“What is art?” Anyone who’s ever strolled through a contemporary art gallery, witnessed a magnificent sunset, or stood in smiling awe over a child’s first painting has surely asked this question. Some go to such lengths as writing books or dissertations, teaching courses or giving lectures, but in the end, in my humble opinion, it's beside the point. I like to think of art as the expression of living – unique and personal to every individual. Art can be found in the way we eat, the way we walk, the way we sign our names. Of course, just because something is called art doesn’t mean it is valued as art, that’s a whole other story. What makes art valuable is beyond my ability to comprehend, and beyond the level of mind boggling-ness I’m willing to withstand. In certain ways I’ve endured a love/hate relationship with art. I love the idea of it: the creative expression of an experience, an idea, a feeling, and the mastery of a skill for the sole purpose of human expression. However, my logical mind gets the best of me at times. Walking through an exhibit at the Tate Modern Gallery in London, my focus was abruptly drawn from my internal spinning color wheel of death (mac users, you know what i’m talking about) by my friend’s gentle voice saying, “Are you alright? You don’t look so good.” I was pale. No matter how hard I tried, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t get it, because there was nothing “to get.” This is a hard concept for someone who likes to understand everything, or at least feel like she does. My friend, an art school graduate, successfully quelled some of my discomfort by teaching me about the movements that inspired the work and their reactionary roots. I felt better knowing there was some logical basis for its creation, even if I didn’t know what it was, or if it was even true. Still, I recognize this as a limitation. Art is about the experience, about feeling, about connection, about seeing oneself in the creation of another. It’s not about understanding or knowing why.
Last night I watched a beautiful documentary on two convicted and passionate artists who challenged me to revive my inner artist and accept it for what it is: an experience of awe and magnificence. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are famously known for their controversial works around the world: the umbrellas (in California and Japan 1984-91), wrapped trees (in Switzerland 1997-98), and Pont Neuf wrapped (in Paris 1975-85), to name a few. They take no money from sponsorships or donations, each (expensive) project is funded completely by the private sale of Christo’s preliminary paintings and sketches of the project to be, as well as previous paintings and works of art. Their passion has no rational, no explanation, simply that they want to make it. And they want to make it so badly that the project that was the subject of the documentary spanned nearly 30 years.
The film itself contained incredible 16mm footage of interviews with New York City officials in the 1970’s, meetings with angry citizens, and many a convicted opposition. Next to Christo’s broken English and bumbling professor-like nature, the opposing arguments felt violent, irrational, and even mean. Each person’s vested interests were illuminated and exposed (including the artists themselves), often appearing absurd in the face of the simple and undeniable beauty of the proposed project. What amazed me most, and what still gives me a chuckle when I think about it, is this statement from one of the artists:
"I have unstoppable urge to do this project. The absolutely irrational, irresponsible, with not any justification. This project is happening only because the artist likes to have them."
And why not? The installation was up for two weeks, despite the public's pleas for a longer run, and all the materials were recycled, the park left just the way it was before - though perhaps never to be experienced the same way for those who witnessed The Gates.
I personally wasn’t witness to the event in New York City in 2005, but the film presented half an hour of (cut from an apparent 350 hours of footage) of the event. Children laughed and played, some called it a big worm. Tourists took photos, described their joy. Runners and cyclists completed their usual routines, through the glorious gates. From the myriad points of view, I got a sense of what it was like; I felt feelings of magnificence and wonder, the kind that art is made to conjure. Beyond my better judgment, I was deeply moved by the orange colored steel gates with fabric flapping in the wind, the gates with no purpose but to exist, no meaning beyond the vision and perseverance of two human beings.
If you want to read more about the controversy surrounding their creation, here are some articles:
If you want to find out more about the documentary filmmaker Antonio Ferrera, check him out here: