What is truly reprehensible about the new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is not the work that has caused such a stir but the shabby connivances of the museum's directors. Hiding behind the First Amendment and Art, they are engaged in a cynical campaign to draw attention-- press notices such as the one you are reading now--and thus visitors and money to the museum.
There are, as both sides to the dispute between New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the museum are quick to point out, important issues at stake here. On one side is constitutionally protected freedom of expression, on the other is the taxpaying public's right to have some control over how its money is spent, in this case substantial amounts that are contributed to the Brooklyn Museum by New York City. This is not a frivolous matter, and as past court cases have made plain, it is not susceptible to easy resolution. In the words of David A. Strauss, a specialist in constitutional law at the University of Chicago, as quoted last week in the New York Times:
"This is a black hole of First Amendment law. No one really knows how to think about it, including the Supreme Court justices. On one hand, government officials can't have carte blanche in deciding what to fund and what not to fund. But on the other hand, it is clear the government is entitled to make some decisions on what it will fund and what it won't fund."
What is absolutely clear is that officials of the Brooklyn Museum have acted irresponsibly and opportunistically, provoking controversy in order to boost the exhibition (called "Sensation," itself calculatedly provocative) from the private collection of Charles Saatchi, the British adman, and abusing the privilege of public funding. The person chiefly accountable for this is Arnold Lehman, director of the museum, whose career I followed with considerable bemusement over a quarter-century in which our respective residencies in two cities (Miami and Baltimore) almost exactly overlapped.
Among people who know more than I about art there is disagreement about Lehman's curatorial abilities and his seriousness of artistic purpose. There seems no disagreement that he is a skilled political operator, a provocateur, an adroit masseur of the egos and wallets of the socially ambitious rich, and a dogged pusher of the artistic envelope. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Miami, he was a highly visible and occasionally controversial director; in the same role at the Baltimore Museum of Art, he presided over nearly two decades of relentless trendiness, the nadir being an exhibition of the jejune work of two stupendously narcissistic Brits, Gilbert and George.
It is assumed that Lehman was hired by the Brooklyn Museum to shake things up and attract attention in Manhattan, which tends to disbelieve that Brooklyn exists. The museum has a permanent collection of considerable distinction, but art by dead white males won't pull anybody across the Brooklyn Bridge these days. What Brooklyn needed was to shove that envelope right up against the wall, to feature art dealing in with-it stuff: "contemporary and pop culture, identity politics, feminism, cultural diversity and racism, mortality, memory, class and social criticism."
That's just what it got in "Sensation," for those words are lifted from the description of the exhibition on the museum's Web site. To get to it, you have to pass through a page that features a bright yellow rectangle on which is printed, in bold black, "HEALTH WARNING," and, below it: "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."
Those, as Elizabeth Kolbert put it in the New Yorker, are "archly exaggerated warnings of [the exhibition's] potentially hazardous effects"; as Michael Kimmelman wrote in the Times, "If the museum's own advertisement describes the work as nauseating, is it a surprise that people should assume, sight unseen, that it is?" This was just what Giuliani did, responding not just to the museum's come-ons but also to various religious and political factions that took offense. As a direct result the museum got more ink and air time for work it ballyhooed as "objectionable" to "some visitors" than it ever could have had it presented, say, the landscapes of George Inness or the sculptures of Henry Moore.
This may be clever art-museum management-- Lehman told the Times, with obvious delight, "Our phones are ringing off the hook, and everyone is saying, 'We'll be there, we'll be there' "--but it is a betrayal of the public trust. Yes, the museum has a right to present such work as it cares to, but it has a weighty responsibility, the handmaiden of public funding, to exercise that right with sobriety and care. The support of taxpayers is not license to thumb one's nose at taxpayers. The religious and moral sensibilities of ordinary people are not frivolous; they deserve, and should command, the respect and consideration of those who slop at the public trough.
Instead, the Brooklyn Museum of Art told the people of New York to shove it: If you don't like it, lump it. Giuliani may be wrong in his ham-handed attempts to muzzle the museum, but he is absolutely right to be offended and angry. It says here that the best thing the people of New York can do is vote with their feet, and walk as far away from "Sensation" as they can.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.