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True "Sensation"
The only offensive dung in New York's controversial art exhibit is the mayor's bullshit.

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By Daniel Kunitz

Oct. 2, 1999 | For the last week New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has tried to convince us that he is deeply disturbed about the state of contemporary art and in particular the Brooklyn Museum of Art's mounting of "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection." His credentials as an art critic would be more solid, however, if he had actually taken the trouble to see the exhibit. What set the temperamental mayor off this time was not black Catholic artist Chris Ofili's painting "The Holy Virgin Mary," but rather a photo of the work in the show's catalog. There is, of course, a world of difference between a photo of a painting and the painting itself. But Giuliani is more interested in scoring political points than in carefully considering what he has dismissed as "sick stuff."

Thank God this farce is now in the hands of the courts. As Floyd Abrams, chief legal counsel for the museum, has argued, once the city funds an art institution, any attempt by the mayor to dictate the contents of that institution amounts to censorship. By the way, the "Sensation" catalog clearly states that "the exhibition has received no city, state or federal funding." The museum itself "is supported in part by the City of New York" -- the taxpayers, not the mayor -- "for the maintenance, security and staffing of this City-owned building."

Had Giuliani actually paid a visit to the exhibit's Thursday night preview, he would have seen, in Ofili's "Virgin Mary" painting, a large, exuberantly decorative black Madonna, made sparkling by the addition of map pins, on a fluorescent yellow-orange ground. Its colors, shiny pins, and Mary's benign expression all combine to give the painting a celebratory air. True, cut-out rear views of buttocks with pussies peeping underneath surround the image of Mary -- these are meant to refer to the naked little putti of traditional religious art. Are painted versions of naked cherubic boys less offensive than photographs of parts of mature nude women? Is there only one way to paint a Madonna? And come to think of it, when are we going to see Giuliani's painting of the Virgin, since he said he could do it as well as Ofili?

Oh yes, I forgot the dung. By now we all should know that in Africa, where the dung idea came from, elephant droppings carry none of the horrible connotations that shit carries in New York. Before offending us all with his own bullshit, Giuliani might have troubled himself to learn about the sacred nature of pachyderms and their dung in other parts of the world. Once again, had Giuliani gone to see "Sensation," he would have come across another engaging Ofili canvas called "Afrodizzia." With its multi-hued, rhythmic swirls of paint and shiny pins, "Afrodizzia" features lots of little pictures of black men wearing afros. The painting also contains a number of elephant-dung clumps on which the names of black heroes like Miles Davis, Cassius Clay and Shaft are inscribed. Standing in front of this remarkably affecting, energetic painting, I found it hard to imagine that Ofili is really bashing blacks. According to the mayor's dung-obsessed logic, Ofili is not only a Catholic basher, he's a racist too.

Why all this whining and griping about the sensationalism of "Sensation"? For 500 years artists have been courting hype; it was virtually a Renaissance ideal. Michelangelo, Cellini, Vasari and Caravaggio were some of the greatest self-promoters of all time. To them you can add David, Delacroix, Courbet, Rodin and Picasso. The question is, does the Brooklyn show merit the hype?

Next page | Innovation and extension by British artists

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