My father disapproved of the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He thought it was bad for the Jews. Who owned the art, including Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary–the elephant dung-decorated representation of the Madonna surrounded with cutouts from porn magazines that thanks to Mayor Giuliani has become the most famous religious painting since The Last Supper? Charles Saatchi. And who is in charge of the Brooklyn Museum? Arnold Lehman. Two Jews. “Anti-Semitism’s just gone underground,” my father warned, “but it’s still there, and this will bring it out.” I felt as if I had wandered into a Philip Roth novel–and my dad’s a Protestant!
A prescient one at that. “Why are a Jewish collector and a Jewish museum director promoting anti-Catholic art?” asked Camille Paglia in a subhead since deleted from her Salon column, adding a Nixonian touch to her usual insinuating boorishness. Um, I don’t know, Camille. Because they killed Christ? Because they think they’re so smart? Because they want to make a fast buck? Like most pundits who’ve inveighed against “Catholic-bashing” art in the show–Peggy Steinfels on the New York Times Op-Ed page, Terry Golway in the New York Observer, Cokie Roberts (“it’s yucky”), George Will, not to mention John Cardinal O’Connor, William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Mayor himself–Paglia hasn’t bothered to make the trip to Brooklyn, but she knows “Catholic bashing” when she reads a one-sentence description of a painting in a newspaper. Besides, she saw Lehman on TV and found him to be a “whiny slug.”
Well, I saw the “Sensation” show and guess what? It’s pretty interesting. True, thanks to the Mayor, my sensibilities were heightened by having to go through a metal detector, and the presence of a pair of chic Italian journalists interviewing each other in the museum’s entranceway no doubt further piqued my sense of anticipation. Still, I’ve seen a fair amount of trendy contemporary art, and I was prepared to come away with gloomy thoughts about what Milan Kundera calls the Uglification of Everything. Hadn’t a wonderful novelist friend said to me just the other day, I’m tired of defending bad art? But, then, my friend hadn’t seen the show either.
The Holy Virgin Mary is a funny, jazzy, rather sweet painting, in which the Virgin Mary is depicted as a broad-featured black woman in a blue dress shaped like a leaf. The porn cutouts–mostly too small to distinguish–swarm around her like flies or butterflies, and one of her breasts is represented by that celebrated lump of pachyderm poo, decorated, as is much of the painting’s surface, with beads of paint for a Byzantine mosaic effect. It’s absurd to call it anti-Catholic–Chris Ofili, an Englishman of Nigerian extraction, is himself a practicing Catholic, and the Virgin Mary was not Catholic, and isn’t even a uniquely Catholic symbol. To me, the painting suggests the cheerful mother goddess of an imaginary folk religion–an infinitely happier image of female strength and sexuality than the pallid plaster virgins and Raphael copies on display at Saint Mary of the Intact Hymen. As for the elephant droppings, there are four Ofili paintings in the show and every one employs it. Affro-dizzia, an hommage to black pop culture, features balls of dung emblazoned with the names of Miles Davis, James Brown and other figures, and no one has said Ofili meant to insult them. Holy Virgin Mary may not be a painting for the ages–elephant dung biodegrades pretty quickly–but it’s fun to look at, even behind bulletproof glass.
Once again, the people of New York have proved their superiority to the pundits. While phony populist commentators label the show “elitist,” people are flocking to see it. Teenagers, not usually caught dead in museums, are going. Black people–for whom an Africanized Madonna does not automatically signal blasphemy–are going. While Steinfels warns that provocative art risks rousing anti-First Amendment beasts and may end in major cuts in arts budgets–a point made also by William Safire, who hadn’t seen the show–in fact, Giuliani’s play for votes has backfired. A Daily News poll showed that only one in three New Yorkers supported him on this. There is no outraged vox populi in this story–there are only headline-seeking politicians and power brokers, and opinion mongers too lazy to get out of their chairs.
Is there awful, even repellent, art in the “Sensation” show? Yes, although there won’t be much agreement about which works those are. I, for example, found Jake & Dinos Chapman’s mutilated and deformed mannequins truly disturbing–but they haven’t even been mentioned in news accounts. Too hard to reduce to a soundbite, perhaps. Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde makes a better target. It’s the sort of conceptual art that unimaginative people think they could have thought up themselves, the way they think their 4-year-old’s finger paintings are as good as Jackson Pollock. If Hirst palls, one can always profess oneself grossed out by Marc Quinn’s sculpture of his own head made from his own frozen blood. In fact, those works bear almost no relation to the mental picture conjured up by the sneers. The shark is eerily beautiful, lonely, fragile, strange; the sculpted head has the dignity of a Roman death mask.
Aesthetic and political conservatives have been complaining about modern art ever since there was any: It’s not uplifting, or patriotic, or healthy; it’s the work of fakers, perverts and commies; it’s promoted and paid for by elitists (i.e., people who actually know something about art) and, as Paglia points out, by Jews. The history of this critique should give us pause–it’s certainly led more often to bonfires than to artworks of lasting interest–and it’s irritating that it evokes so much automatic sympathy in the bien-pensant media. On the positive side, though, the strain of holding such patently ridiculous views seems to be driving Mayor Giuliani over the edge: In the October 13 New York Times he’s quoted ranting against putting “human excrement” on walls because “civilization has been about trying to find the right place to put excrement.” I guess the Mayor still hasn’t been to see the show.