Swatting at Art
After successfully attacking jaywalkers with curbside barriers and adult-oriented businesses with zoning curbs, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is now waging war on two fronts at once, to stamp out pestilence borne by mosquitoes and by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In the former instance, the West Nile virus threatens mainly the elderly and very young children; in the latter, what the Mayor terms "sick" art threatens all age groups, although the museum itself, with public safety in mind, initially planned to safeguard the young by requiring those under 17 to be accompanied by an adult. Helicopters spraying malathion like so much Agent Orange are the weapon of choice in the first campaign; a financial blockade, possible eviction and psychological warfare are being employed by City Hall in the second, against the Brooklyn Museum of Art's so-far recalcitrant director, Arnold Lehman, the Typhoid Mary of this art pandemic. It is the first recorded occurrence of the West Nile virus in the West; outbreaks of this particular strain of sick art have appeared previously in London and Berlin, however. Casualty figures, when available, have been notoriously imprecise.
Symptoms of the maladies are fever and headache in the case of West Nile, and profuse sweating, confusion and panic attacks among museum administrators in the case of the art. It took days for the city's other cultural institutions to come to the Brooklyn museum's aid with a letter of protest to Giuliani. The museum's promotional material for "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," scheduled to open October 2, did warn the general public that "the contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety," and cautioned those with high blood pressure or nervous disorders to consult a physician before viewing the exhibition. But word may have come too late for some of the institution's own officials. The chairman of the Brooklyn Museum of Art's board, Robert Rubin, for example, became so addled when stricken that he offered City Hall various deals that would involve restricting or even removing some of the art in question (the sliced-up animal displays of artist Damien Hirst and the scatologically enhanced portrait of Mother Mary by Chris Ofili, an Afro-Englishman who recycles pachyderm leavings) and accepting a reduction in the museum's funding from the city. The city provides some $7 million of the museum's $23 million operating budget--and it is this funding that Giuliani is using in the economic warfare. The museum has filed a pre-emptive suit on First Amendment grounds to stop the cutoff and backed off some restrictions on minors so the Mayor cannot resort to a technicality in its lease to shut down the exhibition.
The West Nile virus is traveling with infected birds, public health officials believe. The sick art has traveled overseas from the collection of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, but epidemiologically speaking, the picture is far more complicated: Going back a decade, photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe caused the cancellation of an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, the resignation of that museum's director, a furor at the National Endowment for the Arts and eventual reductions of its subsidies, even an obscenity trial for Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center director Dennis Barrie (who was acquitted). The artist Andres Serrano's work Piss Christ was associated with similar symptomology that same year, 1989. Another four artists whose work was suspected of inducing states of palpitation--Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller--were denied public funding and sued, resulting in a Supreme Court decision in 1998 that upheld the government's "decency standard" as advisory, but not prohibitory, language.
Cynics are laying the mayor's campaigns to politics and pandering to sectors of a Catholic electorate rather than to his purity of heart. They point to his eyes on the prize of a Senate seat and note how easy it is for a politician to grandstand against an "objectionable" piece of art and how much more difficult it is to rally people around an abstract principle like artistic freedom. (Hillary Clinton, Giuliani's potential opponent, has so far given only lukewarm support to the idea that it is "not appropriate" to "penalize and punish" an institution like the Brooklyn Museum of Art in this way; she also said she won't go to see the show.) Critics point out how invidious a process such grandstanding is; how censoring the specific content of art violates First Amendment principles; how museum chairs already surrender to pressures of self-censorship, from the lofty spires of the Smithsonian Institution on down; and how works once reviled often come to wide acceptance (Piss Christ is currently enshrined in an hommage to the American Century in art at the Whitney Museum in this very city, for example). But they are just mosquitoes in this war and will no doubt be dealt with accordingly.