If one of the functions of art is to teach us to see in new ways, the controversy over the Brooklyn Museum of Art's exhibition of young British artists is having just the opposite effect. It has blinded almost everyone to what this show is really about.
It would be easy to dismiss the uproar over "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection" as yet another collision between publicity-seeking artists and demagogic politicians making partisan hay before an election year.
When New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to threatened to cut off the museum's funding if it went ahead with the exhibition, the battle was quickly (and perhaps predictably) joined along political, moral and ideological lines.
What got lost in all the shouting was the art as art, rather than as constitutional law or religion.
"Sensation" is one of the most interesting, thought-provoking shows to come along in years, because these young artists are attempting to expand how we see as well as what we see. In doing so, they are helping to redefine the meaning of art in our time.
Take the work of Damien Hirst, whose installations of cut-up animals seem more suited to a natural history museum than an art museum.
For example, Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" is a 17-foot-long tiger shark pickled in a tank of formaldehyde.
It is one of the first works the viewer encounters in the show and can be read on one level as a somber meditation on the human fear of death, a theme the artist returns to repeatedly in subsequent pieces.
In "Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything," Hirst presents a cow sliced lengthwise into 12 sections, each contained within its own separate tank. The enigmatic title may refer to our natural human reluctance to examine too closely the process by which we put meat on the table.
From a formal point of view, Hirst's works combine the minimalist aesthetic of the late 1960s with an aggressive, in-your-face realism that is disturbing precisely because it forces the viewer to confront the ultimate destiny of all living things.
But there is more to it than that. From the Renaissance until the last decades of the 19th century, the realistic depiction of solid bodies in three-dimensional space was the defining characteristic of Western art. Only with the rise of Modernism toward the end of that period did artists begin to experiment with different ways of representing space and time.
Impressionism and post-Impressionism attacked the illusion of three-dimensional depth by flattening the picture plane, while Cubism destroyed the realistic illusion entirely by depicting objects in space from more than one vantage point simultaneously.
Although Picasso and Braque, the inventors of Cubism, knew nothing of Einstein's scientific breakthroughs, their pictures anticipated with uncanny prescience the concept of four-dimensional space-time that would become a cornerstone of the Theory of Relativity.
Hirst's work can be interpreted as a kind of three-dimensional cubism that, like a work by Picasso or Braque, implies a visual vantage point that is located in a spatial dimension beyond the three dimensions of ordinary experience. From a vantage point in this hyperspace, we see both the inside and the outside, the front and the back, of Hirst's cow simultaneously.
Since it is impossible for humans to visualize a fourth spatial dimension, Hirst's sculpture can be thought of as the projection of a four-dimensional object into a three-dimensional space. In a similar way, the shadow cast by a three-dimensional sphere onto a flat surface appears as a two-dimensional circle.
Hirst's work has been attacked by animal rights advocates as cruel and exploitative. In fact, his work is less about animals than about the limitations of human perception and the fears and anxieties that arise from those limitations.
The most notorious work in "Sensation" undoubtedly is that of Chris Ofili, whose "The Holy Virgin Mary" has been attacked by Catholic leaders as blasphemous.
The work depicts a stylized Virgin decorated with clumps of elephant dung and surrounded by pictures of female buttocks and genitals cut out from porn magazines.
Ofili, a Catholic of Nigerian ancestry who grew up in Britain, has said he considers his painting a "hip-hop version" of the images of Mary he grew up with. Commentators, noting that all the artist's work combines primitive, found objects that have the aura of fetishes with a highly evolved painterly technique, suggest the picture represents an attempt to reconcile the European and African influences that have shaped the artist's life.
Ofili's Virgin is as stylized - and as beautiful - as any Byzantine icon. The picture's bright yellow and orange background (which cannot be seen in reproduction) recalls the brilliant hammered gold leaf of Renaissance altar pieces.
After seeing the picture, I found it impossible to believe the artist intended to desecrate a sacred icon. On the contrary, he has obliterated all the artificial boundaries of place and time that limit her universality. Ofili's Virgin stands apart from the images of lascivious sex that surround her. Who is to say, we are invited to ask, whether she does not represent a a most personal vision of purity and grace?
Another artist often accused of shocking merely for shock's sake is Mark Quinn, whose startling self-portrait bust also appears near the very beginning of the show.
Quinn's bust was fabricated from a cast of the artist's head, which he then filled with his own frozen blood. It is an admittedly provocative act of self-exposure that compels the viewer to consider the equally shocking fragility of human life, since it is apparent that the sculpture would quickly melt and disappear if the refrigerated case that holds it were unplugged.
I was truly moved by the ultra-minimalist sculpture of Rachel Whiteread, whose plaster and rubber casts of commonplace objects evoke a powerful sense of presence even when the object represented is merely the empty space underneath a chair.
Though these artists have been deeply influenced by American Pop and minimalist art, their work has a moral gravity that is in marked contrast to the playful, ironic stance of their counterparts across the Atlantic.
Whether their works succeed or fail as art, they at least show a willingness to grapple with the Big Questions - love, death, the struggle with faith - that artists have concerned themselves with since time immemorial.
Not all the artworks are so serious. Sculptors Jake and Dinos Chapman's sexually disfigured mannequins of prepubescent girls are merely grotesque, and their re-creation of Goya's famous mutilated figures from the "Disasters of War" series trivializes that great artist's vision.
Painters Fiona Rae and Richard Patterson offer up third-generation abstractions without appearing to have much of interest to say.
And the installations by conceptual artist Sarah Lucas, whose fried eggs and melons are cleverly arranged to represent the male and female sexual parts, self-righteously aspire to a minimalist aesthetic to minimal effect.
In a less contentious era, it is unlikely this show would have stirred much interest outside the art world. The real reason "Sensation" has caused such an uproar is because that is mostly how young, unknown artists become rich and famous these days.
But in catering to that trend, museum officials have also put their institution at serious risk for one painting.
The public has a right to expect that taxpayer dollars won't be used to subsidize art that attacks the religious beliefs of particular groups in society. And even if the artist doesn't intend to offend, it's better to err on the side of caution in the current political climate. This may seem like a cop-out, but it's also a reality we have to deal with.
It would have been relatively easy for museum officials not to have included Ofili's Virgin, since they knew it was likely to outrage Catholics. After all, there were plenty of other paintings in the Saatchi collection that might have served equally well to illustrate this artist's work.
Nevertheless, now that the battle has been joined, the art community finds itself embroiled in a debate that, however justified on principle, was probably unwise and is likely to undermine further public support for the arts at a time when the arts most need it.
Pub Date: 10/05/99