Two art-centered controversies unfolding here in Colorado have grabbed national attention, in part because they lend themselves so easily to use – in whatever oversimplified and distorted form – in other debates. The first involves “Over the River”, a proposed work of environmental art by artist Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009. (The second, concerning the destruction of an allegedly blasphemous work of art on display in Fort Collins, by Montana trucker Kathleen Folden, I’ll cover in a future entry.)
“Over the River” would consist of 5.9 miles of silver fabric draped like an intermittent canopy along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River as it flows through the mountains approximately 100 miles southwest of Denver. The two artists are famous for wrapping landmarks such as the Reichstag in Berlin, the Pont-Neuf in Paris, and the islands of Biscayne Bay in similar lengths of fabric.
Christo’s environmental works have always ignited controversy, and “Over the River” is no exception. Given the polarized political climate, and the project’s location in rural Colorado (not far from the rightwing bastion of Colorado Springs), the debate sometimes takes on the all-too-familiar overtones of cultural warfare: urban vs. rural, outsiders vs. locals, elitists vs. populists. But a closer look at the debate reveals a far more complex picture.
The most outspoken opposition group, ROAR (Rags Over the Arkansas River) has labeled Christo an “eco-terrorist.” I find this a confusing choice of terminology, as I always thought eco-terrorists (like ELF – the Earth Liberation Front) committed terrorism on behalf of the environment, rather than against it. The point, I suppose, is to label Christo as an outsider imposing his vision on locals while playing on fears about the environmental impact of the project. Another local opponent, quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazette, declares that “hanging rags over the river is like hanging pornography in a church”, an image that recalls the charges of obscenity and blasphemy leveled at other works of art.
The image of the canyon as a church is also evoked by Froma Harrop, writing for the Providence Journal, who calls it a “masterpiece”, a “natural work of art”, “crafted by the Creator.” The irony here is that Harrop’s view depends on the same aestheticized response to the landscape that drew Christo and Jeanne-Claude to the canyon in the first place.
Perceiving rugged and difficult natural terrain as uniquely beautiful is, in historical terms, a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to the Romantic era and owing much to Edmund Burke’s meditations on the “sublime.” Earlier generations tended to value landscapes for their fertility and ease of cultivation. Mountains, canyons, and deserts represented, at best, a practical difficulty, at worst, a theological problem — why would a good God make bad lands? — as shown by Marjorie Hope Nicolson in her classic work of environmental history, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory.
Mike Keppner, writing to the Denver Post in response to Harrop and others, was quick to point out another contradiction: “None of the writers pointed out the massive damage that the construction of a railroad through the canyon must have caused to the ‘natural’ beauty, not to mention the highway construction that followed and continues today…The future of the canyon is truly threatened – but not by Christo.” (Another Coloradan declared that Christo should just drape the abandoned railroad cars scattered throughout the canyon.)
Ed Quillen, a journalistic authority on the state’s environment and history, as well as a resident of Salida, one of the towns affected by the project, makes an even more telling point in an article for the High Country News. The Arkansas River has long been absorbed into the network of water diversion projects that make life in Colorado possible. Its flow is adjusted seasonally by engineers, to accommodate rafting in the summer and the spawning of brown trout in the fall (rafting and fishing are two major sources of revenue in the area). “In other words, the essence of the river – the water flowing in its bed – is a human artifact, not a phenomenon of raw nature.”
Quillen aims to unsettle those who worship the canyon and places like it as untouched nature. Yet one group of proponents may feel quite at home with such views – those who support the project on pro-business grounds. These supporters note approvingly that all of Christo’s projects are privately funded – no tax dollars involved – and seem at ease with the idea of an artist imposing his vision on nature (virgin or otherwise).
“It’s the American way – creative and entrepreneurial,” said canyon resident Mark Rowland at a town meeting. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke in support of the project on a recent visit to Denver, saying it could boost tourism revenue and “put Colorado on the map” by showing the world that “people from Colorado are open to new ideas.”
The Colorado Springs Gazette develops this theme most fully, in an unsigned editorial subtitled “Artist proposes a genuine gift of wealth.” The authors define wealth as “the creation and production of goods and services that elevate the human condition.” They note approvingly that “Christo creates wealth by daring to express the bold and unique ideas in his head. The value of his wealth is represented by cash, which he invests in more beauty.” Christo, meet Howard Roarke?