined in an attack on Tumbling Woman, a sculpture by Eric Fischl that was based on images of 9/11 victims plunging to their deaths from the Twin Towers. Where The Gates is charmingly meaningless (and that's meant as a compliment), Tumbling Woman is chilling and powerful. But Peyser was having none of it:


IS THIS art? Or assault?

...A violently disturbing sculpture popped up last week in the middle of Rock Center's busy underground concourse - right in front of the ice-skating rink. It depicts a naked woman, limbs flailing, face contorted, at the exact moment her head smacks pavement following her leap from the flaming World Trade Center.

The worst part about the piece is that you can't miss it. Even if you try.

Titled "Tumbling Woman," the sculpture is by '80s darling Eric Fischl....

"It's disgusting!" said Ken Fidje, 34....

The sculpture was removed from Rockefeller Center just as Peyser's column hit the newsstands.

That was too much even for the conservative New York Sun:

We're no fans of a lot of what passes for public art around town, but "Tumbling Woman" is no abstract lump of bronze. It is an extraordinary rendering of a woman in one of the most gripping poses we can imagine in art. It captured a moment that will live in the imagination of New York forever, and it deserves a place in the city. Not, as we say, that we lack regard for the Great Peyser. She deserves her own statue, perhaps in that plaza in front of the News Corp. building on Sixth Avenue. Call it "Woman on a High Horse." A good man for the job would be Eric Fischl.

You'd think Peyser would have approved of a work of art that reminded us of the horror wrought by terrorists on 9/11. But terrorists aren't the Right's real enemy -- liberals are. And a time-honored way to attack American liberals is to mock our presumed allies: foreign artists with funny accents.


Roger Kimball got his dander up at some artists back in February 2003 -- Sam Hamill and other poets who had been invited to the White House by Laura Bush and decided to protest the imminent war with Iraq. Skimble posted Kimball's column about the poets on his blog. Kimball actually went light on the philistinism in that column -- but, with the benefit of hindsight, I do enjoy this passage:

[Hamill] is also given to ... exaggeration. He had, he said, just read "a lengthy report" about the president's Iraq war plans. According to Mr. Hamill, they called for "saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians."

Really? Every report I have seen has dilated on the extraordinary efforts of U.S. military planners to minimize civilian casualties by the use of precision weapons, tactics to isolate Saddam from control of his weapons of mass destruction, and so on.

But somehow the headline "U.S. Strives to Remove Brutal Dictator, Liberate the Iraqi Populace, While Keeping Civilian Casualties and Damage to Infrastructure to a Minimum" doesn't play well to the gallery.

Er, no comment.


Today in the New York Post it's John Podhoretz going after The Gates; next, I guess, it will be Cindy Adams and the sports cartoonist. Again, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are "snake-oil salesmen"; again, the easily traversed gates are deemed an exercise in obstruction ("like an endless row of construction cones shutting down two lanes on Interstate 95.") And, of course, cultural fascism is the order of the day:

You weren't going to catch anybody in Central Park making a negative peep about the whole project, lest he or she be considered uncool, uncouth, narrow-minded, philistine, incapable of recognizing innovative art when he saw it.

I guess I just imagined that conversation my wife and I had on Sunday with a New York-dwelling Ivy Leaguer who didn't much like The Gates.

But the second half of Podhoretz's column is where the real nonsense appears:

But there is a wonderfully salutary aspect to "The Gates," and that is how the mobs of people thronging the park seem blissfully unaware that they are walking through reclaimed territory.

From the late 1960s until the late 1980s, Central Park was an object lesson in the decline of New York City. This urban paradise, this wondrous invented playground, had become a sodden, dirty, dangerous place.

The famous moments in Central Park during these decades were all nightmarish descents into menace, lawlessness and death. It was in Central Park that Robert Chambers killed Jennifer Dawn Levin.

It was where dozens of people were harassed and injured after a Diana Ross concert by a gang of monstrous youths who said they were out "wilding." It was where Tricia Meili went jogging one evening and was raped so brutally that she lost half the blood in her body.

In 1970, a movie called "Where's Poppa" captured the feeling in the city perfectly, as a man living on Fifth Avenue would run across the park at night to try to reach his ailing mother on Central Park West, only to be mugged again and again and again.

In the 11 years since Rudy Giuliani was inaugurated as mayor, the most dramatic indication of the change in New York's fortunes is the declining crime and murder rate. But nobody talks about a less quantifiable but equally dramatic decline here -- the decline of

No, that's true. You know why? Because people who live here felt safe in Central Park long before Giuliani.

I can't talk about the early 1970s, when I was growing up in Boston. But the park was certainly a joy, in the daytime at least, as far back as the 1980s.

Robert Chambers killing Jennifer Levin? That happened sometime between 4:30 A.M. and dawn -- and they went off assuming that nobody would mug them. What's more, it was acquaintance sexual violence, so it's not even relevant to Podhoretz's argument.

Tricia Meili, the Central Park jogger? That attack took place around 10:00 P.M. -- an act of brutality, but remember that dozens of people were jogging, strolling, and bicycling through the park at that hour, persuaded that doing so was reasonably safe. And then recall that Central Park was, in its earliest days, closed at night. Meili regularly jogged there after dark without incident prior to her horrific assault, and she wasn't alone.

Podhoretz mentions the riot after the 1983 Diana Ross concert. He conveniently overlooks a somewhat similar moment in the park:

On June 11, [2000,] roving bands of boys and young men allegedly doused, stripped, and molested more than 50 women in New York's Central Park. The assaults took place during and after the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.

On June 11, 2000, the mayor of New York was Rudolph Giuliani.

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