The best show in town: Art vsPolitics
By RUFUS G.W SANDERS
Mayor Rudy Giuliani is at it, again. The Mayor of New York has recently used his elective powers in the most repressive of manners. In a very public dispute with the historic, prestigious, and (might I add) venerable Brooklyn Museum of Art, the mayor, who is quickly becoming a cross between a Martha Mitchell, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joseph McCarthy, has pulled some $7-million in city funds from the museum unless it ceases and desists an exhibit that he personally finds offensive. While the exhibition, called "The Sensation Exhibit" is by most accounts irreverent, repugnant, repulsive, and offensive; and like most avante-garde art, is (by its very nature) controversial. But, because of the Mayor's usual brash selfish, juvenile temper tantrums of heavy-handed dictatorial control, he has helped to produce the most truly sensational, introspective, simulating, conversational, and (in a word) controversial art show of the year.
The mayor has turned what he calls absurd and profane into what the public is now flocking to see in record numbers. By all reports the people just keep coming in droves. This art exhibit has been notorious ever since it opened at the Royal Academy in London in 1997. One thing that any amateur art aficionado learns early on is that like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. But it seems as if that little principle totally missed the mayor, as well as the old adage that you never mix art and politics. The very nature of this show is to shock and push all the cultural buttons hard, and for as long as they can be pushed. So why would Mr. Guliani allow himself to yield to the sounds of the sirens? He should have tied himself to the hoist and left this battle of righteous indignation to the usual moral protesters for public decency.
Of course, the only logical reason why the mayor has decided to lead the charge against what is obviously questionable art is that he is a political opportunist. He has forged a union with the Catholic Church in New York City, which is also opposed to the show on moral grounds; hoping to raise his status among them and other moralists, in an attempt to win votes for the upcoming New York senate race; in which he is all but certain to be a candidate. But it is starting to appear, as this case proceeds to the courts, that the mayor has gone from being politically visible to becoming politically vulnerable. The one piece in the show that is causing the most controversy is a 1996 oil painted collage of glitter and polyester resin with a smattering of elephant dung on linen canvas along with slight images of genitalia. It is a modern abstract characture depiction of the Madonna.
The painting, by the African artist Chris Ofili (who happens to be Roman Catholic himself), is called, "The Holy Virgin Mary." What is probably most troubling, but what is not being said, is that the characture is of a Black female with prominent Negroid features. I, too, find the painting controversial, but there is no reason for the mayor to stop the show. There is this thing in America called First Amendment rights, not to mention the importance of issues like the freedom of cultural and intellectual expression. When a free society stifles the freedom of judgment, creativity, and social criticism within the society, then that society is no longer free. It becomes something akin to a fascist totalitarian state. Guliani actions are themselves repulsive and are tantamount to gross misuse and abuse of his power as mayor. Does the mayor has the right to disdain the art?
Of course he has that right, but he alone don't have the right to stop the freedom of expression. Does the mayor have the right to try to sway public opinion against the art? Sure, he has that right as well, but he do not have the right to close down the public Museum of Art. Only the public has that right; and according to all polls, the public wants that the show to go on. Should Catholics and other religious groups find this art abhorrent? Of course they should, they might even find it blasphemous. But there must always be in a true democracy a line drawn between personal and public opinion.
One thing, for sure, the mayor's impulsive behavior has accomplished; and that is, to provide us with the opportunity to discuss not only issues of decency, but issues concerning the true racial identity of not only the Madonna, but her Son as well. These are issues that are usually whispered softly only within the stone walls of liberal religious seminaries. Then there are issues about the continued abuse of woman in the context of sexism, within a democratic society that is raised by this painting. These issues needs to be addressed also.
Whatever the concern about this controversy in New York between the mayor and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, one thing for certain is that the mayor is to be commended for producing an opportune moment to discuss the continuing pressing issues of racism and sexism in our present society. He is also to be commended, because crowds are standing in long never-before-seen lines, just to get into an art exhibit. Maybe real culture has finally come to America, or at least real cultural discussion.