Art

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The SCCA had received a National Endowment for the Arts grant of $15,000 to defray shipping costs, which meant that the show was, at least in part, federally funded. Suddenly, contemporary art was a topic being discussed in both houses of Congress -- and that was not a good thing. The political battles fought against public funding of controversial art went on for years. The result? The NEA received slightly more than half the funding this year than it had before the Neanderthals in Congress had ever heard of Piss Christ.

The current controversy surrounds a traveling exhibit called Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. The show, which was originally presented at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London in 1997, just opened at New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art. Like Piss Christ, a piece in this show that mixes religious imagery with excrement has been the flash point for conservatives.

The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting done in 1996 by Chris Ofili, a London-based artist of Nigerian descent, is a monumental piece in which paper, oil and glitter and -- oh, yes -- elephant dung have been used to create a meticulous pointillist image of a black Madonna. Elephant dung, sacred to some Nigerians, is a specialty of Ofili's, and works like The Holy Virgin Mary cinched last year's prestigious Turner Prize, given by the venerable Tate Gallery, for the Anglo-African painter. Though most news accounts describe the painting as having been "smeared" with dung, Ofili has actually applied it quite carefully. Interestingly, like Serrano, Ofili was raised as a Roman Catholic.

As was the case the last time, it is a conservative New York Republican who is making political hay by attacking contemporary art. Last time it was former senator Alfonse D'Amato. This time it is New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is following in the footsteps of his old friend and supporter. Giuliani is using the situation as a way to bash the more art-friendly Democrats, and since art is such a weak player in society, it can easily be used as a club.

Giuliani's office has threatened to revoke the lease of the Brooklyn Museum -- a lease, by the way, that dates back to the nineteenth century. The mayor has also threatened to revoke the museum's city funding, to turn off the electricity, and to fire and replace its board of directors. In response, the museum has filed a lawsuit to stop the city.

Whatever the outcome of this current assault on free expression in the fine arts, the art world, like last time, will wind up losing -- and not just in terms of funding. Instead of having a real aesthetic discussion about whether Ofili and the other artists in Sensation are any good, museum professionals, artists and critics have been forced to defend the show as a symbol of freedom. Although this self-censorship is an appropriate response, given the dire straits in which art once again finds itself, it precludes open criticism.

Sadly, the tenor of the times forbids such a luxury.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia