Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

David and Art - "A Triumphal Arch"

L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped

Even after his passing, a prominent artist is still giving us the chance to see beauty by shrouding the familiar.

Click to listen to this episode.
Click the title above to read along.

The Arc de Triomphe is one of the great landmarks of Paris. Built between 1806 and 1836 to celebrate the triumphs of Napoleon and the Revolution, it is over 160 feet high and just under 150 feet wide. It’s made of limestone and festooned with various impressive sculptures. And recently, it spent a couple of weeks completely wrapped in 25,000 square meters of a silvery-blue fabric secured with red ropes. It was a striking and beautiful sight. It was also the long-planned project of a world-famous artist named Christo. He died in May 2020, before he could see the realization of a project he had been dreaming of and designing since 1961.

The monument remained wrapped for only 16 days from Saturday, September 18 to Sunday, October 3, 2021. Like all his monumental projects this one was funded by the sale of his preparatory drawings and collages, various of his smaller works from the 1950s and 1960s, and original lithographs. No public money was used for this, or any of his projects, no matter how public they were.

So, considering he died over a year ago, how does he get credit for this work? It’s a question that also dances around the work of Andy Warhol, particularly the images he designed but that were then produced by others.

As the definition of art widened in the 20th century under the creative pressures of evolving modernism, it became accepted that art was far more than just paintings or sculptures. More than the material from which it was made or the image that it portrayed, what made something art was the creativity behind its creation. So even though Christo and his wife, who was his partner in designing all his work, are no longer with us it is the case that this evanescent work of art is unquestionably his.

Another thing that this episode in the art world shows us is that our default assumption about a work of art being permanent is not always accurate. When we think of art we often think of the Mona Lisa or something by Rembrandt or Vermeer; something in a museum that’s been around a long time. And we assume such things will be with us into the future. All art isn’t like that. Art with a capital A is permanent, but some works of art are more powerful because they’re transient. They’re here, they show us something, they make us look at something familiar in a fresh way, and then, like the person who thought them up, they’re gone.

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.