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N.Y. Art Show Gets Scathing Giuliani Review: 'Sick Stuff'

September 24, 1999|PAUL LIEBERMAN and DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — The upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is titled "Sensation," and there's a "health warning" right in the brochure, cautioning that the show's content--works by young British artists, including a sliced-open pig suspended in formaldehyde--"may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety."

The warning label is offered tongue in cheek, but it could have also said that the works may cause controversy--namely this nation's latest high-profile dispute over public funding of art.

This week, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani threatened to cut off the city's $7.2-million-a-year funding to the Brooklyn museum unless its director "comes to his senses" and removes the "sick stuff" before the scheduled opening Oct. 2. The museum is New York's second-largest museum, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"The idea of, in the name of art, having a city-subsidized building have so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary--that's sick," Giuliani said. "It is an outrageous thing to do."

On Thursday, for the second straight day, the mayor used his daily news conference to lash out at museum officials and threw in his personal definition of art: "If I could do it, it's not art."

He claims that the museum's lease gives him grounds to block the show--ironically because the museum itself, as a precaution, plans to deny access to children unless they have their parents' permission.

"The lease under which the museum operates says they have to keep [it] open, with equal access to everyone, including public and private school children," Giuliani said. "[But] any closing down of access has to be approved by the mayor . . . and I don't approve."

The mayor's double salvo inevitably fueled speculation--denied by his top deputy--that he is trying to drum up a decency-in-art controversy, reminiscent of the furor prompted by an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs a decade ago. The mayor may be hoping to fortify his conservative credentials for an expected U.S. Senate race next year against First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Meanwhile, officials of the Brooklyn museum vowed not to be intimidated by the mayor's threats.

"We're going to put on a show," said museum spokeswoman Sally Williams, "as planned."

She also took issue with Giuliani's interpretation of one work he picked out for repeated criticism, Chris Ofili's 1996 "The Holy Virgin Mary," which has pieces of elephant manure attached to a painting of a black Madonna.

"He's black and lived for many years in Nigeria, [where] excrement is used as a component in religious objects," Williams said of the artist.

A fight with the mayor might not be entirely bad for the museum, as it would guarantee big crowds. But the Brooklyn museum's director and board chairman clearly were taking seriously Giuliani's pledge to withhold the October portion of the museum's yearly city subsidy, which accounts for almost a third of the institution's $23-million budget.

"He has meetings in City Hall. He's trying to work this out," said a harried aide, referring to longtime Brooklyn museum Director Arnold L. Lehman.

Deputy Mayor Randy Levine said Thursday that the chairman of the museum's board called and "asked me what the mayor had said. I told him there's not going to be any negotiation on this. . . . I have not heard back from him."

It is not the first confrontation prompted by the exhibition, whose full title is "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection."

The 110 works by 42 artists, all from the collection of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, drew more than 3,000 visitors daily in 1997 in London while on display at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Other works show dismembered torsos, mutated children, limbless sex dolls, intimate pictures of a drunken slum couple taken by their son, along with artist Damien Hirst's animals suspended in formaldehyde--including a shark and two pigs, one sliced open from tail to snout.

The mayor emphasized Thursday that his legal objection was to the public funding, not the fact that the institution was showing potentially offensive art. "If you're going to desecrate religion, if you're going to do things that are disgusting to animals . . . , then you've got to do it on private property," he said.

The Brooklyn dispute threatens to resume the battle over government funding of "obscene art" that dates back to 1989, when the National Endowment for the Arts was challenged by conservatives--most notably Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and then-Vice President George Bush's 1992 challenger for the Republican nomination, Patrick J. Buchanan.

"I thought the war was over," exclaimed Roberto Bedoya, executive director of Washington's National Assn. of Arts Organizations, which oversees a coalition of smaller, independent arts groups. "I think there are always larger implications--obviously it speaks to how the arts have always been a political football for some politician to gain publicity."

Giuliani revels in such fights, of course, and seemed well aware that the art community would try to brand him as a reactionary know-nothing.

"I found out about [the show] a few days ago. I've been hoping the museum would not be foolish to go ahead," he said.

"I know defining art is difficult. I'm sensitive to that. I also have a general rule of thumb that I follow: Anything that I can do is not art. . . . And if you want to throw dung at something--I could figure out how to do that."

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