Soundings

Stefan Kanfer
The Dung Hits the Fan
Autumn 1999

In Huckleberry Finn, the King and the Duke decide to stage a semi-pornographic show. The southern con artists ponder their next move. How could they persuade the rubes to pay 50 cents each to see the "Royal Nonesuch"? A smile crosses their faces. They put up a sign announcing the program, then add a line in boldface: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.

"There," says the Duke to his companion, "if that don't fetch 'em, I don't know Arkansaw!"

Apparently, this lesson was not lost on the Brooklyn Museum's management. First they imported Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, and mixed media that had kicked up a ruckus in London. (City Journal panned the original London show in "Trash, Violence, and Versace: But Is It Art?" Winter 1998.) Then they appended their own bottom line: people under 18 wouldn't get in. For a lagniappe, they added a "Health Warning." The contents of this display, went the ad, "may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder, or palpitations you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition." There, Museum director Arnold L. Lehman must have concluded, if that didn't fetch 'em, he didn't know New York.

Lehman got the hype and hordes he wanted—and something he didn't anticipate. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani expressed outrage over such objets d'art as the corpses of dissected animals suspended in formaldehyde, an indulgent portrait of a child murderer, and, perhaps most significantly, a portrait of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines. Noting that the Brooklyn Museum receives an annual $7 million stipend from the New York City budget and leases its building from the city, the mayor announced: "You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion. And therefore we will do everything that 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, then you can't do things that desecrate the most personal and deeply held views of people in society."

Howls of "First Amendment" and "artistic freedom" predictably arose from the ever-Pavlovian A.C.L.U. and its allies—though refusing to give government funds to an exhibit, of course, has nothing to do with censorship. Let owner Charles Saatchi pay to put on his own exhibit: no one is stopping him. The howls were variations on those sounded a decade ago when people dared to object to an NEA-funded touring exhibition that included Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photograph of a urine-immersed crucifix, and Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of such homosexual brutalities as the insertion of a bullwhip into an anus.

Amid the crossfire, though, no one seemed to notice the most bizarre aspect of Sensation: the shift of power between the Art Establishment and politicians. Once upon a time, artists put their careers and sometimes their lives on the line by making a statement. In the Soviet Union, totalitarian thugs murdered Isaac Babel, and Boris Pasternak vanished into the Gulag. Nazi Germany exiled or executed any writer, painter, or sculptor who did not conform to the Third Reich's dark ideal. Anti-regime artists in Cuba and China remain behind bars.

But today, it's the politicians who endanger their careers when they object on moral grounds to an exhibition of vile art. Conversely, the more repellent or fraudulent the work, the likelier the artist is to receive government funds. Chris Ofili, creator of the Madonna-and-dung painting, is a case in point. Notified that London's Tate Gallery had awarded him the prestigious Turner Prize, he cut to the chase: "Where's my check?"

In totalitarian societies, the government blocks dissent. In New York City, the Art Establishment quashes heresy. According to its dogma, no politically correct sacred cows must go unworshiped or unrewarded, from feminists to gays to minorities to the disabled to nihilistic, in-your-face performers whose favorite targets are Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition. To deviate from the party line, one risks being mocked and reviled. If anyone doubts that, let him try to splatter the Muslim star and crescent with giraffe dung. Or paint a portrait of Barney Frank as a drag queen. Or mold a statue of Gloria Steinem and Patricia Ireland in a compromising position. In the inevitable uproar, would the same voices bluster for First Amendment protection? Not in fin de siècle New York, where, in George Orwell's felicitous phrase, "the smelly little orthodoxies" are at work.

Given those orthodoxies, His Honor may lose the Battle of Brooklyn in the courts. But the war is his to win. In a city nearly 40 percent Roman Catholic and nearly 100 percent overburdened, residents want trash collected on weekdays, not mounted on museum walls—especially with their money. (Whether Director Lehman) comes to his senses is irrelevant. Judging from the negative buzz Sensation has provoked, taxpayers have come to theirs.

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