The cheery brunette dressed in the livery of the Brooklyn Museum of Art looked at me as if I were the answer to her wildest dreams. "Would you like to take the audio tour with David Bowie?" she chirped, headphones in hand. Just above her head was a small yellow sign that read Warning: This exhibition includes works of art that some viewers may find objectionable.
This is "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," the biggest news in blockbuster shows since the National Gallery was overrun by hordes of Vermeer lovers. You've probably read all about it--Damien Hirst's giant shark and bisected pig floating in formaldehyde-filled cases, Chris Ofili's elephant-dung-covered portrait of the Virgin Mary--and about how Rudolph Giuliani, New York's mayor and scold-in-chief, tried to stop it from opening by withholding $7 million in annual funding from the museum, which promptly sued the mayor and the city in order to get the money back. As of today, "Sensation" is open for business, and business it will surely do, even at a cool $9.75 a head, not counting audio tours or any of the various knickknacks for sale in the gift shop, including stuffed sharks, lunch boxes and official "Sensation" toilet paper.
"Official" is the right word for "Sensation," and not just because David Bowie likes it, either. Every imaginable Establishment type in New York is backing the museum, not to mention the hundred-plus fancy folk--Annie Leibovitz, Norman Mailer, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Tim Robbins among them--who signed a full-page ad in yesterday's New York Times announcing that they were "united in support of the principle that freedom of expression must include the artistic freedom to challenge and offend."
No, you aren't absolutely required to like "Sensation"--though failure to appreciate the transgressive subtleties of such objets d'art as Tracey Emin's "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995" or Mark Wallinger's "Race Class Sex" automatically renders you terminally unhip--but you'd damned well better voice unequivocal agreement that the show must go on, Rudy or (preferably) no Rudy, if you want to keep getting asked to the right cocktail parties.
Me, I don't go to cocktail parties, and I also don't much care for the odious smugness displayed by the likes of Glenn Scott Wright, the London representative for Ofili, painter of "The Holy Virgin Mary," who claims that Giuliani's determination to shut the show down "is both totalitarian and fascist, a reprisal of the Nazi regime's censorship of the contemporary art of its time which it labeled 'degenerate art.' " I suppose it's possible that Ofili has been arrested by the New York branch of the Gestapo and shipped off to a prison camp on Staten Island, but if so, nobody told me about it.
On the other hand, what do I know? I'm just a critic who went to the press preview of "Sensation" on Thursday, and except for one work by Rachel Whiteread, a prettily colored neo-minimalist installation called "Untitled (One-Hundred Spaces)," I found it a great big bore. To be sure, most contemporary British art is boring, and has been for as long as I can remember. (One of the very few redeeming qualities of "Sensation" is that it makes Anglophiles look silly.) British novels and plays are still about class war, British composers are still trying to figure out minimalism, British choreographers are still into angst--and British artists, as "Sensation" reveals at stupefying length, are still trying, poor dears, to be outrageous.
I hasten to assure Jake and Dinos Chapman, for example, that fabricating a fiberglass sculpture consisting of a crowd of naked women in sneakers with penises where their noses ought to be, then calling it "Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000)," isn't going to shock anybody in New York, except maybe Cardinal O'Connor. Nor can any amount of fawning catalogue verbiage--"The revival of formal figurative sculpture ushered in a quirky mix of children's clothing-store innocence stunted by a sprouting adult imagination"--conceal the fact that such art is strictly adolescent stuff, Marcel Duchamp for dull 12-year-olds.
No doubt with this in mind, the anonymous author of the captions accompanying the works in "Sensation" has couched them in the form of condescending little catechisms all too clearly intended to raise the consciousnesses of their benighted viewers. Thus Hirst's "This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home" is "explained" to the great unwashed public as follows: "Does this work condemn eating animals? In referring to a childhood rhyme, does its title hint at our loss of innocence when we kill animals? Or does Hirst simply make a plain fact graphically clear?" Forget David Bowie: The museum should have hired Mister Rogers to do the audio tour.
Note, by the way, that the aforementioned caption says nothing about the artistic effect, such as it is, of Hirst's split-pig assemblage. Artistic effects are not what "Sensation" is about; rather, the show is about ideas, meaning that you don't have to like these works in order to "appreciate" them. Once I've told you, for instance, that Marc Quinn's "Self" is a refrigerated Plexiglass box containing a bust of the artist sculpted in his own frozen blood, you know everything there is to know about "Self" that matters. Actually seeing it is superfluous. That's the nice thing about conceptual art: Once described, it need not be experienced.
You now owe me $9.75, but I won't sue you for it, just as I devoutly wish the mayor and the museum weren't dragging each other into court. The only people to emerge from this fracas unmutilated will be the lawyers, though the museum has more at stake and may be likelier to lose, the First Amendment not yet having been rewritten so as to stipulate that Congress shall make no law abridging the absolute right of taxpayer-subsidized museums to spend public monies in whatever way they see fit. It doesn't take an art-hating Philistine to figure out that this is a fight the Brooklyn Museum should never have picked in the first place--least of all over so pitifully lame a show as "Sensation."