In 1977 a group of neo-Nazis planned a march in Skokie, Ill., a town where quite a few Holocaust survivors had gone to live. A furor ensued and some columnists, me included, ventured that the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech applied to the Nazis as well as the Kiwanis. The response was swift: Which side are you on, Cohen, I was asked--the Jews or the Nazis?
Well, duh, as is often said today.
Now, Skokie's Choice is running in New York. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has threatened to cut off the funds of the Brooklyn Museum of Art if it proceeds with a certain exhibition. The mayor, not to mention a whole lot of other people, has taken exception to one piece in particular, "The Holy Virgin Mary." It is by the British (and Catholic) artist Chris Ofili and it depicts Mary embellished with, among other things, elephant dung. "I think this show is disgusting," the mayor allowed.
The exhibition--"Sensation," as it is aptly called--is yet another example of artsy types forgetting who, precisely, butters their bread. Some years ago, the Corcoran did it in Washington with its Mapplethorpe show, and now it is being done in Brooklyn. Outside some favored Manhattan Zip codes, it would be hard to find many New Yorkers who think their tax dollars--the museum gets $7 million from the city--ought to go for a dung-spattered painting of the Virgin Mary.
And so Giuliani has gone to war. He's made himself champion of all things Catholic and wholesome--and, since he has the backing of the country's largest association of Orthodox Jewish organizations, all things Jewish and wholesome as well. As for Hillary Clinton, his likely senatorial opponent, he had a question for her out of the old union song: Which side are you on?
Did she favor despicable, pornographic filth or goodness, virtue and, I suppose, the American Way?
Clinton replied that she did not like the exhibition, would not go to see it, but felt the mayor had overreacted by threatening a funds cutoff.
"Well, then, she agrees with using public funds to attack and bash the Catholic religion," Giuliani retorted.
Even for Giuliani, who thinks he was elected Grand Inquisitor, this was a shocking statement--an authentic piece of political pornography funded, incidentally, with city money. With that one crack, he defined this issue in a way that few politicians could match. It was Skokie all over again. In this case, you're either an enemy of Catholics everywhere or you're not.
The exhibition is of questionable artistic merit. It is of unquestionable political stupidity. But it represents far less of a threat to the public than does the action of this single politician. For proof, note only that New York's proud and unparalleled artistic community waited days before it voiced its support of the Brooklyn Museum. It was, it is now clear, afraid of Giuliani. Many of its institutions get some city money.
It is easy enough to say that these problems could be avoided if only the government butted out of the arts altogether--no support. It is easy enough to say, also, that withholding funds is not censorship. A private museum could mount the show. To choose--art, textbooks, whatever--is not to censor, not always, anyway.
But the first choice was the city's--or, in other cases, the federal government's. The National Endowment for the Arts or the City of New York cannot play the role of curator. Once it makes a commitment, it must rely on the good judgment of its recipients not to do something reckless with the money. When that happens, though, it has to bite its tongue. Otherwise, you will have--as you do in New York--a cultural community fretting about the tastes of a bullying mayor.
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art the other day, a docent was reinstated after having been fired for showing a group of fifth-grade girls a sculpture depicting sex in the back seat of a car. The incident reminds us that the piece, "Back Seat Dodge '38," was once considered so "revolting" and "blasphemous" that in the 1960s the county tried to close down the exhibit. Until the recent firing, though, it had become just another piece of art--worthy, instructive and (usually) not controversial at all.
Who knows if this will happen with "The Holy Virgin Mary." Chances are that it, as with most art, will not pass the test of time. But boldness, daring, experimentation, the artistic imagination itself, will surely suffer if politicians like Giuliani use the power of government to police creativity. He forces us all to choose--this time between objectionable art and intimidating government.
Now, which side are you on?