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On the Misallocation of Funds
by Thomas Micchelli
The island of Laputa, as described by Captain Lemuel Gulliver in his famous Travels, is a perfectly circular, airborne disk whose privileged population busies itself with fruitless pseudoscientific experiments like reconstituting food out of dung while remaining oblivious to the squalor of the peasants living in its shadow.
I thought of the Laputians after taking a brief turn around the now-departed Gates planted by Christo, Jeanne-Claude, and hordes of laborers along the paths of Central Park. I admit that my reaction might seem curmudgeonly given the hundreds of smiling, upturned faces enjoying the artwork under the threat of a winter storm warning, but I immediately sensed something, or rather, several things wrong with it. The first was the plug-ugliness of the individual stanchions, which felt aggressively hulking and blunt. Another was the color, which was advertised as saffron but has been unkindly, though accurately, compared to orange traffic cones. I was reminded of plastic Halloween pumpkins. But the underlying and most troublesome issue was the Gates’ violation of the aesthetics of the park itself. They introduced a harsh, right-angled artificiality across the shoulders of the city’s most sublime refuge from urbanism. And while politicians and editorialists have praised them for adding a splash of color to the dormant landscape, their bright neon orange felt like an affront to the serenely melancholy silver-and-bronze palette that is Central Park in February.
But the parallels to the Laputians come from a different angle—specifically, a wide angle—for only when I was at the edge of the park and looking back across a broad, flat plane that the installation seemed to make sense. Its strident orange deepened to a reddish rust, and the stanchions, which felt stranded and helter skelter up close, coalesced into cascading, crisscrossing abstractions. Get far enough away or high enough in the sky, and the world’s pointless junctures and blind alleys snap into smooth geometries.
In May 2004, Christo and Jeanne-Claude published a book of project drawings called On the Way to the Gates. The images are nothing if not gorgeous, and it’s easy to see the proposal’s appeal to city officials. In one rendering, a bird’s-eye view, the Gates dot the park’s paths like yellow-orange Pentecostal flames against an expansive gunmetal-gray field. In another, the fabric, caught by a strong wind, billows in radiantly translucent, silken undulations. But as constructed, the fabric was not saffron silk but orange PVC vinyl, which tends not to puff gently in the breeze but to hang, heavy and inert, like a ’70s shower curtain. And the slender poles in the drawings became, of necessity, bulky steel beams. Nevertheless, we respond to the project not in its compromised, nuts-and-bolts reality but as we expect it to be. The object’s approximations of its own Platonic ideal, if you will, become signs or stand-ins for the features it just can’t match, as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco pointed out decades ago. And the farther you move away from it, the easier it is to believe in its purposefulness and perfection.
The Gates cost something on the order of $20 million to pull off. Christo and Jeanne-Claude raised the money themselves through gargantuan efforts, refusing corporate or governmental sponsorship, and they have donated their merchandising rights to charity. They seemed sincere, if a bit grandstanding, in their passion to create something they viewed as beautiful and beneficial to the city. And the project didn’t kill anyone, as their giant umbrellas tragically did in Japan; to the contrary, it obviously pleased a great many more people than it displeased. Still, to blow $20 million on a 16-day installation carries uncomfortable resonances for our use it up and throw it out society. Not to take Christo and Jeanne-Claude to task—they earned the money honestly and honorably and can do what they want with it—but on a symbolic level, in America today, a civic and cultural endeavor that expends an enormous sum on an ephemeral gesture feels like a colossal waste. Perhaps its time came and went during its long gestation and would have been more fitting in the fat, happy Clinton years. But now we are in financial free fall, and due to the priorities of the current administration, anything that nourishes the human mind and spirit or sustains our cities has gone begging.
“A billion dollars a day for Detroit,” the activist-poet June Jordan once intoned, citing the amount of taxes allocated for the military. Why on earth does that sound ludicrous to us? Why, instead, does it not seem ludicrous that the military budget has increased 30 percent since Jordan wrote those words?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Two years ago I was in Rome during the last harrowing weeks before the American invasion of Iraq. The city absolutely gleamed with new museums, refurbished monuments, and resurrected neighborhoods—a testimony to what’s possible when a nation devotes its treasure to perfecting its cities and not its bombs.
But a majority of Americans, through apathy, ignorance, naive idealism, or all of the above, continues to believe that their government has their best interests at heart, just as the Laputian alchemist believes he can reconstruct expended nutrients while all he’s got is shit on his hands. Thankfully, that majority is steadily shrinking. In the meantime, the president’s Uncle Bucky has pocketed a half-million dollars in a single month from stock options buoyed by a no-bid contract for the war in Iraq, while in New York the homeless mentally ill, deprived of support services, have returned en force to the city’s railway stations and subway tunnels. And the war planners, far removed from the stink, blood, and sand of battle, draw up new attack strategies and budget proposals.
Life is beautiful from Laputa.