The history of art is written as if men of genius lead the rest of the world – us, the public – from an imagined position at the front of culture. Whenever another great man dies, his biography is fitted into the story of successive “great lives” and so the point is illustrated, furnished with examples of genius at the helm of progress. This is true of Christo.
Christo, who died aged 84 on May 31, is usually pictured as the quintessential genius. Most often he is pictured alone – the man with his monumental achievements. This has been the case throughout his career – as true of his most recent works as it was in the 1960s and 1970s: the solo man wrapping up nature and architecture (he also wrapped women in his earliest works).
But most of Christo’s oeuvre was created working with his wife, the artist Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, as well as teams of experts. In all the reporting of the highly ambitious, eye-catching and popular interventions into urban and rural landscapes, his artist-wife collaborator is subsumed under his name. It exemplifies the cliché: “Behind every great man there stands a woman.”
Christo and his wife produced a range of artistic experiments including piles of oil drums and miles of umbrellas in sculptural interventions. But their most famous artworks are impossibly large wrappers of urban monuments and rural environments. They wrapped a piece of Australian coast near Sydney in 1968-69, some islands in Miami in 1980-83, the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1985 and the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995, among other things.
Until plastic became justifiably unfashionable for environmental reasons, these artistic interventions were generally understood as aesthetically pleasing, a benign way of drawing attention to the adjacent and enveloped forms, namely the shoreline, the trees, the ancient bridge. The machismo of such large-scale work was fairly unexceptional in the context of “land art” staples at the time, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970).
Christo’s credentials as environmentalist lay in the fact that the work was temporary, and he and Jeanne-Claude went to lengths on their website to explain how the art is “clean”. In the 20th century, their work was interpreted as environmentally sound and ecologically engaged, but in the 21st century the continued use of vast quantities of mined and man-made resources was met with criticism.
Context is everything
I note this to exemplify just one of the changes in the art’s reception over time. Over Christo’s long career, there have been other changes in how the work has been received and framed. Artists always work in contexts – and contexts change over time. Context informs how an artwork is understood. Once, Christo and other land artists were appreciated for their embodied anti-consumerism, anti-capitalist art practices – land art must be funded but it cannot be sold.
Today, this once integral part of its raison d’etre and context is eclipsed by a contemporary art world that embraces the market and the neoliberal idea that the market provides all that society and individuals need. Christo’s anti-consumerism therefore is no longer part of his narrative. Changes in the accepted narrative are always worth pointing out.
“The past is a foreign country” is a cliché, but the idea that “they do things differently there” is often overlooked by art historians bent on furnishing a history with genius. For historians – and consequently for most members of the public – a great artwork is great because it is the embodiment of genius. This appears to be common sense, but it is worth noting that the idea of genius was defined at the birth of art history in the 18th century in reference to classical antiquity. Genius was the product of a particular location: Europe, and – notably – a particular gender: male.
Subsequently this narrow definition of genius was projected across the world and the rest of humanity was found lacking. The relationship between genius and progress is intertwined. Without genius we have no progress.
Art in a changing world
Achievements in art and science are driven by a notion of progress. Culture progresses, according to the narrative, from the primitive and unformed, the uninformed, towards enlightenment which, as this idea of progress is an Enlightenment one, is rather neat. Prior to the Modern period, there was a different understanding of progress. Progress was seen as being towards heaven and the value of human intellectual and artistic endeavour was to the glory of God.
The purpose of culture and art, its role and value in society, has changed over time. Cultures, attitudes – and even the very definition of words such as “art” – change. Yet, somehow today and since the invention of art history and the concept of aesthetics, our reception of an artwork is supposed not to change. We assume a great artwork is a great artwork forever and in all contexts, that it is universal and transcendent of time and space.
Christo’s death serves as an example of how a history of progress is written. The genius of the artist exemplifies a given notion of progress. Progress is built on bigger, better, more expensive sole-authored achievements, a notion of genius that suppresses the collaborative and the complex.
In death, the artist is polished and their achievement is made glossy by smoothing out changes over time in the reception of the art and in the reasons for making art in the first place.
An impression is formed by the traditional art historian that, always and universally, the artist’s contribution to cultural progress is fixed and unmistakable, a stable step forwards. In reality, it wasn’t like that. It never is.