Amid the sensation, some ancient issues

Catalyst: The opening of an exhibit at a Brooklyn museum prompts a debate about the nature of art and rights to control it.

October 03, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The Catholics handed out vomit bags. The civil rights activists lighted candles. A yellow poster blared, "SENSATION SENSATION." By midmorning yesterday, the sidewalks in front of the Brooklyn Museum of Art were clogged with demonstrators, and a line of people waiting to see the art that was causing the commotion stretched through the museum's lobby, out the door and across the cobblestone plaza.

It was the official opening of an exhibition of contemporary British art that has enraged New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and triggered lawsuits by the city and the museum in the past two weeks. It has also sparked passionate debate nationwide about the nature of art, the role of museums and what, if any, influence the government should wield over cultural institutions that accept its financial support.

"I wouldn't be here if the mayor hadn't tried to close it down," said Victor Segarro, who arrived more than 90 minutes before the exhibit's opening, which was set for 11 a.m. A senior at St. Agnes Boys' High School in Manhattan, Segarro said he rarely visits museums. "I only go if we have an assignment, but I came because I heard so much about it."

"We are here because this show is offensive and we don't want to fund a piece of artwork that is discriminatory against Catholics," said Rose Gonzalez Tullo, a co-owner of a heating oil business on Staten Island.

Tullo, who came by bus to picket the museum, said the dispute is an attempt by the Democrats to win votes for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is considering running for the U.S. Senate from New York.

"The Democratic politicians are using this exhibit to smear our mayor."

One of the remarkable things about the outpouring of protests is that this is New York, the capital of the avant-garde, where anything goes and where residents, because they've seen everything, cannot be fazed.

The exhibit

Called "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," the exhibition includes works by 40 artists. Among them are Damien Hirst, who creates art by floating dead animals in tanks of formaldehyde, and brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who explore issues of sexuality and commercialism by making bizarre, childlike mannequins, some of which have genitalia instead of facial features.

The exhibit first appeared in London at the Royal Academy and in Berlin at the Hamburger Bahnhoff, where it drew record crowds. In London, several members of the Academy resigned in protest, and some museum-goers were so offended by a portrait of a convicted child murderer by artist Marcus Harvey that they threw eggs at it.

Only in New York did the controversy rise to the level of the mayor's insisting that the museum be punished for daring to present it.

The commotion began Sept. 22, when Giuliani called the art "sick stuff" and said that if the exhibition opened, he would withdraw city funding -- nearly $7 million -- from the museum.

His administration filed a lawsuit seeking to seize control of the museum and accusing the institution of violating its lease because it is requiring children 17 and younger to be accompanied by an adult. The administration thinks that as a public institution the museum doesn't have a right to limit access to the exhibit.

He also accused the museum of collaborating with Christie's auction house, a major sponsor of the show, to drive up art prices.

In return, the Brooklyn Museum has filed a lawsuit in federal court saying that by threatening to withdraw funding, the mayor is violating the First Amendment.

`Holy Virgin Mary'

Inside the museum, the largest crowd gathered in front of the artwork that drew the mayor's most venomous attacks. Called "Holy Virgin Mary," the work by artist Chris Ofili has been placed behind a plastic shield. An unsmiling police officer stands nearby.

It is a portrait of Mary draped in blue robes and painted against a yellow background. A lump of elephant dung forms her right breast. Cutouts from pornographic magazines seem to float in the air around her. The entire work, which sits atop two more balls of dung as though on a pedestal, glitters and shimmers.

Some museum-goers were surprised that the mayor found the portrait offensive.

Some said that they found it oddly beautiful.

Others thought it amusing.

"When you live in a city of such diverse people it's very hard to be shocked," said Ann Renzler, who owns a design firm in Brooklyn.

Renzler and her husband, an executive at a construction firm, visit the museum with their children frequently. The "Sensation" exhibition was no different from any other, they said.

"I don't understand the big deal about the Virgin Mary," said Nick Renzler, 14. "According to the narration, her breast is supposed to be about, what's the word? Her maternalness. And the cutouts are supposed to show her being separate from the pornographic stuff of today."

"I think it's cool," said his 11-year-old sister, Katie.

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