Gates of Eden

Ignorance appears to be a badge of honor for press critics of the proposed park gates

The artist Lawrence Halprin is easy to reach. He has an office in San Francisco that he shares with his small staff, which includes Dee Mullen, his longtime design partner, and Andrew Sullivan, Halprin's assistant. Sullivan answers the phone amiably. Yes, he's heard there's a bit of a firestorm over the gates Halprin has designed for Forest Park. He checks Halprin's schedule and says Larry is due to arrive at the office in the afternoon -- call back later.

That same afternoon, Halprin returns the call himself. He's home with a cold. "Normally I'm in my office during the day," says the 85-year-old artist. "I haven't stayed at home during the week for a long time. It's very pleasant," he laughs. "I had a long talk with my dog this morning."

His voice is a trifle weak because of the cold or age or a combination of the two, but he's more than happy to talk. Part of what his work is about is engagement, and he's not one to shy away from controversy. He's a little surprised about the negative reaction the gates have received in St. Louis, "but brouhahas about art are very important," he says. "I think they're wonderful. Everybody participates, and I think art is there so people can participate in it. I'm not nervous about it at all. I'm delighted."

Lawrence Halprin: "I should confess to you that I consider that these may very well be one of the most important things I've ever done."
Lawrence Halprin: "I should confess to you that I consider that these may very well be one of the most important things I've ever done."

This is from the man who designed the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., and weathered controversy over his decision to show the sainted president in his wheelchair -- as Roosevelt was never publicly depicted during his lifetime. More than 30 years ago, Halprin designed the Lovejoy Fountains in Portland, Ore. Back in 1966, those weren't too highly thought of, either, in what was then a rather sleepy Northwestern city. Hippies got to playing in the fountains, and police got to escorting them out, until Halprin said, 'Wait a minute -- those fountains are made for people to play in.' Today they're one of the treasures of a now-hip, burgeoning metropolis. "That was one of the joyful experiences of my life," Halprin recalls. "That was one of the early times that I was able to do something that was citywide and that people really enjoyed. That had a lot of people yelling about why did we do this, why did we do that -- and they became adult playgrounds."

Halprin doesn't mind a lot of people yelling about something he's designed: "We artists are not any better than anybody else; it just happens that we have a way of looking at the world and certain kinds of abilities just like somebody else can make cars or is a carpenter. We have this particular thing that we do. I think they're important, just like cars or carpentry or music or something else. They're for people to enjoy, not just to be abstracted. In that sense, I think it's fine that people express themselves. I feel here that most of the comments that I've seen have no reference to what I'm really doing. That's my only concern."

By their own admission, Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman and Riverfront Times columnist Ray Hartmann didn't bother to look into what Halprin was really doing with the proposed gates. They chose to wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. "I'll be the first to admit that I don't know much about art," Freeman wrote in his July 4 column, "Please Don't Give Us Gates From Hell for Our Heavenly Park." Hartmann, for his part, touted his "D-plus in seventh-grade art class" in his take on Halprin's art ["And Now, Gategate," RFT, July 18]. Nowhere else in journalism do commentators get away with exulting over their lack of knowledge as they do when it comes to matters of art. Imagine: "I don't know much about public housing, but ..." "I don't know much about city government, but ..." "I don't know much about this stadium deal, but ..." Yet with art, willful ignorance somehow becomes a virtue, and the rules of basic journalism are dispensable. Freeman, returning an inquiry from the RFT, says, "No, I did not either contact or attempt to contact the artist of the gates when I wrote my column. I'm not really an art critic and didn't really see a need to contact him. I based my column on what I thought." Nor did millionaire columnist Hartmann bother racking up a long-distance charge to ask Halprin his intentions. It was too easy to play it cute and dumb.

Yet the proudly uninformed Hartmann and Freeman manage to pose charges of elitism from their own heads. "Unfairly, this pits the unwashed masses against Halprin, a man -- heretofore unknown to us yokels," is how man of the people Hartmann smugly characterized the debate. Freeman apparently hasn't bathed in a while, either: "Still, I think artists sometimes play jokes on the rest of us by producing all sorts of ugly pieces and telling us that they're art. If we dare say that we don't get it, they tell us that we, the unwashed masses, simply don't understand the art."

Freeman sounds afflicted by some elitist snob looking down his nose at the poor, ignorant local columnist, but it sure wasn't Halprin. Call it a debate with an imaginary enemy. And as far as an artist's playing jokes on the soapless citizenry, here's what Halprin does have to say about the gates in relation to a career that has spanned a half-century: "I'm very proud of these," he tells the RFT. "I should confess to you that I consider that these may very well be one of the important things I've ever done."

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