Tuesday, October 12, 1999

Hail to Thee, Tit of Shit

On Public Funding of “Controversial” Art

In the fall of 1999, an art show called “Sensation” was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Immediately it came under fire, primarily because of a painting of the Virgin Mary where elephant dung was used as a medium. Mayor Giuliani described it as extremely offensive to his Catholicism and used his bully pulpit to decry this “horror”. |Wikipedia article|

I think the whole episode was ironic because if the mayor and the other critics (mostly politicians) had just shut up about it, not too many people would have noticed and the exhibition would have quietly gone away. But instead, the entire American public was treated to a picture of the elephant-dung Mary every night on the news, and 60,000 people came to see it. This is exactly what the promoters of the show wanted: publicity!

This is another one of the many phony issues in this country, where a politician can take a controversy and use it for his own purposes, shaking his fist at somebody and “demonstrating” what a good and decent American he is. (Note that 2000 was an election year). Giuliani went so far as to try to shut down the Museum completely by withholding all its city funds.

Well, the mayor has no right to dictate what the people may or may not see. The Museum is an institution with democratically appointed officials. It’s as if the mayor of a city could shut down the library because it has a book he does not like.

The Brooklyn Museum is one of the world’s great cultural institutions as anybody who has ever picked up an art book would know. The mayor demonstrated not his decency, but his ignorance.

This exhibition, by the way, was privately funded (the only public accommodation was use of the space itself), and warnings were clearly posted that some may be offended. No one was forced to look at this exhibit.
Even if someone was forced to look at it, what makes a simple picture offensive? I don’t think this thing is great art either, but there’s lots of crappy art out there that I have to look at every day, and it certainly does not offend me. The only thing that offends me are explicit messages of hate that may incite violence.  Perhaps I’m wrong but I don’t think the elephant-dung Mary caused anyone to go out there and chain a Catholic to a pickup truck and drag him for a mile.

Does public funding of something require it to not offend anybody? If that’s true, then where are the protests of missile defense, which I think about half of the public thinks is a disgusting use of billions of tax dollars.
If art were left to the private sector, as many people advocate (usually the ones claiming our culture is in decay), where would we be? I think it’s clear that many institutions would die and we would be left with MTV, Austin Powers, and Nascar. Now there’s cultural decay for you.

Are we not brave enough in this country to say: we believe in Free Speech so passionately that we will take the risk of sometimes seeing something nasty?

Comments invited.