None of this is new; recent history is rife with bloody battles waged over governmental standard-setting in the realm of publicly funded art. Staid Cincinnati erupted over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of nude men and children. Then there was Andres Serrano (a graduate, incidentally, of the Brooklyn Museum art school) and his "Piss Christ." And who could forget the chocolate-smeared Karen Finley? The terms of the debate are familiar: Does government funding place ultimate discretionary power in the hands of public officials, or does the First Amendment guarantee freedom of expression for all artists, in all venues? Proponents of the former stance argue, like Giuliani, that "if someone wants to show art like that 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." The NEA, the ACLU, artists and the more liberal members of the New York City Council counter that accepting government funding for art should not subject institutions to the personal prejudices of public officials. Back in New York, the underfunded Brooklyn Museum of Art — which was hoping that "Sensations" would help put it back on the road to the big leagues — faces a no-win situation: If they back down and cancel the show, they’ve likely closed their doors to future groundbreaking works. If they stand their ground and defy the mayor, their doors may be closed, period.
New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is offended. He’s also shocked. And in a city of largely unflappable urbanites, this is big news. The mayor, a lover of opera and other more traditional art forms, is threatening to pull funding from the city's large but little-known Brooklyn Museum of Art, where a new show called "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" is scheduled to open in early October. The exhibit, which drew more than 300,000 visitors during its stint in London, features the familiar animal-in-formaldehyde installations by consummate shockmeister Damien Hirst, as well as works by Chris Ofili, Marcus Harvey and 39 others. Visitors who make it past Hirst’s ill-fated animals will never mistake this show for an Impressionist retrospective: Ofili’s work "The Holy Virgin Mary" features a religious icon strategically smeared with elephant dung. Harvey’s piece "Myra" consistently evokes protest wherever it is shown; the painting uses children’s handprints to depict infamous child murderer Myra Hindley. With headliners like these, it’s not surprising that the museum has slapped an "R" rating on the exhibit, and no one under the age of 16 will be admitted without a parent. Of course, most parents will probably stand, flabbergasted, as their children blithely flit through the exhibit, listening to Eminem on their headphones.