Once again, the eternal question arises: “You call that art?”

This time, the questioner is Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, who is so incensed by a new exhibition that he is threatening to take over the museum.

And this time the art in dispute involves the Virgin Mary, which has long been a favorite of the masters, and elephant poop, which has not.

Elephant poop is one of several new mediums being used in this exhibition.
(That’s the word artists use, isn’t it, “medium”? As in “What medium are you working in?” “Me? Oils. How about you?” “Me? Oh, you know, cow dung.”)

This exhibition — “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” — is owned by an ad executive, so we should have known we were in trouble. It not only features the Virgin Mary slung with elephant poop but also a real pig and a real cow’s head hanging in formaldehyde.

Clearly, this is not art. A real artist would never mix his pork and beef.

But the mayor of New York is not amused. He has threatened to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, or worse, to terminate its lease or take it over altogether.

“The idea …of a city-subsidized building having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick,” he says.

And remember, this is the guy who cleaned up Times Square. Tidying up a museum should be small potatoes.

Everyone’s a critic

Of course, the issue is not as simple as the mayor’s taste. When government funds the arts, it backs off from playing critic. Otherwise, our museums might have only what Ronald Reagan thought was art (portraits of cowboys) or what Bill Clinton thinks is art (portraits of cheerleaders).

Art, by its nature, is not definable. So when Giuliani threatens to yank the check, naturally, a cry explodes from civil libertarians, First Amendment champions, radical art historians, self-bloated critics and the guy who keeps painting whales on buildings.

Now, I’m sure if you got them alone, most of these people would not defend as great art many things in this exhibit, including a dead shark hanging in a tank or a bust of a man made from nine pints of his own frozen blood. (Yuck. Who has to carry that?)

Nor would they enthusiastically defend an exhibit that comes with a printed warning: “May cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety.” In fact, the museum is planning on forbidding children younger than 17 from seeing “Sensation” without a parent. (As if kids needed a reason not to go to a museum.

This, by the way, is one reason Giuliani gives for seizing the Brooklyn museum altogether. He says the lease states that the museum must be “free, open and accessible” to all.

So on the one hand, he doesn’t want anyone to see this junk. On the other hand, he wants to shut down the museum for limiting access.

Ain’t politics beautiful?

To censor or not to censor

And this, of course, is all about politics. And money. As are most things these days.

Giuliani is running for Senate. He wants to be champion of the regular guy — especially if the regular guy is a registered voter. And surely he will woo the majority by saying elephant dung on the Virgin Mary is not art. He also may be right.

Meanwhile, the museum and the ad executive, while yelling about their rights, are also in this for the money. Controversy sells. In England, this same exhibition, with similar controversy, drew the highest attendance of any art exhibit in 50 years.

It’s not a new issue. We saw it years ago with Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic pictures and with that other guy who thought a crucifix sitting in urine was some kind of masterpiece.

So it’s no shock Giuliani acts if he’s wasting the city’s money. Nor is it surprising to hear artists say a little restriction is like a little jail time.

Personally, the only thing I object to is British snobbery. As when the director of the Royal Academy, Norman Rosenthal, who put on the “Sensation” exhibit in England, sniffed at our American controversy.

“The level of prudery,” he said, “is much stronger in the U.S. than here.”

Not true, Norm. We just like our beef on a bun with cheese. And you like yours in formaldehyde.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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