The Magazine

The Mayor, the Museum, and the Madonna

Pseudo-courageous blasphemous art

Oct 11, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 04 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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CULTURE WARS, CHAPTER 36.


The Brooklyn Museum of Art readies an exhibition of high decadence called "Sensation." The mayor of New York threatens to close down the museum if the exhibit is not canceled. The mayor is pilloried by the usual suspects -- a consortium of New York museums, the ACLU, the highbrow press -- for philistinism and/or First Amendment abuse.


The exhibit itself is nothing very special, just the usual fin-de-siecle celebration of the blasphemous, the criminal, and the decadent. The item that caught Rudy Giuliani's attention is a portrait of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and floating bits of female pornography. The one that caught my attention is the giant portrait of a child molester and murderer -- made to look as if composed of tiny children's hand-prints.


The culture-guardians scream "censorship." The mayor makes the quite obvious point that these artists can do anything the hell they want, but they have no entitlement to have their work exhibited in a museum subsidized by the taxpayers of New York City to the tune of $ 7 million a year.


It is an old story. Art whose very purpose is epater les bourgeois is at the same time demanding the bourgeois's subsidy. Of course, if the avant garde had any self-respect, it would shock the bourgeoisie on its own dime.


But how silly: Self-respect is a hopelessly bourgeois value. The avant garde lives by a code of fearless audacity and uncompromising authenticity. And endless financial support.


The art world has sustained this cultural blackmail by counting on the status anxiety of the middle class. They are afraid to ask the emperor's-new-clothes question -- Why are we being forced to subsidize willful, offensive banality? -- for fear of being considered terminally unsophisticated.


This cultural blackmail has gone on for decades, with the artist loudly blaspheming everything his patrons hold dear -- while suckling at their teats. Every once in a while, however, someone refuses to play the game. This time it is Giuliani. And sure enough, he has been charged with philistinism, or as the New York Times editorial put it, with making "the city look ridiculous."


"The mayor's rationale," says the Times with unintended hilarity, "derives from the fact that the city owns the Brooklyn Museum of Art and provides nearly a third of its operating budget."


Rationale? It is self-evident: You own an institution -- whether you are an individual, a corporation, or a city with duly elected authorities acting on its behalf -- you regulate its activity. This is no "rationale." It is a slam-dunk, argument-ending, QED clincher.


Let's be plain. No one is preventing these art works from being made or displayed. The only question is whether artists have a claim on the taxpayer's dollar in displaying it.


The answer is open and shut: No. It is a question not of censorship but of sensibility. Can there ever be a limit to the tolerance and generosity of the paying public? Of course. Does this particular exhibit forfeit whatever claim art has to public support -- and the legitimacy and honor conferred upon it by the stamp of the city-owned Brooklyn Museum?


The Virgin Mary painting alone would merit an answer of yes. Add the child molester painting, the 3-D acrylic women with erect penises for noses, "Spaceshit," and "A Thousand Years" ("Steel, glass, flies, maggots, MDF, insect-o-cutor, cow's head, sugar, water, 213 X 427 X 213 centimeters"), and you get a fuller picture: an artistic sensibility that is a peculiar combination of the creepy and the banal.


Of course everyone loves to play victim, the status of victim being, as Anthony Daniels put it in the New Criterion, "the personal equivalent of most favored nation." But the idea that art of this type is under assault or starved for funds is quite ridiculous. Art of this type is now the norm. It is everywhere. Galleries, museums, private collections are filled with it.


It is classical representational art that is starved for funds. Try finding a school in your town that teaches classical drawing or painting. As James Cooper noted some years ago in the American Arts Quarterly, "A modest grant to a small art academy was recently denied by the National Endowment for the Arts because, the terse NEA memo explained, 'teaching students to draw the human figure is revisionist and stifles creativity.'"


Add some dung, though, and you've got yourself a show.


The role of the artist has changed radically in the last century and a half. It was once the function of the artist to represent beauty and transcendence and possibly introduce it into the life of the beholder. With the advent of photography and film, the perfect media for both representation and narration, art has fought its dread of obsolescence by seeking some other role.


Today the function of the artist is to be an emissary to the aberrant: to live at the cultural and social extremes, to go over into the decadent and even criminal, to scout forbidden emotional and psychic territory -- and bring back artifacts of that "edgy" experience to a bourgeoisie too cozy and cowardly to make the trip itself.


This has been going on for decades. It must be said, however, that at the beginning of the transformation there was an expectation that the artist would bring skill and a sense of craft to his work. Whether their conceit was dandyism, criminality, or sexual adventurism (free love, homosexuality, and the other once shocking taboos of yesterday), artists of the early modern period still felt a need to render their recreation of shock with style and technique.


Having reached a time, however, when technique itself is considered revisionist, anticreative, and, of course, bourgeois, all we are left with is the raw stinking shock. On display, right now, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.


It is important to note that the artists and promoters who provoked the great Brooklyn contretemps are not feigning their surprise at Giuliani's counterattack. They genuinely feel entitled to their subsidy. They genuinely feel they perform a unique and priceless service, introducing vicarious extremism into the utterly compromised lives of their bourgeois patrons.


Ah, but every once in a while a burgher arises and says to the artist: No need to report back from the edge. You can stay where you are. We'll have our afternoon tea without acid, thank you.


And then the fun begins.




Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.