Sunday, October 3 1999, 10:49 PM
P.T. Barnum would have loved the din surrounding the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum. Barnum and his advertising methods were the direct forebears of Charles Saatchi, who has installed his collection of contemporary British art over pious furor blasting out of Rudolph Giuliani's mayoral offices. Barnum had a keen eye for the link between culture and capital, whether 'high' musical culture in the form of Jenny Lind or 'low' exhibitional culture in the form of General Tom Thumb. He understood that educationalism could authorize sensationalism, and that we want to enjoy both. Barnum made their merger into a bankable All-American item.
That is the essence of the Sensation show. When Saatchi collects and promotes Chris Ofili's artwork, where a Black Madonna is surrounded by dung and genitalia cutouts, capital feeds off art and art feeds off capital. It's a dance that has been going on for centuries. When an intellectually arthritic critic like Hilton Kramer rises on all fours in The New York Observer to condemn Saatchi as an advertiser interested only in showmanship and creating a lucrative market, he turns two blind eyes to the mainstream of Western art history. When Giuliani condemns show sponsorship by Christies International as rank commercialism, the hypocrisy is laughable: it's the first time the mayor has condemned anything in New York City for commercialism.
Saatchi's performance as a freedom-loving patron of the arts can be watched with extreme cynicism: this is only another expression of Saatchi and Saatchi's corporate logo "We sell ideas." But whatever their use of free speech, they nonetheless deserve its protections.
As jaded as the NEA and NEH Wars have left us through battles since the 1980s over controversial funding, the new calls to defend the ramparts of free expression are worth heeding. Giuliani's administrative attacks against the Brooklyn Museum are part of an ongoing assault against culture-as-challenge in the United States, an assault that has employed arguments over use of 'the taxpayer's dollar' as a means of censorship. This tactic seeks to bypass First Amendment protections and substitute them with false, hollow invocations of a public fiduciary responsibility.
It is a legal strategy that, if widely successful in the hands of the religious right, could be used against teachers at public institutions, like myself who this semester assigned two novels featuring scenes of bestiality (Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead and Gerald Vizenor's Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles). Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum has implications for a broad range of public educational institutions and their ability to include materials that go beyond safe culture. We should take it personally: this is a real threat.
Ironically, this outbreak of public censorship directed against the visual arts has coincided with Banned Books Week, organized annually by the American Library Association. It reiterates the organic link between all forms of cultural expression in the face of censorship. Where books are challenged and banned from school libraries, the local art museum will face similar challenges should it exhibit work that constitutes someone's notion of blasphemy or obscenity. Social prohibitions against writers like Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck and Maya Angelou lead inevitably to similar strictures against Sensation show artists like Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst, and the Chapman brothers. Writers like Judy Blume (heavily censored herself), Wendy Wasserstein and Paul Auster recognized this linkage when they came to speak at a rally in behalf of the Sensation exhibition and the Brooklyn Museum.
In the midst of this censorship controversy, it needs to be remembered that the Brooklyn Museum turmoil is the result of antagonism between controlling elites and competing visions of the services to be provided by cultural institutions they control. It is not a controversy that addresses the basic issues of housing for the homeless and poor; reform of welfare reform that assaults poor people, not poverty; and an enduring racial hierarchy in American society perpetuated by the dismantling of affirmative action. Mayor Giuliani, Charles Saatchi, and the Brooklyn Museum board of directors are engaged in a battle over the control and marketing of cultural capital, none of which lies significantly within any democratic public control.
Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.