Flung Dung


The City of New York calls "Sensation," the controversial exhibition that just opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a "scam." Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration charges that the museum conspired with Christie's auction house, a co-sponsor of the show, to boost the value of Charles Saatchi's art collection, from which all of the pieces in the exhibition are drawn.

This allegation is part of Giuliani's legal argument for defunding the museum and evicting it from the city-owned building it occupies. But the city's account leaves out one crucial player: Giuliani himself. The mayor's complaints about the exhibition, which includes a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung and pornographic images, have helped attract the biggest crowds in the museum's history.

Giuliani's relationship with the museum is, like Charles Saatchi's, symbiotic: The museum gets visitors and publicity it would not otherwise have attracted, and the mayor scores points with the Catholics and social conservatives whose support he will need in his Senate campaign.

The city's "scam" theory, of course, is merely a pretext, like the claim that banning unaccompanied minors from "Sensation" would violate the museum's lease. The real reason Giuliani is angry at the museum is his belief that taxpayers should not be forced to support a display that offends their religious sensibilities.

As the mayor put it at the beginning of this controversy, "You don't have a right to a government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion….If somebody wants to do that privately and pay for it privately, that's what the First Amendment is all about. But to have the government subsidize something like that is outrageous."

Because the constitutional issues raised by this case are unsettled, the city has tried to bolster its legal position by shifting attention from feelings of outrage to charges of "hucksterism" and lease violations. But these are red herrings.

The city's lawyers are not the only ones who seem disingenuous. The creator of "The Holy Virgin Mary," the painting Giuliani has condemned as a form of "Catholic bashing," acts as if he is perplexed by the anger his work has provoked.

The British artist Chris Ofili says the elephant dung (a material he often uses in his work) is a symbol of his African heritage, not an insult to Catholicism. It's not clear what the pictures of vaginas and buttocks, which he cut out of pornographic magazines and pasted around his portrait of the Madonna, are supposed to represent.

"The people who are attacking the painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine," Ofili told The New York Times. "You never know what's going to offend people." It turns out that some people are so touchy that they object to the juxtaposition of pornography and fecal matter with a revered religious figure.

The Times abetted Ofili's innocent pose by emphasizing that he is a Catholic, as if that proves he could not possibly have meant to cause offense. What it really proves is that, whatever private meaning he assigned to his work, he must have known how it would be received.

The Brooklyn Museum certainly knew what it was doing. Promotional material for "Sensation" brags about the show's potential to upset people. "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety," it archly warns. "If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder or palpitations, you should consult your doctor."

The museum probably did not anticipate that the contents of the exhibition could also cause loss of funding from the city, which contributes about a third of the institution's budget. Yet it is hard to take seriously the claim of museum director Arnold Lehman that what he's really worried about is "a commitment to these artists and to the public and to freedom of expression."

The museum's defenders have echoed this theme, depicting the withholding of taxpayer money as an assault on the First Amendment. In a typically overheated diatribe that began by condemning Giuliani's "hysteria," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert likened the mayor's budgetary threat to a 16th-century London ordinance that required official approval of all plays.

A more apt comparison is the indignation of Puritans at the humiliating way they were portrayed in the state-subsidized plays of the 17th century. These religious dissenters felt they should not have to pay for their own denigration–a sentiment many New Yorkers share.