The free expression and arts community today strongly supported the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its decision to challenge Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s threat to withdraw city financial support over a controversial art exhibit, scheduled to open this weekend. Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, is on a world tour, and has been shown in Germany and England. This is its only scheduled showing in the United States.

The Mayor has made no secret that his objections are based on a his personal dislike of the contents of the show, which he has called “sick” and offensive to Catholics. In particular he has criticized Chris Ofili’s work, The Holy Virgin Mary, because of its use of elephant dung. Ofili, a prize-winning British artist of Nigerian heritage, places elephant dung in his paintings “in an effort to ground them physically in a cultural as well as natural landscape,” according to the catalog for the exhibit. An observant Catholic, he denies that his work is anti-Catholic or anti-religious.

“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 Joan Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “If the city chooses to fund the arts, it simply cannot pick and choose what art is ‘offensive’ and what is not.”

“That judgment varies so widely and is so subjective that, if it were the test, publicly funded art institutions would likely have little of interest to offer beyond the most inoffensive and conventional art,” according to Michelle Coffey, Program Director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. “Every major art collection contains something that someone will find offensive.” In this case, the Mayor and other critics may simply be revealing their own misinterpretation of the varied cultural and artistic traditions on which artists draw.

The Mayor’s action flies in the face of settled First Amendment law. First Amendment scholars and advocates predict that the Museum’s position will be upheld in court. In a case decided last year, the Supreme Court cautioned that the “power to award subsidies on the basis of subjective criteria” cannot be used to impose a “penalty on disfavored viewpoints.” Speaking almost precisely to this situation, the Court noted that a “pressing Constitutional question would arise if government funding resulted in the imposition of a disproportionate burden calculated to drive ‘certain ideas or viewpoints from the marketplace.’” The government, in addition, has a duty to remain neutral with regard to expression of religious belief, and not to favor one belief over others, or over non-belief.

In his attack on the Brooklyn Museum, the Mayor again displayed his lack of respect for the First Amendment rights of the residents of New York, plus his disdain for the reputation of New York City as a world-class center of art and culture. According to Chris Finan, President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, “the federal courts exist precisely to redress this kind of abuse of official power, and to preserve the free expression rights of all – including those holding minority and dissenting opinions. The Mayor has shown that his commitment to the rule of law is limited to circumstances of his own choosing.”

For more information, contact:

Joan Bertin, Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Michelle Coffey, Program Director
National Campaign for Freedom of Expression

Chris Finan, President
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression


Organizations endorsing this statement:

(List in formation)

Association of American Publishers, Washington, DC
Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression, Boston, MA
College Art Association, New York, NY
First Amendment Project, Oakland, CA
Institute for First Amendment Studies, Great Barrington, MA
Institute for Unpopular Culture, San Francisco, CA
National Association of Artists Organizations, Washington, DC
People For the American Way Foundation, Washington DC