Christo and Jeanne-Claude's latest work of art-cum-landscape architecture-cum-media event is now dismantled; the bolts of orange fabric are probably on their way to be recycled into curtains, sheets, pillowcases, scarves, robes for Hare Krishnas and club wear as I write this; and all the art critics that matter have delivered their opinions on the project, most of them negative.
Ed Sozanski in The Philadelphia Inquirer pronounced "The Gates" out of scale with the Central Park walkways they straddled. And the high priest of High Modernism, Hilton Kramer, trashed them even worse in The New York Observer.
The problem with both of these critics' comments was that by focusing on the two-week-long physical installation, they failed to comment on the work as a whole.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are as much performance artists as they are visual artists. The work of art begins not with the actual wrapping or installation of the fabric, but with the initial proposal to call our attention to a physical object or space by accessorizing or packaging it. With that, the public--and the local officials whose assent is usually necessary for the installation to proceed--become collaborators. By arguing over whether a Christo and Jeanne-Claude project is a thing of beauty or a defacement; by either embracing the artists and basking in the 15 minutes of fame they bring to the site they alter, or by throwing up roadblocks to their project on whatever grounds--as happened with "The Gates" for nearly two decades--we actually advance Christo's ultimate goal, which is to force us to take a good, hard look at the environment around us--whether natural or man-made--and, one hopes, see it for what it is, and perhaps even what it might become.
For a little while, at least, Christo and Jeanne-Claude ask us to stop taking for granted the objects that define the places where we live, work and play, and think about their significance. Whether the fabric they use as the stimulus for thought is "appropriate" for the site or not is actually somewhat beside the point, for the fabric is not the work of art--it's the thing it envelops and our reaction to seeing it in a different light.