So I’ve been to New York to see The Gates and here’s my verdict: They’re silly. And not the laugh-out-loud “Ministry of Silly Walks” kind of silly, I’m sorry to report, but more the “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” kind of silly. Put me down as a thoroughly underwhelmed attendee of Gate Pride Week.
Mind you, The Gates are not as silly as The Vagina Monologues, although they’re, uh…ahem, right up there. They’re not nearly as silly as The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia. And they’re nowhere near as silly as (brace yourselves) Angels In America (is that even legal to say?). But even by New York City standards The Gates are still pretty silly in the sense of all that’s been said and done in the service of a project whose apparent sole purpose was to induce the murmuring of, “I don’t know…what do you think? And when’s brunch?”
For the lucky few who’ve been sequestered these past few weeks, The Gates is (are?) the latest opus from Belgian artiste Christo. To give you an idea of the scale of Christo’s vision, his other major works (there are no minor ones) include erecting giant umbrellas along the California’s coastline, encasing the Reichstag in tinted Saran Wrap, and (if memory serves) whatever the heck that was that Kirstie Alley wore to the last People’s Choice Awards.
The Gates consist of 7,500 steel and plastic rectangular archways with saffron-colored curtains adorning the 23 miles of Central Park’s meandering walkways. The creation of this unique 16-day event required 900 workers, 5,290 tons of steel, 60 miles of nylon tubing, and an inexhaustible supply of people with disposable incomes starving for entertainment. Yes, friends, this is the kind of thing that can happen when you let hockey players go on strike.
Which brings us to the price tag for The Gates: a cool $20 million. Or as a nearby homeless guy helpfully reminded me, $20 million and change. In other words, it’s about half as much as we just spent to launch the second term of a guy whose doing at least a passable job of democratizing the Middle East. Which is funny, because my guess is that most of people who roamed through The Gates murmuring about what it all means and what time’s brunch are the likely many of the very same people who, just last month, were wailing and gnashing their teeth about spending $40 million on an inaugural when there was a war going on, a natural disaster (tsunami) to deal with, and a deficit problem. In other words, exactly the same conditions as the day the curtain went up on The Gates.
One brilliant pundit who took issue with the inaugural wrote a clever column about what else we could buy with $40 million. Wait, it wasn’t one columnist, it was dozens of Bush-hating scribes who, I think we can assume, hadn’t been invited to any inaugural balls, even the lame ones. Their premise seemed to be that we could end the war in Iraq, clean up after the tsunami, and maybe bail out Social Security if only President Bush would just cancel his stupid old inaugural. I can’t prove it but I’m fairly certain Nancy Pelosi did the math on that one with some help from Barbara Boxer.
It was pointed out endlessly that FDR’s last wartime inaugural was a simple luncheon of chicken salad and pound cake, as if the author of the New Deal could teach George W. Bush a thing or two about being frugal (let that one sink in for just a moment, won’t you?). Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban blogged the President thus: “As a country we face huge deficits. We face a declining economy. [Really?] We have service people dying. We face responsibilities to help those suffering from the…devastation of the tsunami. Start by canceling your inauguration parties and festivities.” Note that during the current season, a time of war, deficit and natural disaster, Cuban will be paying his Mavericks some $90 million to play basketball.
ABC’s Terry Moran began a segment on Bush’s second inaugural with the words, “In a time of war and natural disaster, is it time for a lavish celebration?” AP’s Will Lester suggested that instead of an inaugural the $40 million could have been spent on armored Humvees or vaccinations for children in the tsunami areas– as was undoubtedly true during Bill Clinton’s last inaugural. Columnist/author Mitch Albom wrote, “He’s [Bush] not a new arrival. And we are at war. Our children are dying”– making Mitch Albom the first Bush hater, so far, to successfully morph “the children” with “the soldiers”. Lest there be any doubt about his party affiliations, Albom tossed in, “It [the inaugural] is a brazen display of victory and ego.” Presumably Mitch is now hard at work on his next best-seller, Wednesdays With Hillary.
So why compare spending $40 million on Bush’s reelection end-zone dance to spending $20 million turning Central Park into the world’s most dangerous Gated community? I mean besides the fact that each is, on some level, silly? Because each was a symbolic event whose larger meaning transcended its price tag. And of course, each took place even as battles raged, deficits crept, and hungry children cried somewhere. As if there were ever a time in human history when they didn’t.
So what’s the difference? One of the events in question took place in the bluest part of the bluest state, in the name of art, for the amusement of the elites, by a guy from Europe, and the other was in honor of a president who supposedly hates all of those things. One was a celebration, the other a scandal. One starved hungry children, the other fed the soul. So let’s not kid ourselves: Your feelings about The Gates, like your feelings about Iraq, Social Security, and perhaps even Jesus, may just depend upon how you feel about George W. Bush.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for any project, public or private, that keeps the Bush-hating harpies occupied while the adults in the room are fighting a war, saving Social Security, and so on. But please, no more lectures on symbolic austerity from partisan spoilsports who found the Bush inaugural lavish and Christo’s latest cry for help empowering. If that sounds like you, and if you’ve got any thoughts you’d like to share with me on the moral implications of lavish public spectacle during times of war and want, be sure and drop me a line when you get back from the Oscars.
–Ned Rice is a staff writer on the new and improved CBS talk show The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.