'There is no why, and it doesn't mean anything. It is only a work of art." So spoke Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the artists who created "The Gates." For those who weren't around New York City during the two-week display last month, "The Gates" was a "public art event" - a series of 7,500 saffron fabric panels arranged along 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park, at the cost of $21 million to the creators.
The New York Times went gaga over the exhibit. "Even at first blush, it was clear that 'The Gates' is a work of pure joy, a vast populist spectacle of good will and simple eloquence, the first great public art event of the 21st century," wrote art critic Michael Kimmelman. "The gates, themselves a cure for psychic hardship, remind us how much those paths vary, in width, and height, like the crowds of people who walk along them. More than that, being so sensitive to nature, they make us more sensitive to its effects."
I'm not pro-Gates or anti-Gates. I don't really care, one way or the other, because the artists are footing the bill, as opposed to taxpayers. What does concern me is the ridiculous outpouring of praise for this ambitious but somewhat shabby enterprise. The fact is, "The Gates" doesn't mean anything. And the fact that it doesn't mean anything should mean something to us - it should mean that this work doesn't deserve to be labeled "great art."
Over the last century, we've seen a breakdown in traditional systems of art, literature, and music. In art, we've seen the death of the artist striving to put his message before the world and the rise of the artist creating something to be seen solely in the eye of the beholder. The thrill of art used to be the thrill of discovery - of realizing, at last, what the artist was saying and identifying with his message. Now, art promotes narcissism - what do you see in this Coke can? Remove the artist from the art, and you have nothing but an endless series of Rorschach tests hung in museums and sold for thousands of dollars.
With the rise of rampant subjectivism in art, it is harder and harder for art to evoke deep emotion in its audience: The audience has to do all the work. As viewer Anna Brook, age 22, told me, "Great art needs to evoke a feeling, to connect to the inner being; this was interesting from an engineering standpoint but nothing else. There was no connection to the human condition, as there is in the art of a Michelangelo or Renoir. It was well worth seeing, but it wasn't great art."
Other forms of art have similarly discarded age-old systems in favor of subjectivism or at least purposeful inscrutability dictating subjectivism. The "music" of John Cage in 4'33" is literally four minutes and 33 seconds of room noise. The "literature" of James Joyce in "Finnegan's Wake" is over 700 pages of nonsensical drivel. Here's a line from the first page: "The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their unturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfrist loved livvy."
The need for subjectivism dictates that rigorous rules be cast aside. Paintings don't have to look like anything. Music doesn't have to sound like anything. Literature doesn't have to say anything. Because, you see, the art, the music, the literature - it's all within you.
Of course, rampant subjectivism didn't stop with art. Over the past century, traditional morality has been discarded in favor of personal morality. Subjectivism in art means the death of art; subjectivism in morality means the death of a functioning society.
Amorality - the lack of objective moral standards applicable to everyone - quickly devolves into immorality. Even supposedly private actions have externalities; if everyone has his or her own set of rules, the externalities become endless. If millions are harming and being harmed, all in the name of personal autonomy without limits, chaos becomes inevitable. The only solution is state control or open anarchy. It is the Hobbesian war of all against all. Only hang-ups about the virtues of democracy prevent such war from becoming open.
So let's enjoy "The Gates" for what it is - something pretty and new. But let's not buy into the idea that anything at all can be great art - or great literature, music, or morality. Subjectivism can be fun, but it shouldn't be the standard.
• Ben Shapiro, a student at Harvard Law School, is the author of the book 'Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America's Youth.' © 2005 Creators Syndicate, Inc.