Brooklyn's Burning Sensation

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    Now, just in time for Hizzoner's fundraising campaign across several conservative Western states including California, the Mayor and his power-drunk yes-men have dragged up yet another politically defenseless non-contender from the ranks of the pugilistic bush league: the bookish, bravely principled, probably foolhardy Brooklyn Museum.

    If the breakneck pace of recent events is any indication, the fight between the city and the Brooklyn Museum will have grown larger than anyone could figure by the time you read this column. It all started on Sept. 22 when the Mayor, objecting to the much hullabalooed show "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," flew into his best imitation of a Baptist preacher, delivering himself of a sermon on the decency, moral and esthetic merits of an exhibition he had not then and will not ever see.

    Among the works Rudy objected to were some of the usual suspects in celebrated gross-out art: Damien Hirst's dead and desiccated animals in formaldehyde (shown three years ago at Gagosian, Hirst's New York gallery); Marc Quinn's cast of his own head in frozen blood (a flick of a switch would make it disappear, fast as an Italian ice in the Mojave); Jake and Dinos Chapman's genitalia-sprouting mannequins (dull, empty-headed infantile jive, familiar to New York art audiences from previous exhibitions); and Marcus Harvey's portrait of British pedophile and serial killer Myra Hindley (the strongest, most moving and truly morally minded piece in the exhibition).

    "Sick stuff," the Mayor called the works, "foul" and "outrageous." But Rudy reserved his worst venom for Afro-English artist Chris Ofili, creator, it would seem, of this unforgivably ethnic version of the Madonna, innocently titled The Holy Virgin Mary. "It offends me," the Mayor declared in his schoolmarmish lisp: "We [the City] will do everything we can to remove funding for the Brooklyn Museum until the director comes to his senses and realizes that if you are a government subsidized enterprise, you can't do things that desecrate the most personal and deeply held views of people in society."

    So what is an art critic to do in the face of such force majeure twisters?liberal-baiting religious appeals, either-for-us-or-agin-us morality, and cynical barroom politics?now threatening New York's cultural shantytown? Take it from Rudy's bumbling henchman Michael Hess, the city's legal pointman in the jihad against the Brooklyn Museum: things have now reached the point of no return. Paying a backhanded compliment to the Museum after having been shown the door following a pivotal meeting, Hess blurted out the real, up-to-date, intractable nature of the conflict. "We've got a big mess. We've got World War III now."

    Nothing to do, then, but weigh in.

    Hess' comments came last Tuesday after negotiations broke down between the city and the Museum, the two parties failing to reach a settlement on the Museum's extremely generous offer to quarantine the offending artworks or return city funds that went into the mounting of "Sensation." The city, for its part?after preempting Museum deliberations by unilaterally issuing false news of an agreement?then declared it would yank some $7.3 million (about a third of the budget) in funding regularly awarded to the Museum, and threatened to evict the veteran institution from its present location, where it has resided for 106 years.

    By print time, the city will have withheld nearly a half a million dollars in monthly funding from the Museum. The only way the Brooklyn Museum will ever see that money again is if they are successful in their suit (filed Tuesday afternoon) against the city in federal court, a case that rests largely on a First Amendment argument characterized by the Museum's chairman of the board, Robert Rubin, as "being undertaken in the interests of all public institutions? museums, universities and libraries?that are dedicated to the free exchange of ideas and information, and in the interests of the people they serve."

    Rubin, of course, is right about the potentially chilling effect Giuliani's sandbox bullying will have on other publicly funded cultural institutions in the city?I can't help but wonder what Giuliani would do to public libraries if he knew that they sheltered pornography by Henry Miller and James Joyce?but he is dead wrong in considering the issue chiefly a question of First Amendment rights. On an historical note, we should remember the many culture warriors who died on the heavy-footed beaches of First Amendment appeals in the 1980s, picked off by redneck congressmen from Utah and the Carolinas quick as you can say "Entartete Kunst." Their muddled efforts, if we learn anything at all, need not have been in vain.

    Free speech and censorship, as only a few liberals were able to determine in that kneejerk era, were not, certainly, the real crux of the battle over NEA funding; a fair and independent system of appropriations was. That is why, in part, when no-talents like Karen Finley made outrageous claims for federal greenbacks, the nation could be heard to groan loudly. The large sucking sound was the floor dropping out from arts funding all over the country in that ignoble decade, and artists, museums and the art world in general bear some responsibility. No wonder America hates artists! (And they do, or when was the last time you mentioned Serrano's Piss Christ to an aunt in Minnesota?) Like the boy who cried wolf, the nation has grown tired of hearing self-righteous artists' versions of Monty Python's memorable sketch?"Come see the violence inherent in the system. Look, he's oppressing me!"

    This time, wiser, cooler heads should prevail. Before declaring unassailable victimhood to the four winds, it's high time the art world admitted that the primary issue at stake is not free speech?as that is still guaranteed, independent of whether our Italian Bonaparte in the ill-fitting suits decides to throw the infantry into his own private Waterloo?but a crucial question regarding the sort of contract Joe and Jane citizen must demand from advanced societies like ours. Do we or do we not want public arts funding? That, dammit, is the $497,554 question.

