New York's Art Attack

  • Despite what New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the fiery economy have done to clean things up, smelly garbage, careering cabs and dog poop still assault New Yorkers daily. Most residents become inured to the offal they encounter. It's a survival mechanism but also a matter of pride. So it was a bit embarrassing last week when the mayor got ruffled by an art exhibit, of all things.

    The rest of the nation debated a decade ago whether taxpayers should fund controversial art, but in the capital of crude, few people consider rude art a problem. Last week, however, an aide showed Giuliani a New York Daily News article with the headline GALLERY OF HORROR. Previewing Sensation, an exhibit set to open at the Brooklyn Museum of Art this Saturday, the article warned of installations containing animals pickled in formaldehyde and graphic sculptures of people with genitalia where their faces should be.

    The mayor was appalled, most of all by The Holy Virgin Mary, a 1996 collage by Chris Ofili, an award-winning British artist who uses elephant feces in his work. "The idea of having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick," said Giuliani. He announced that the city would cut its funding to the museum--about $7 million this year, or a third of the museum's budget--unless Sensation was canceled.

    We've been here before, so the next act was familiar: museum defenders indignantly cited the First Amendment. Performance artist and freedom-of-expression activist Karen Finley, whose art career now seems secondary to her talk-show shouting, went on CNN to lament censorship. And the Brooklyn Museum of Art--which vowed to go on with the exhibition, damn the consequences--was soaked in publicity, creating the sensation it had hoped for. All before most New Yorkers have actually seen the art.

    Including the mayor, though he did have a look at the exhibition's catalog. It can't convey all the nuances Ofili intends with excrement, though Giuliani might be mollified if he knew that the artist affixes clumps of dung to just about everything, including Absolut vodka bottles and images of James Brown. It can be hard to take this sort of art seriously--it seems designed only to shock, after all--but it is easy to demonize. For his part, Ofili wasn't talking; his London gallery issued a statement saying that as a Roman Catholic, he wanted to celebrate, not desecrate, the Virgin Mary.

    Not that the contretemps has much to do with art anyway. The Brooklyn Museum has long struggled to attract tourists and Manhattanites, which is a pity because it has a remarkable collection (including Egyptian works that are among the most impressive in the world). Museum officials knew Sensation could reinvigorate a museum: it had done so in London, where it drew so many curious viewers that the once fusty Royal Academy of Arts was able to erase a large chunk of its $3 million deficit. The Brooklyn Museum is promoting the spectacle with a cheeky "HEALTH WARNING," saying the art "may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic..." (you get the idea).

    Giuliani, who is likely to run for Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton, saw an opportunity. "He knows many people are uncomfortable with taxpayers subsidizing upper-middle-class decadence," says Fred Siegel, professor of U.S. history at New York City's Cooper Union. To subject this move by Giuliani to crass political analysis is to see brilliance; he won't win the artsy crowd anyway. Upstate voters, as well as the Roman Catholics across the state who often form a bloc of swing voters, will see him as protecting basic values. And Clinton must defend the art or keep quiet. Wisely, she chose the latter.

    But would Giuliani really harm an important cultural institution that serves an otherwise art-starved neighborhood? Sure. By week's end, staff members were uttering his favorite words: "No negotiation." It's unclear, however, whether the mayor actually has the legal authority to refuse a check to an entity promised one in the budget he signed. The case will doubtless end up in court. There are constitutional issues too: the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot penalize artists solely because their work is disagreeable.

    A silver lining for the artists and the museum will be the crowds that turn out to see what the fuss is about. "If I were the museum," says Mitchell Moss, a New York University urban expert whose family has a membership in the Brooklyn Museum, "I would send Giuliani a thank-you note."