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Everyone's a critic
New Yorkers apparently do not support Mayor Giuliani's holy war on the Brooklyn Museum.

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By Bruce Shapiro

Oct. 2, 1999 | Anyone who doubts that politics rather than piety has inspired New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's quest to evict the Brooklyn Museum over an art show called "Sensation" might ponder this. At the very moment Giuliani stood denouncing a young British painter's depiction of Mary in artistic media that include elephant dung, the Whitney Museum in Manhattan opened its fall season by giving prominent place to "Piss Christ," Andres Serrano's notorious photo of a crucifix in urine that a few years ago launched Jesse Helms' crusade against the National Endowment of the Arts. The fact that Giuliani unleashed his Torquemada imitation over "Sensation" but stood silent about Serrano might have something to do with the fact that the Whitney's board chairman is a major Giuliani donor.

"Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" opened Thursday. I haven't seen it but it is clear that the guiding spirit of the show -- which comes to Brooklyn after two years of immensely popular runs in London and Berlin -- was as much P.T. Barnum as Lorenzo DiMedici. The promotional material, in true sideshow-barker fashion, even warns that "the contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety." It's equally clear that by threatening to shut down a museum to prevent the opening of a show he considers sacrilegious, Giuliani is using the machinery of government to prevent an unpopular viewpoint from being aired. The Brooklyn Museum wanted a circus, but its directors did not expect Giuliani to seize the ringmaster's whip.

The last time New York was embroiled in such a free-for-all over artistic censorship was 1937: an episode, as it happens, recalled in "The Cradle Will Rock," a new film by Tim Robbins scheduled for release in just a few weeks. A then-little-known theater director named Orson Welles and producer John Houseman, employed by the government-funded Works Progress Administration, announced plans to stage the world premiere of "The Cradle Will Rock," an agitprop musical about steel workers and unions by composer Marc Blitzstein, an outspoken pro-Communist. Fearful of giving ammunition to anti-New Deal crusaders in Congress, WPA officials ordered Welles and Houseman to cancel the show. When they refused, soldiers evicted the company and padlocked the theater.

Undaunted, Welles asked patrons to show up anyway. With piano and costumes loaded on the back of a truck, Welles and his newly unemployed band of actors led the opening-night audience on a parade uptown to another space Houseman managed to secure. What started as an act of official censorship became a legendary moment of artistic defiance, and propelled the young Welles and Houseman to notoriety.

While the mayor was headed to court over the Brooklyn Museum, I encountered one of the actors in Robbins' film. "It's quite astonishing," the actor told me. "Here we are opening this film -- and the mayor suddenly makes the story relevant. We could not have paid for publicity -- not just publicity, but public education -- like this."

Next page | First as tragedy, then as farce


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