    This matter is, in fact, key. Long before Kurt Andersen uttered the words "social contract" on last Wednesday's Nightline (poor Kurt, up there on national tv with a glibly somnolent Nat Hentoff and twitty, coiffed Kate O'Beirne, looked a nervous brain trust), smart observers like Robert Hughes knew that the argument was whether America would uphold its commitment to its public cultural mission. Like being pregnant, public art funding tolerates no half measures. Either arts spending is provided in an autonomous, independent fashion, ruling out campaign posturing like Giuliani's and righteous outrage like the Catholic League's, or it's the voucher system for musicians, writers and artists, and they can start looking for stockbrokers and software company CEOs to suck up to.

    You can't dismantle the Kansas City Symphony because they do an evening of George Antheil and you happen not to like music with airplane rotors. You can't ask a writer to omit the naughty bits from a poem or a novel, as happened countless times in America this century. And you cannot, under any circumstances, have a mayor wake up one morning with a particularly ambitious, do-gooder stiffie and decide, without so much as consultation, to cut the city's ties with one of the oldest, most prestigious and treasured art institutions in the world.

    Look hard at the imaginary social contract we all air-sign. I guarantee you will find that all-important clause: We, the citizens of blankety-blank, agree to pay our hard earned tax dollars for a general program of culture (and housing, and subway maintenance and whatever else), not for me-first specifics. When was the last time you were asked whether you wanted your tax money going to highway appropriations, or prison building in Ossining, or for the Mayor's repeated Ayatollah-like pronouncements? I've long thought Giuliani made a mockery of my own Christian and humanistic values. Am I asking for my money back? No sir, I'm not. I wouldn't get it; more importantly, people would think me insane for coveting it. So what's so different about funding an art exhibition like "Sensation"? Not a damn thing.

    Before we stray too far afield, let me put aside the hot potato being tossed from Politically Incorrect to the U.S. Senate and return, however briefly, to the exhibition that is purportedly the source of all this ruckus. Having visited the museum the day of this writing, I can attest to the show's incontestable merit, artistic, moral and otherwise. The lay of the land is simple: Mixed among some 90 artworks by 42 YBAs, one finds pieces by schlockmeisters Hirst, the Chapman brothers and Marc Quinn, cheek by jowl with the stunning work of genuine articles like Jenny Saville (gigantic, fleshy paintings suggesting Lucian Freud with a 90s girl sensibility), Ron Mueck (incredibly lifelike renditions of people distorted in scale or by a pair of angel's wings), Rachel Whiteread (her Ghost, a plaster cast of a child's bedroom, is phantasmal to the point of being funereal) and the aforementioned Marcus Harvey (his Myra, a Chuck Close-type portrait painted in what appear to be children's handprints, was attacked with eggs and ink when exhibited two years ago at the Royal Academy).

    But what about the work Giuliani considers to be the exhibition's doozy, the colorful, layered painting of last year's Turner Prize-winner Chris Ofili. Well, despite the tensed rope and plexiglas panel that keep visitors 7 feet away from it (the work now screams for comparisons to Picasso's Guernica, similarly sheltered for a time from vandals' assaults), The Holy Virgin Mary turns out to be about as truly offensive as an episode of The Simpsons. Looking like an African tchotchke from a Soho shop, the black figure of the Virgin sports a single breast made from a bread-roll-sized clump of elephant dung (maddeningly, print and tv media have repeated the Mayor's false characterization of the work as "an image of the Virgin splattered with dung") atop oodles of swirling lines, snipped magazine pics of buttocks (they look like cherubim) and glitter trapped in coats of resin.

    Rather than an assault on religion of any kind, Ofili's Virgin is, as the man himself said, "a hiphop version" of the sexy, often luscious renditions of the Madonna found in museums from here to Sydney. Surely the man did not paint the work with John Cardinal O'Connor's approval in mind, but what does that tell us? That Ofili is living in the tolerant-minded 20th century. That he refuses to see an evil versus good world with regard to the use of painted imagery. That he recognizes a pervasive present-day flux in the significance and use of symbols. Nothing less, nothing more.

    From the era of the Salon des Refuses to the present there have been regular "outrages" perpetrated by visual artists on uptight codes of public decency. In 1863, the years of the first Salon, it was Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. Later it would be Gauguin's Tahitian love dolls, Egon Schiele's carefully exposed pudendas and Matisse's exotic Odalisques. Would anyone today except an absolute moral fool refuse to exhibit those works on the grounds of indecency? "The repeated reversal of feelings in the history of modernism," Harold Rosenberg wrote in his once-regular New Yorker column, "suggests that both ridicule and rejection are phases of appreciation."

    This may indeed be how Rudolph Giuliani will be most lastingly remembered: as the tyrannical, cynical little man who could not see the art for the large mound of shit in his jaundiced eye.

    "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,"through Jan. 9, 2000, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Pkwy. at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, 718-638-5000.