Christo's "Over the River": High art meets the local commute in the Wall Street Journal

As the official public comment period ends for Christo's "Over the River" project, the dialogue over the much-debated, $50-million landscape wrap seems to have devolved into two quite separate conversations.

One has to do with the aesthetic merits and possible economic impacts of stretching six miles of silvery fabric over the Arkansas River between Canon City and Salida. The other, suggests the Wall Street Journal, is something else entirely.

It's primarily about what a pain in the ass it is to be living in the target area of a world-famous artist's audacious, high-falutin vision.

Congressional leaders, art mavens, mayors and doyennes have lined up in support of the installation, seeing it as both a tourist draw and a culture coup on the order of Christo's celebrated "The Gates" in Manhattan's Central Park or his wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin. Although a final decision isn't expected until next spring, BLM officials seem to have few qualms about possible environmental issues surrounding "Over the River," particularly since the artist has committed to fund all installation and removal costs.

Yet there's a profound disconnect between what Christo is proposing and the way the project is seen among many residents of the area. That point is brought brilliantly home in a recent Journal feature that follows Christo on one of his many goodwill-building trips to the river communities.

We see the artist hanging out with his entourage at the Brown Palace and giving a talk at the Denver Art Museum. He speaks poignantly about the recent loss of his wife and longtime partner in art, Jeanne-Claude. But when he arrives to face local opponents to his proposal in the small burg of Cotopaxi, he wears a frozen smile and doesn't try to engage the naysayers at all. Even some of his supporters wonder if he understands what he's asking when he suggests that locals put up with the formidable traffic and delays the project will cause in the river canyon for months on end.

"I couldn't care less about Christo's artistic vision," Dan Ainsworth, head of the opposition group ROAR, remarked at the meeting. "We have to live here."

Of course, Christo is used to scoffers and dreary pragmatists trying to nix his ideas, and there's no way he's going to appease everyone -- particularly the more vocal members of ROAR, short for Rags Over the Arkansas River. But you wish he'd try a little harder to justify this particular work in this particular location than the Journal piece suggests he's doing.

Can a work of art be termed a success if it fails to engage the people who have to live with it every day of its existence? If it goes forward despite the local protests, "Over the River" may provide one kind of answer to that question.