Cows vs. The Gates

In terms of the big public arts projects in New York, I kind of liked the cows more than the Gates, now that I think about it. As noted, if the Gates had been done when they were first proposed, it would have been a mighty civic gesture, perhaps the beginning of a reclamation of New York’s public spaces from decades of neglect. That it was done in 2005, long after the hard work of reclamation was already done, it was reduced in possible significance, so that the Gates became only one of a series of big public art works we had in the city. The Cows were the previous large, temporary work that I can remember (setting aside the towers of light in the wake of 9/11), and it may be worth a triffling moment to think about both of them together.

The Gates in many ways is dictatorial. It’s Christo’s vision of Central Park, to some degree exclusive of the visions of others about the Park. True, people moving underneath the Gates and their responses to all that saffron would always be a feature of this sort of public work — it’s interactive — but the look of the Park comes from one man. It’s intrusive: there was a certain amount of “I want my Park back” after a few moments, when the wonder of the Gates wears off.

The Cows, on the other hand, were far more democratic and wide-spread. Individual cows were the creations of local artists working to reflect and comment on each cow’s surroundings: the cows generally didn’t feel intrusive. The cows were also distributed throughout the city and not simply concentrated in Manhattan, so there’s no outer borough neglect with this public art. The cows were charming.

But the Gates seemed to trump the Cows in news coverage. I don’t remember large parts of the Met geared towards the Cows, nor large parts of The Times. That the Cow Parade started in Chicago rather than spring from the mind of a pair of European artists probably didn’t help: the Cows were too American in some sense (though the Parade is now worldwide). The Cows weren’t high art, I suppose, though how that designation gets applied is unclear.

Update: The economic impact of The Gates is apparently staggering, bringing about $250M of business to the city. I don’t think the Cows were quite as big.

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