Gated Community

So finally they are gone from our exquisite and majestic rus in urbe -- the collective obscenities of the collective ego of Mr. and Ms. Christo.

What were they supposed to symbolize, these thousands of dishrags hanging from their thousands of kitchen rails? The rigid banality of the urban fabric, gridding and right-angling the rich asymmetry of life into mathematical oblivion? That it's hip, yet again, to be square? Were these emergency signs warning us of a multiple collision just up the highway of American culture? Were they intended to remind us of the jumpsuits worn by the humans we are slowly murdering at Guantanamo Bay?

Or were they just the color of Ms. Christo's hair?

Everywhere you went, our beloved Central Park -- one of the few truly common treasures left to the unrich and unfamous and unbeautiful in our increasingly dollar-throttled city -- was marred by meaningless tacky curtains, blotting out the stark and intricate tracery of the trees' winter rood screen. You saw nothing, walking through them, above or before or behind, but mindlessly flapping laundry drying in the wind. Everywhere you gazed across Frederick Law Olmsted's carefully layered acres, elegantly scattered bodies of water, and brilliantly camouflaged monuments, the vistas we love and cherish were disfigured by running sores the color of traffic cones and fast food. No segment of the spectrum could have been less in tune with the cold, gray promise of February's Central Park, the apparently dead rock and earth and trees about to explode into life, engulfing us in white, red, pink, purple, and green, and every color in between them all. In what conceivable way did dishrags the color of bus seats and Gatorade celebrate what needed no celebration in the first place?

Hardly surprising that in a city run by a man who bought the mayoralty as openly as Boss Tweed, the spectacularly brainless chatter of the squawking heads was not of the purpose or beauty or even appropriateness of the “installation” but of the scores of millions of devalued and dishonored dollars the celebrity sheep would bring into the city. And where in all the garbage-littered hot air was there a mention of the one person -- Betsy Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park Conservancy and a woman for whom the word “legendary” was invented, whose iron will (concealed at all times in a velvet glove) gave us back the only truly beautiful colossus in Manhattan -- whose opinion about “The Gates” might have been of significance? A couple of years back in a Newsday profile she did give a passing pro forma endorsement of the Christos while saying that she kept her distance from such projects. That of course was long before the ‘artistic' dream became horrible reality. I never heard any of the pilot fish who now pass for journalists in our town even bother to get back to her - the woman without whom the Christo organism would never have had anything to pollute. It was Rogers who famously said that Central Park should never be used for private purposes, even the most well-intentioned and worthy ones, her prime example being a project proposed after the Armistice in 1918, whereby the North Meadow should be dug up and replicas of the trenches of Verdun be dug therein. “An atrocious idea,” Rogers would say politely, even three-quarters of a century after the proposal was aborted.

The Christo excrescences were neither well-intentioned nor worthy, and yet they were allowed to proceed -- and not just to proceed but to be welcomed as a massive boon to a park that needs no boons and to a city quite full enough already with rank-and-file phonies like the Christos.

This was art? By whose standards? This was beauty? Where was redemption? Social merit? Universality? Where was some hint of humor, or even entertainment -- ironic, mischievous, affectionate? Where was fond amusement or delicious regret? What was it about the garish dishrags that made us laugh or cry, or filled us with outrage or longing? What about them moved us to lofty thoughts or nobility of purpose or self-sacrifice? There were no such reactions because this was not, by even the most rubbery of modern standards, art, just the banal obscenity of self-seekers who'll go to any lengths to thrust their talent-free obsession with laundry into our unwilling faces. Self-seeking this craven makes Damien Hirst look like Duccio.

Perhaps the Christos' dishrags do symbolize something: an enfeebled and intimidated culture, hung out to dry. If “The Gates” have any message, it's that we are exhausted, wrung out, flapping in the breeze, at the mercy of whatever's in the air, destined only to be used and disposed of.

Disposable art? An oxymoron promoted by oxygenated morons. What will posterity think of “The Gates”? Nothing. Except -- should they come upon a visual record of the dishrags -- what impoverished fools we 21st-century New York mortals were.

There are a thousand doorways to cultural, artistic, social, and moral damnation, and millions have walked through them in the last two weeks. “The Gates” were the color of hell, and to pass through them was to abandon all hope.

Tony Hendra is an author and an actor. His runaway best-seller, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, will be published in paperback this April by Random House.