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  • The Brooklyn Museum of Art

  •   New York Art Show in a Heap of Controversy

    By Paula Span
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, September 24, 1999; Page C1

    NEW YORK, Sept. 23—He's particularly outraged, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has said, by a collage of the Virgin Mary dotted with elephant dung. He isn't impressed by the pickled pig carcasses, either. And he's taken dead aim at the Brooklyn Museum of Art: It will lose $7 million in city funds, he warns, unless it cancels a "sick" exhibit of British works scheduled to open next week.

    But the museum has vowed that the show will proceed regardless. And all the usual parties--outraged defenders of religion, infuriated civil libertarians, art world types rolling their eyes--are taking up their now-accustomed positions. The Culture Wars have flared anew, this time in a city that likes to think it's above such things and a state where the jousting may draw in would-be senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," which has already drawn throngs in London and Berlin, always aimed to be provocative. Its 90 works include a rotting cow's head and a shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, both by internationally known take-that artist Damien Hirst, another artist's sculpture made from his own frozen blood, and a portrait of a convicted child murderer fashioned from what look like tiny handprints. The Brooklyn Museum's ad agency came up with a cheerful mock "health warning" that's run in several publications and is slated to appear on city buses and in a half-page New York Times ad: "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety."

    But shock and confusion arose earlier than expected, once a Daily News story brought the show to the attention of the combative mayor. The City of New York provides almost a third of the Brooklyn Museum's $23 million annual operating budget, and Giuliani has announced that its monthly check won't be in the mail on Oct. 1 as long as "Sensation" remains on the calendar. Giuliani's probable opponent in next year's Senate race had nothing to say on the subject today, but the mayor had plenty.

    When a reporter asked Giuliani at his regular news briefing Wednesday whether the exhibit was offensive, he let fly. "Well, it offends me," he said. "The idea, in the name of art, of having a city-subsidized building have so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick. If someone wants to do that privately and pay for it privately, that's what the First Amendment is all about. . . . But to have the government subsidize something like that is outrageous."

    He declared that municipal funding will evaporate--it was not clear whether the threat also included millions budgeted for capital improvements to the 175-year-old museum, the city's second largest--"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."

    You can't? Norman Siegel, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, telephoned Museum Director Arnold Lehman today "just to say, 'We're here if you need us.' " His troops have brought two dozen free-expression lawsuits against Giuliani's administration, and he sounded almost eager to head to court again.

    People like Siegel and Joan Bertin, head of the National Coalition Against Censorship, spent hours on the phone today explaining to hordes of reporters their contention that while the government is not obliged to fund the arts, once it does--and the city underwrites more than 30 cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History--it cannot yank money because of the art's content.

    "If we write the brief, we use the transcript of the press conference to hang him on First Amendment grounds," Siegel promised, though he'd had no response from the beleaguered museum.

    The latest round in the draining, decade-old fight over the arts and government funding, which began with attempts to block NEA grants for works by artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, struck some as suspiciously timed.

    The mayor's statements were "so out of sync with what the First Amendment requires of public officials," Bertin noted slyly, "I can only assume he must be running for the Senate." Perhaps, Siegel mused, a fund-raising letter to supporters in the hinterlands, portraying Giuliani as a staunch slayer of godless artists, was already being drafted.

    Whereas "Hillary Clinton was always there for the arts," said SoHo art dealer Ronald Feldman, who served for five years on the National Council on the Arts. "She's not afraid."

    The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, on the other hand, sent not-yet-a-resident Clinton a letter that pointedly included subway directions to the Brooklyn Museum. "Just being helpful," quipped the group's William Donohue. The League has urged Catholics--including teachers taking their charges on field trips--to boycott the museum.

    Whatever the outcome--City Council Speaker Peter Vallone says the mayor's refusal to disburse budgeted funds is "an illegal act" and could spark a lawsuit on those grounds as well--artfolk have reacted primarily with mortification. New York simply hates to appear more provincial than Berlin or London, where the tabloids had a field day but the funding and the crowds remained unaffected.

    "There's a lot of work that's as challenging as anything in the Brooklyn Museum show that's exhibited all the time in New York public museums," dealer Jeffrey Deitch said. "There's a big exhibit up right now"--but he declined to specify the one he had in mind, lest the mayor take umbrage.

    "This is what happens in Cobb County--this is Newt Gingrich stuff," lamented Feldman, referring to a Georgia funding brawl. "It's absurd for the art capital of the world to have a mayor do this. It's embarrassing."

    Lost in the counter-punching, as usual, was much consideration of the actual art involved, which will be on display through Jan. 9. A nervous Brooklyn Museum spokeswoman, Sally Williams, pointed out that the exhibit--culled from London ad magnate Charles Saatchi's renowned contemporary collection and partly underwritten by Christie's, the international auction house--is "incredibly diverse." Its offerings range from Hirst's shockers to "an absolutely endearing sculpture of an angel" by Ron Mueck, a former Jim Henson puppeteer. Children 16 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

    As for "Holy Virgin Mary," which the mayor denounced, Williams said that artist Chris Ofili had lived for years in Nigeria--both he and the Madonna he created are black--and was drawing on a culture in which excrement is often incorporated into religious artwork. "We are hopeful people will come see the exhibit and make up their own minds," Williams said.

    More of them may come than usual. Even before Giuliani waded in, promotions for the exhibit were a bit in-your-face (the ticket hot line is 1-87-SHARKBITE). Now the mayor has helped ensure that the show lives up to its name.

    "This is a brilliant campaign," was one art insider's appraisal. "Charles Saatchi is an advertising genius and has orchestrated a very clever scheme to get unprecedented attention for a show of new art. They've succeed in making all of us know that 'Sensation' opens on October 2."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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