Rudy's duty

Culture | Giuliani's tiff with the Brooklyn Museum of Art shows the difference between censorship and sponsorship

Issue: "Can the boom last?," Oct. 16, 1999

Health Warning: The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder, or palpitations, you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition."

This was the advertisement for a traveling art exhibit called "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," opening at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But it is the New York art world that is exhibiting the shock, anxiety, and palpitations. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is taking the exhibit seriously as a threat to societal health. If the exhibit goes on as planned, he has promised to cut off the $7 million annual subsidy the museum receives from city taxpayers.

The show includes a painting by Chris Ofili titled "The Holy Virgin Mary," a depiction of Mary smeared with elephant manure and decorated with dozens of cutouts of female genitalia from pornographic magazines. Another painting depicts the Last Supper with a topless woman in the place of Jesus.

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Traditionally, the purpose of art has been to create works of beauty and meaning-working in media such as stone or wood-with a view to elevate and enrich the culture. But some of today's artists, such as Mr. Ofili, are not concerned with aesthetics; they are attempting to be "transgressive." Their method is to violate purposefully social conventions, moral laws, sacred beliefs, and even aesthetic principles. Artistic pleasure becomes nothing more than the thrill of rebellion, the tang of evil.

The latest medium for the current culture of death, in addition to excrement, is flesh. The "Sensation" exhibit includes grisly formaldehyde jars of animals that have been cut in two. It also features a large portrait of the British serial killer Myra Hindley-who sexually tortured and murdered children. The sympathetic depiction was created out of children's handprints.

Mayor Giuliani reasoned that these kinds of assaults on "community values"-which go too far even when the community is New York City-should not be paid for by the public's tax dollars. "You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion," Mr. Giuliani said. "And therefore we will do everything that we can to remove funding for the Brooklyn Museum until the director comes to his senses and realizes that if you are a government-subsidized enterprise, then you can't do things that desecrate the most personal and deeply held views of people in society."

(Perhaps the next step for the pro-choice Republican mayor should be to take a stand against public-funded abortions, which also violate "the most personal and deeply held views of people in society." But, I digress.)

Hillary Clinton, who is planning to run against Mr. Giuliani in the upcoming Senate race, had a different view: "It's not appropriate to penalize and punish an institution such as the Brooklyn Museum." While staking her position to line up with the New York upper classes, she went on to say that she shares "the feeling that I know many New Yorkers have that there are parts of this exhibit that would be deeply offensive." Echoing the bromide that if you don't like pornography, don't buy it, or if you don't believe in abortion, don't get one-reducing all social issues to personal choice-she concluded, "I would not go to see this exhibit." But she would demand that New Yorkers pay for the exhibit with their tax dollars.

Many avant-garde artists consider themselves bold and courageous in being willing to rebel against the conventions of society. But threaten their funding, and they sound like the bourgeois money-grubbers they like to make fun of.

Though they purport to offer "Sensation," the artists of such works sound remarkably wimpy once their art is challenged. Chris Ofili, who created the scatological Virgin Mary, insists that his intended meaning was not sacrilege, that in certain African cultures elephant manure is not disrespectful.

"The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine," he protests. And yet, a canon of contemporary art is that the artist's interpretation is not the point, that the viewer's interpretation is all that matters, so that the meaning of a work of art is its impact on the individual viewer. How disappointing that a postmodern artist is willing to throw out his own theories so quickly. Surely Mayor Giuliani has a right to his own interpretation.

The art establishment called the mayor's action "censorship," a violation of freedom of speech. But the mayor did not prevent the artists from expressing themselves. To refuse to buy something is not censorship. Those who are not buying pornography, as the liberals recommend, are not censoring it. A city that does not spend taxpayer money on blasphemous art is not censoring it.


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