When New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appeared on three national television shows attacking the Brooklyn Museum and its current art exhibit, “Sensation” (10/3/99), none of the shows saw fit to include an advocate of civil liberties or artistic freedom. Giuliani appeared unopposed on NBC‘s Meet the Press, ABC‘s This Week With Sam and Cokie, and Fox News Sunday.
Furthermore, while none of the participants in the broadcasts had seen the exhibit, it didn’t stop anchors on two of the shows from joining Giuliani in condemning “Sensation.” On Fox News Sunday, anchor Tony Snow dismissed the exhibit as “silly,” while Cokie Roberts on This Week called the show “yucky.” (On Meet the Press, anchor Tim Russert consistently asked Giuliani tough questions.)
If an advocate for art–or even someone who had looked at the art in question–had taken part in the discussion, some errors might have been avoided. Following Giuliani’s lead, anchors mostly asked about the painting The Holy Virgin Mary, by Chris Ofili–who used elephant dung as a medium in this and other works as a symbol of Africa, fertility and the earth.
Playing off this, ABC‘s George Will asked Giuliani: “Suppose, instead of a portrait of the Virgin Mary splattered with excrement, it was a portrait of Martin Luther King. How do you suppose people would react to it?” To which Giuliani replied, “I don’t think the museum ever would have done it. The museum board would have been too sensitive to the concerns of the minority of people that would be offended by this.”
Someone who had actually seen the show might have pointed out that no painting there was “splattered with excrement”; that the Virgin Mary portrayed in the painting was herself black, and thus representative of the “minority” Giuliani and Will think people are overly sensitive to; and that another painting by Ofili included in the exhibit indeed featured African-American icons, including Miles Davis, James Brown and Muhammad Ali–and that this painting too employed elephant dung, to no particular outcry.
Earlier in the program, Cokie Reports declared that “Sensation” was, “according to all reports…at best, a fifth-rate adolescent exhibit.” While reviews of the show have been mixed, many of the artists in it–including some of the most controversial–have been widely praised by critics. Ofili, for example, won last year’s Turner Award, Britain’s most prestigious artistic prize. The New Yorker (10/11/99) referred to his “Holy Virgin Mary” as “sweet, gorgeous and respectful of its subject.”
On Fox News Sunday, the nearest the views of artists came to being represented was when panelist Fred Barnes asked Giuliani: “The people in the arts and culture community…. What does it say about them? What’s the matter with them?”
Lost in all the discussions was the fact that Giuliani does not want to simply withhold public money from art on the grounds of offensiveness–a practice the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional–but hopes, by trying to replace the museum’s board, to take over a private cultural institution whose policies he objects to. The threat to free expression posed by this kind of government intervention was not pointed out even by Russert, Giuliani’s toughest Sunday morning critic.