But by all accounts, our proverbial Rome is burning. Yet Christo still insists $50 million worth of fabric draping a river in Colorado is good art.
Christo is the flamboyant, mononymous artist who borrows his name from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. So when I first learned of his audacious stunts, like ringing whole islands with fabric, and erecting fabric gates in Central Park, I confess to already having been somewhat prejudiced against him.
Yeah, sure, Christ's name has been incorporated into a lot of personal pronouns, but never in such a singular fashion as flaunted by this egocentric fabric foister from Bulgaria. I've tried watching video of him - and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude - explain their artistic altruism, and his narcissism simply made me wince.
Not that I don't have my moments of egocentricity, but if I ever get to sounding like him, somebody please slap some sense into me.
Going Over the River and Through the Woods
Meanwhile, The Artist Whose Name Is Borrowed From Our Redeemer has managed to secure an essential authorization from the United States Department of the Interior to install a new project entitled "Over the River."
He wants to hang a fabric roof over southern Colorado's Arkansas River.
You'll likely remember Christo's 2005 exhibition in Manhattan's grand Central Park, in which orange fabric curtains (or, in Christo's parlance, "gates") marched along pathways through the world's most famous urban Eden. My aunt, then living in Brooklyn, and a friend took a cab through the park to see what everybody in town was talking about. Their cabbie had already driven other fares through the park for the very same purpose, and readily affirmed my aunt's disappointment and boredom with all of the orange sheets flapping in the winter breeze.
How Much Fabric Can $50 Mil Buy?
Okay, so maybe art appreciation doesn't run in my family.
But appreciating the value of $50 million does.
Granted, it's a drop in the bucket compared with our national debt. Or what President Obama raised last month for his re-election campaign. But with unemployment anchored to nine percent, America's standard of living losing ground, and Greece and Italy threatening to bankrupt our planet, does spending this kind of money on this kind of whim - the whole installation is temporary, after all - really give Christo any bona fides as a rational human being?
After all, draping $50 million worth of cloth along six miles of a remote river doesn't do a lot to feed the hungry in Somalia, promote literacy in Sierra Leone, or pipe in clean water throughout Bangladesh.
Six miles? Is that all $50 million will get Christo?
So let's agree that Christo isn't a very logical human being. But then, how many artists are? Even Christo himself calls his work "irrational and absolutely unnecessary."
Still, since this isn't an argument about the definition of art, just because I don't see the artistic merit in this project, does that mean it's a waste of money? Besides, the $50 million is coming out of Christo's own pocket, so who am I to complain that the guy seems to have more money that sense?
For all I know, Christo may give away that amount and more every year to charity.
Even though something tells me Christo can't raise the kind of money he's spending on "Over the River" by giving stuff away.
Don't Think You and I Aren't Paying for Some of It
And speaking of giving stuff away, what's up with all of the bureaucratic government cow-towing towards his artistic pursuits? Christo professes to enjoy the grueling process of eliciting support for his wild schemes from government agencies that should have far better things to do than make sure miles of cloth get wrapped around the public domain. Christo has said that the pursuit of bureaucratic approval and public support is part of his art.
And you thought this was all his money! Who do you think pays for the resources our various government agencies expend on Christo's ideas? Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is quoted in the New York Times gushing about the $121 million in tourism dollars they predict "Over the River" will generate. What he won't point out is that your tax dollars paid for a four-volume Draft Environmental Impact Statement, completed in July 2010 by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, in preparation for Salazar's ruling this week.
Four volumes. Full of government-speak on the merits of stretching cloth over six miles of the Arkansas River.
This isn't the only Christo project that's demanded excessive government review. For example, back in the 1980's, no fewer than eight local, state, and federal authorities had to conduct their own impact studies before Christo could wrap fabric around eleven islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay.
Perhaps the fact that Christo's team hauled off 40 tons of garbage from the islands before floating their fabric around them compensated as a public service effort.
But how much public service comes with Christo's drive to improve nature with... man-made fabrics?
Granted, his stunt of wrapping Berlin's famous Reichstag was kind of cool, and even somewhat symbolic, considering the building's bitter history. He's also wrapped a bridge, which helped give him the idea for his current Colorado exploits. But isn't there a big difference between shrouding in white fabric a building that millions of Jews despised, and stringing fabric along a rugged waterway in the Rockies?
What the World Needs is Fabric
Christo constantly crows about aesthetics and art, even when he insists on foisting human foibles of fabric onto some of the prettiest natural environments on Earth. In addition to the eleven islands near Miami, Christo has strung his orange cloth across a Colorado valley, along hilly fields in California, and against part of Australia's rocky coastline.
As if fabric makes the whole world prettier. Natural topography is nothing without draperies. And rugged shores Down Under need a bit of softening-up.
He may not believe this, but Christo's Namesake made these valleys, hills, and shorelines as elaborate testaments to His mastery of creativity. Can they really be improved upon?
If Christo is so keen on aesthetics, why does the beauty of nature elude him so? Or does his own ego - and the infatuation of his ardent fans - propel him on flights of fancy? It wouldn't be the first time an artist becomes consumed by their own supposed importance.
Remember, this is not a debate about the definition of art. In actuality, might this be a lesson in real time about the Tower of Babel, and mankind's insatiable desire to be their own god?
To the extent the lesson of our own hubris can be reflected in Christo's appetite for the absurd and belief that mortal confections trump natural grandeur, then perhaps his latest attempt at bridging reality with contrivance provides a provocative metaphor for human life.
I believe the term is called "gilding the lilly."
Which means that if I went down to Calloway's Nursery and bought a live lilly, and melted down some gold jewelry to use as paint, I could probably accomplish - for far less money - what Christo thinks he will.
Because after all, I feel pretty confident in saying that considering all the things our world genuinely needs right now, it won't be a better place with either my gilded lilly.
I wonder if he plays the violin?