Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Art That Moves Our Stomachs

By Captain Opinion

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  The brouhaha over the Brooklyn Museum's current exhibit, Sensation, has already circled the globe a couple of times. For those who have been living in locked shelters for the past month and a half, here is the situation. The Brooklyn Museum, an institution supported by the taxes of New York City residents and bound by certain regulations of that city, has mounted an exhibit displaying works from the private collection of London advertising magnate Charles Saatchi. The unifying theme of the collection, or at least the selections in this exhibit, is that each piece contains some element that is disgusting or offensive to some portion -- if not the majority -- of the viewing public.

What has provoked all the publicity has been New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attempt to get the show closed down. Rudy, bless his mercenary, political heart, has employed several arguments in defense of his position. As a publicly funded institution, he argues, the Brooklyn Museum has an obligation to operate under the city's rules. Those rules include free admission. The museum is charging for the show. Giuliani also says that, because the collection includes at least one piece that is arguably offensive to the Catholic religion, the museum is guilty of religious prejudice, and that asking New York's large Catholic population to pay -- through taxes -- for the public desecration of their religious imagery impedes their religious freedom.

Others in the Giuliani camp have pointed out that, by subsidizing the display of a private collection, the Brooklyn Museum (as well as other museums where this show has appeared) is acting to the financial benefit of Saatchi, a private citizen. This argument hinges on the reality that an artist's work increases in value once it has been displayed at a major museum. Saatchi, who is notorious for the way he underpays for the art he collects, will be able to value these pieces more highly now that they've made it in New York. Tax money, this argument goes, should not be used to make a profit for private individuals.

It is clear that the issue has been a political success for Rudy. But I have a problem with the way the argument has been framed on both sides. Defenders of the exhibit have seen it as a clear case of censorship: a political leader choosing, after the fact, to second-guess the curators and other art professionals that the city pays to make this sort of decision. Playing into that argument, the Giuliani side has used arguments in favor of censorship to support their guy. I'm going to go a different way. Let's talk about the art.

Three pieces have received most of the publicity. One is a Chris Ofili painting of the Virgin Mary that includes elephant dung and cutouts of female body parts as part of its mixed media. Another, by Damien Hirst, is a set of clear cases containing the cut-up and cross-sectioned body of a pig. The third is a very large depiction of an infamous child murderer. The context is obvious and is reinforced by the signage, the publicity, and even the items sold in the gift shop in conjunction with the exhibit. We are instructed to be grossed out, startled and offended.

Far be it from me to quibble with such noble aims. I've never seen any of the pieces in this collection in person. But what I've seen and read about most of the artists who do this kind of work provides a very different message. Hirst, for instance, is well aware of the shock content of his oeuvre of dead animals and rotting flesh. Good artists do more than shock. They bring out insight in unexpected places, and show the innate beauty in objects that we dismiss as being gross or offensive. Ultimately, that is what is wrong with this collection and the exhibit it inspired. By focusing on the shock value of the artwork, this context obscures the real wonder of the insides of a pig or a sculpture made of dried blood.

I hate censorship, but I can't support this exhibit. It does a disservice to the art. It isn't Rudy Giuliani or Jesse Helms who have made this kind of juxtaposition passé in the art world. It is collectors, curators and art lovers who prefer to see art in all its beauty and sadness, and who feel that even the most revolting representations deserve a chance to move us, aesthetically as well as gastrointestinally.


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