Issue 75, Fall 1999

New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, facing an invasion of encephalitis-bearing mosquitos, has chosen to buzz a controversial art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that he considers ‘sick.’ The focus of his attention is a show of contemporary British art from the Charles Saatchi collection, which attracted record crowds in London and in Berlin. Now, thanks to the Mayor, it’s attracting record crowds to Brooklyn.

The exhibit, named Sensation, features Young British Artists like Damien Hirst who floats sharks, pigs, sheep and cows—sometimes dissected—in formaldehyde.

The piece that enraged the Mayor, The Holy Virgin Mary, is by Chris Ofili, recipient of the Tate Gallery’s prestigious Turner Award. It depicts a black Madonna in a decorative field and incorporates elephant dung, an African fertility symbol, as part of its construction, along with cut-outs of bare bottoms. The Mayor called it ‘offensive to Catholics.’ He has cut off city financial support for the Museum. Ofili, a British-born artist of Nigerian heritage and an observant Catholic, denies that his work is anti-Catholic or anti-religious.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art filed suit in federal court to protect its First Amendment rights. The City has countersued in state court, seeking to evict the museum from its century-old site and has filed a motion to dismiss the Museum’s case.

The emergence of the culture wars in New York City dramatically demonstrates the continuing debate over public funding of the arts. The Supreme Court, in Finley v. NEA (Censorship News 70), indicated that the ‘decency’ clause cannot be used to suppress disfavored viewpoints or ideas. If the arts funding issue has to arise again, the Brooklyn Museum controversy couldn’t present a better case to resolve any open questions about the ‘power to award subsidies on the basis of subjective criteria.’

NCAC has joined an amicus curiae brief in support of the Museum and coordinated a statement with other free expression and arts groups. ‘The entire arts community should be grateful to Director Arnold Lehman and the BMA’s Board of Directors for standing firm on the right of artists and museum-goers to make their own decisions without interference from the government,’ said NCAC’s Executive Director, Joan Bertin. ‘If the city chooses to fund the arts, it simply cannot pick and choose what art is ‘offensive’ and what is not.’ To endorse the statement by NCAC, the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, click here.