Click here for Chatterbox's take on Giuliani's art criticism.
"Sensation"--the show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is trying to quash by threatening to withdraw city funding from the institution--is not the first exhibition of so-called "sick stuff" to be shown by a publicly funded New York cultural institution during his seven-year tenure. In October of 1997, the gallery P.S. 1--which receives, according to one curator's estimate, more than 50 percent of its budget from the city--installed continuous showings of an hourlong film of a simulated homosexual orgy by underground filmmaker Jack Smith. The mayor didn't utter a word. Nor did he comment on the Whitney Museum's 1997 Biennial, which included Paul McCarthy's videos of a half-naked man dressed as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer frolicking with nude female "elves" as they defecated, stirred the excrement up with chocolate, and ate it.
But now Giuliani's attacking this "Sensation" exhibit, which includes: a self-portrait made of its creator's frozen blood; vivisections of dead livestock preserved in formaldehyde; and a painting of a Virgin Mary decorated with elephant droppings. The mayor is threatening to cut city funding for the museum--that's about a third of the BMA's annual budget--if it opens the exhibit. It's a move that's obviously designed to bolster his Senate candidacy: The British artists are his Murphy Brown and Sister Souljah. (Luckily for him, being mayor of New York supplies him with richer material than a mere upscale single mom or a cussing rap star.) Giuliani is signaling to upstate New Yorkers and to the national Republican Party that although he's the mayor of Sin City, he can't abide sinners himself.
Culturebox can't help but think that the mayor and the "Sensation" artists deserve one another, since they share a common goal of drawing as much attention to themselves as possible. The "Sensation" folks, though, are doing the better job. Brilliantly orchestrated by the British adman Charles Saatchi to increase the value of his extensive holdings of the artists' work, the show has already drawn flattering notices in TheNew Yorker, New York Times, and other publications. And that was before the mayor's condemnatory fit. Now, if the show doesn't go on, it will be martyred; if it does, it will draw even bigger crowds and more press than originally anticipated. Giuliani will have given the show's name more credence than it ever had on its own.
The mayor, on the other hand, is coming off as a coward and a traitor. He's too chicken to pick on a more established cultural institution such as MoMA, which now owns P.S. 1. Forcing the show to be canceled at the last minute will arouse the ire of culture lovers, the wrath of the First Amendment brigade, and the sympathies of anyone who's ever tried to organize ... well, anything. (Giuliani did win Chatterbox's approval, though; click here to read why.)
But the worst part is that Giuliani is screwing his own city. New York needs avant-garde art just as it needs fashion designers, Wall Street firms, and Broadway shows. Our museums and galleries put us at the center of the art world, and bring us untold riches from art-related businesses and tourists who come to patronize the city's cultural institutions. The art industry is also responsible for resuscitating--some would say gentrifying--some of New York's most desolate neighborhoods, including SoHo, TriBeCa, the meatpacking district, and the DUMBO section of Brooklyn.
It's no surprise that Giuliani is coming out as a cultural conservative. But selling out his own city to do so is pretty sick stuff indeed.