Lessons, concerns from art's latest battle

Brooklyn Museum's disputed 'Sensation' exhibit rekindles the culture wars.


October 10, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,STAFF WRITER

A poorly conceived art exhibition? Grandstanding by politicians? An ugly misunderstanding about the nature of art and the role of museums?

These are some of the questions now surrounding "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Before the show opened last weekend, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared it "sick stuff" and threatened to cut city funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art if the institution did not cancel the show.

Giuliani, a Catholic, focused his ire on a painting titled "Holy Virgin Mary" by artist Chris Ofili, also a Catholic. The painting depicts an African-American Madonna dressed in blue robes and painted against a celestial yellow background. Cutouts from pornographic magazines hover in the air around Mary, and a clump of elephant dung forms her right breast. The mayor's declaration has triggered lawsuits between the city and the museum, protests, an explosion of publicity, and record opening-day attendance.

"Sensation" is at the crux of the most recent skirmish in the on-again, off-again culture wars: In 1989, a controversy over the homoerotic works of Robert Mapplethorpe caused Washington's Corcoran Gallery to cancel an exhibit of the artist's photographs. That same year, two National Endowment for the Arts grants to Mapplethorpe and to Andres Serrano, whose best-known work may be a 1987 photograph of a crucifix in a beaker of urine, caused some members of Congress to call for the National Endowment for the Art's abolishment.

Is there anything to be learned by the arts community from these controversies? Here is what several people, from a museum director to a critic, have to say:

Mary Toth, president of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, a statewide advocacy organization:

"This is different from the Mapplethorpe and Serrano controversies -- and it is very interesting that Serrano's 'Piss Christ' is on exhibition at the Whitney [Museum] in the same city right now. Then, I think everyone was acting in a simpler way. But in this incident, you have a museum that was having difficulty attracting people and so they were planning more than an art exhibit -- they were putting on a publicity campaign. And that isn't doing the artist a favor, nor is it giving the public any sense of what the artists represent.

"Then you have the kind of exhibit: It is based on Saatchi's collection. Saatchi -- who has been characterized as a commodities dealer, only the commodities are art. These are not the usual reasons for putting on a show.

"Also, Giuliani is not being consistent about what is offensive -- considering that the Serrano is on display across the river. ... So you have to wonder.

"Having said that, there has been a chilling effect. Even the major New York arts institutions have only recently come out in support of the Brooklyn Museum. No nonprofit can afford this kind of lawsuit. So it does shut down artistic expression and the willingness to showcase art that is on the leading edge. ... It is ironic that we are on the edge of the 21st century and, with the exception of the Whitney, a lot of museums are doing shows that are looking back. As much as I love impressionism, I also think there are other kinds of shows that can be done that might not be as safe. They are not being done, and that's too bad."

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum:

"Museums are cast in the role of being communicators of larger thoughts, so you have to take responsibility for that. From Serrano we learned that the entire network of arts was threatened by the collapse of the National Endowment for the Arts. That as directors, when we choose a course of action, we have to realize that there is precedent of one show harming the entire network of institutions. It single-handedly set a tone for questioning the value of the arts at the expense of all the many, many, clearly meritorious arts institutions.

"If you refer to the mission statement of what was powerful enough to create your museum, then you will find great wisdom in that. Think of all the curators at the Brooklyn Museum who may have been working very hard on shows that may bring great upliftment to the community and now they have to worry about being threatened. So what was so great about this show? You have to ask that question."

Gary Sangster, director of the Contemporary Museum:

"The question of 'learning' implies some kind of moral progress. I think maybe a more interesting take on it is how museums have been trained to react: I think rather negatively. Museums are very reactive. They are rather consciously self-censoring their behavior. It is not so much something we have learned as something that museums are being forced into because of the risk of funding being withdrawn. ...

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