A poorly conceived art exhibition? Grandstanding by politicians? An ugly misunderstanding about the nature of art and the role of museums?
These are some of the questions now surrounding "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Before the show opened last weekend, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared it "sick stuff" and threatened to cut city funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art if the institution did not cancel the show.
Giuliani, a Catholic, focused his ire on a painting titled "Holy Virgin Mary" by artist Chris Ofili, also a Catholic. The painting depicts an African-American Madonna dressed in blue robes and painted against a celestial yellow background. Cutouts from pornographic magazines hover in the air around Mary, and a clump of elephant dung forms her right breast. The mayor's declaration has triggered lawsuits between the city and the museum, protests, an explosion of publicity, and record opening-day attendance.
"Sensation" is at the crux of the most recent skirmish in the on-again, off-again culture wars: In 1989, a controversy over the homoerotic works of Robert Mapplethorpe caused Washington's Corcoran Gallery to cancel an exhibit of the artist's photographs. That same year, two National Endowment for the Arts grants to Mapplethorpe and to Andres Serrano, whose best-known work may be a 1987 photograph of a crucifix in a beaker of urine, caused some members of Congress to call for the National Endowment for the Art's abolishment.
Is there anything to be learned by the arts community from these controversies? Here is what several people, from a museum director to a critic, have to say:
Mary Toth, president of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, a statewide advocacy organization:
"This is different from the Mapplethorpe and Serrano controversies -- and it is very interesting that Serrano's 'Piss Christ' is on exhibition at the Whitney [Museum] in the same city right now. Then, I think everyone was acting in a simpler way. But in this incident, you have a museum that was having difficulty attracting people and so they were planning more than an art exhibit -- they were putting on a publicity campaign. And that isn't doing the artist a favor, nor is it giving the public any sense of what the artists represent.
"Then you have the kind of exhibit: It is based on Saatchi's collection. Saatchi -- who has been characterized as a commodities dealer, only the commodities are art. These are not the usual reasons for putting on a show.
"Also, Giuliani is not being consistent about what is offensive -- considering that the Serrano is on display across the river. ... So you have to wonder.
"Having said that, there has been a chilling effect. Even the major New York arts institutions have only recently come out in support of the Brooklyn Museum. No nonprofit can afford this kind of lawsuit. So it does shut down artistic expression and the willingness to showcase art that is on the leading edge. ... It is ironic that we are on the edge of the 21st century and, with the exception of the Whitney, a lot of museums are doing shows that are looking back. As much as I love impressionism, I also think there are other kinds of shows that can be done that might not be as safe. They are not being done, and that's too bad."
Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum:
"Museums are cast in the role of being communicators of larger thoughts, so you have to take responsibility for that. From Serrano we learned that the entire network of arts was threatened by the collapse of the National Endowment for the Arts. That as directors, when we choose a course of action, we have to realize that there is precedent of one show harming the entire network of institutions. It single-handedly set a tone for questioning the value of the arts at the expense of all the many, many, clearly meritorious arts institutions.
"If you refer to the mission statement of what was powerful enough to create your museum, then you will find great wisdom in that. Think of all the curators at the Brooklyn Museum who may have been working very hard on shows that may bring great upliftment to the community and now they have to worry about being threatened. So what was so great about this show? You have to ask that question."
Gary Sangster, director of the Contemporary Museum:
"The question of 'learning' implies some kind of moral progress. I think maybe a more interesting take on it is how museums have been trained to react: I think rather negatively. Museums are very reactive. They are rather consciously self-censoring their behavior. It is not so much something we have learned as something that museums are being forced into because of the risk of funding being withdrawn. ...
"I still can't get away from the fact that the museum directors who are experts in the field of art have so much to fear from politicians who are not experts. The parallel is NASA being afraid of the Senate because they can withdraw funding. Yet there are many committees and consultants hired to tell the politicians about NASA. I'm pretty sure the senators don't have very many teams working on contemporary fine arts issues. It's all about gut reaction and immediate response. As Giuliani said in print, he is no expert in the field, but he knows what he doesn't like.
"It is a constant battle for contemporary museums to deal with these kinds of issues. It is ultimately very damaging to institutions at all levels. Though it may mean support for Brooklyn right now, ultimately it represents contemporary art in a very negative light -- a kind of amoral, aggressive posturing and provocative stance, which I think the best of contemporary art doesn't represent. The best is sensitive and inquiring and philosophical and aesthetically engaging. Given the overwhelming amount of imagery that a contemporary artist has to deal with and compete with every day, the goal is to engage -- not to make people look away."
Archie Rand, painter, chairman of the visual arts department at Columbia University, 1999 Guggenheim Fellow:
"I am speaking from the perspective of someone who has been in court three times because someone thought my work was offensive. This kind of thing goes on all the time with many artists. What happened at Brooklyn or in the Mapplethorpe case, as egregious as they are, are just the more celebrated cases. And what we have learned is to be afraid, be very afraid.
"In this particular case, the offense is compounded by the fact that very few of the accusers saw the work. What we have learned is that politicians will play to the ground level, the lowest common denominator. I'm not saying that the members of the congregation are not entitled to be offended by the description of the painting -- I would probably be offended by the description. I am saying that without seeing it, you cannot judge it. ...
"This shows that people believe that art is true. Their offense at art is interesting, but art doesn't represent anything that isn't out there already. But how art is received by the public is the most telling thing: People look at a statue of something with its genitalia cut off or a shark in a tank and somehow these things are no longer inert objects. Somehow they have power.
"And they accept it as long as it doesn't touch them. Artwork is something Giuliani wants stopped. But what is on the airwaves? What is on CDs? My point is, he has to be stopped, or rather his desire to stop art has to be stopped. Art is magic, but just because you find it more immediately effective than other things doesn't mean you should kill the messenger."
Peter Plagens, painter and art critic for Newsweek magazine:
"The arts community will have learned that there is a large public out there who are religious working class ... and they take their religious symbols very seriously. I think artists tend to kind of play in this sandbox of liberal enlightenment that they take very seriously and every once in a while this great creature rises up and reminds us.
"Second, that even in this democracy there are still government officials who will actually attempt to close things down -- who will attempt to shut down a museum, a book, a movie, a concert hall if they ... don't like the content.
"And we have learned, and I'll be blunt about it, that the directors of the other major [New York] museums -- the Met, the Modern, the Guggenheim and the Whitney -- were disgracefully too late with too little in terms of institutional support and a united front and all that.
"Everybody wishes that yes, this were James Joyce's 'Ulysses' not being allowed to be imported into the United States, a cause celebre, a work of genius, which nothing in 'Sensation' is. But just like the ACLU took up the right of Nazis marching in a parade, it isn't always the gay rights or the Martin Luther King parade, sometimes the free speech cause is about the less grand or even the repulsive. ...
"Museums have a responsibility to the quality of art, but they can't just shut out the British art of the '80s and '90s because they don't like it. I think it's good that this show came to the U.S."
Joyce Scott, visual and performance artist:
"I just don't understand what the big deal is when there is so much dung in the art world already."