What Saatchi's 'Sensation' really exposed

The Virgin festooned with pornographic photos and elephant dung has come and gone. But her apparition in the Brooklyn Museum of Art left behind disquieting information, not about religion and art, but about art and money and the smug arrogance of an art world ready to offend but surprisingly unreceptive to being offended itself.

Last fall, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani demanded that the picture, The Holy Virgin Mary by British artist Chris Ofili, be removed from the "Sensation" exhibit because it was offensive to Catholics. When the Brooklyn Museum director, Arnold Lehman, failed to oblige, the mayor withheld city subsidies. In March the dispute between city and museum was finally settled in federal court. The city agreed to pay all it owed the museum ($3.5 million); in return, the museum dropped its First Amendment case against the mayor. The battle of Brooklyn may be over, but the war over tax funds for controversial art is not.

For many New Yorkers the controversy was not a fight about tax funds or the First Amendment, but a form of political theater. Both Lehman and Giuliani are showmen who know that nothing entertains the citizenry more than a dispute that appears to shake the foundations of constitutional order and deeply offends religious sensibilities. The Holy Virgin Mary was arguably not the most offensive offering at the exhibit (that award could have gone to the Chapman brothers for their child mannequins deployed in various sexual poses with human genitalia as part of their facial features; in London, it was a portrait, made up of children’s hand prints, of "Myra," a child torturer and murderer). But for Director Lehman it made little difference which work was found transgressive just so long as one of them was. What use is an exhibit named "Sensation" if it does not cause one? His marketing of the exhibit-broadsides promising vomiting, fainting, etc.-was meant to repulse, and thus attract, as many viewers as possible. It was his great good luck that it was the mayor who was offended.

Lehman and Giuliani, along with William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer who orchestrated the museum’s case and defended it in court, are master polemicists who enjoy a good fight. They royally entertained New Yorkers until the show closed in early January.

But for all the fireworks, it has come to look like a win-win situation for everyone. Museum admissions skyrocketed. The Catholic League found some new members and garnered more publicity. Lawyer Abrams won his case in court. And today, Rudolph Giuliani brags in senatorial campaign literature about his courageous stand, promising, if elected, to scrutinize federal art funding. But best of all, shortly before the show closed a seventy-two-year-old retiree and devout Catholic, Dennis Heiner, threw white paint on Ofili’s picture. Not only was this a fitting finale, it was a bona fide certification that this was really, really art. Jed Perl, writing about the Whitney 2000 Biennial in the New Republic (April 3, 2000), made the point neatly: "Once art provoked controversy. Now it seems that controversy can give anything the aura of art. Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Ofili are nothing without their controversies; that’s what gives their work meaning." Objecting strenuously to Heiner’s sensational defacement, museum staff quickly removed the offending white paint and returned the picture to its owner, Charles Saatchi, as offensive as when it arrived and certainly more valuable.

ut the story does not end there. When the museum went to court, it was obliged to reveal the exhibit’s financial and artistic arrangements. Memos and e-mail between Lehman, museum curators, and Saatchi exposed the extensive control-financial and artistic-exercised by Saatchi, the man who owned all the works in the show. In addition, financial contributions were solicited and received from Christie’s, the art auction house, and various gallery owners, who, like Saatchi, would directly benefit from future sales of the artists represented in "Sensation." Was there a conflict of interest in the museum’s showing of Saatchi’s collection and taking money from him? In allowing him a significant role in mounting the exhibit, did the museum surrender its autonomy and artistic integrity? If the museum is in the same business as profit-making galleries, why should taxpayers help fund it?

Pretty shocking! I certainly thought so as I read the detailed account by New York Times reporter David Barstow (December 6, 1999) showing how and where ethical lines were crossed by the museum and its director. The museum’s aesthetic and educational mission was subverted in favor of the financial interests of collectors and dealers. But we who were shocked turn out to be naifs, people who don’t understand that the business of art is, well, business.

Exactly how much business was expansively explored at a conference organized by the University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago in February, "Taking Funds, Giving Offense, Making Money: The Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy and the Dilemmas of Arts Policy" (a title Lehman found offensive). Many audience members of the "arts community" in Chicago expressed astonishment at the astonishment of the citizenry. Like all little enclaves, especially ones that lay claim to specialized knowledge, the art world is a mystery to the general public, which has little opportunity to understand its inner workings. Art is not licensed or regulated; it is not sued for malpractice; the press rarely scrutinizes its practices. Its practitioners-rich and newly rich collectors, dealers, museum directors, and curators-cultivate an air of exclusiveness, and, at times, of sanctity and Gnosticism. Such is their insularity except when tax funds are needed; then there is talk, as at the Chicago meeting, of educating a benighted public too ignorant to recognize great (and valuable) art.

Still, not even the cognoscenti are always aware of the financial arrangements like those at the Brooklyn Museum or the commercial deals that some museums make, for example, in taking commission for a work sold as the result of an exhibition. Gilbert Edelson, vice president of the genuinely for-profit Art Dealers Association of America, dropped the latter news in a panel discussion and truly seemed to shock the directors of the two academic museums, Chicago and Harvard, on the panel. But other curators readily acknowledged the power of collectors over the decisions museums make about exhibits and their content, and seemed indifferent to the ethical lines that the public assumes separate aesthetic judgment and commercial calculation.

The panel of lawyers offered more practical and political counsel: Constantly defending trangressive art by recourse to the First Amendment, though an argument likely to win in court, was a strategy with diminishing returns. David Strauss of the University of Chicago Law School put it this way: "The battle over government funding of disturbing or unconventional art is going to have to be won in the court of public opinion, not in courts of law enforcing the First Amendment. People who want to resist government efforts to reduce funding of certain kinds of art will have to persuade their fellow citizens why it is important that such funding continue." The courts have declared that once a government body provides funds, it cannot withdraw them to censor offensive art. But no more than newspapers or book publishers are art museums entitled to tax funds. The bottom line: If government bodies cannot censor art, they are free to decide not to fund art at all. The congressional budget cutting at the National Endowment for the Arts following the Mapplethorpe controversy was never far from this discussion.

The Chicago conference, though less colorful than the New York controversy, was more illuminating. It took the dilemma of public tolerance and funding for transgressive art seriously. There were few, if any, defenders of Rudolph Giuliani, but Arnold Lehman had no champions either. There were deep uneasiness with the financial arrangements made by the Brooklyn Museum and serious doubts raised by its legal strategy. This was an audience that clearly understood how dependent most arts institutions are on tax funds and public generosity. The Charles Saatchis of this world will not support museums, except when it is in their own interests. But in a perverse way, there appears to be more respect in the art world for the tastes and judgments of a Saatchi than for the public’s. Or is it just for his investment policy?

Back in New York, the court case is over, but there remains, at least, one unanswered question. What were Mayor Giuliani’s motives in waging war on behalf of the Madonna? Was he truly offended by the Ofili picture or was his protest a play for the Catholic and conservative vote in the coming senatorial election? My liberal Catholic friends who saw the show (I did not) insist that Ofili’s picture was "lyrical." They think that the mayor is a bully and/or a philistine and that the Catholic League lacks subtlety in its many campaigns against "Catholic bashing." I usually agree with them. But in this case, I think liberal Catholics may be wrong, and the mayor (and the Catholic League) are probably right. The Ofili picture is pornographic, as even a cursory examination of the catalog illustration shows. All the focus on the elephant dung (and the pretentious gloss on Ofili’s African roots)-partly encouraged by the museum’s advance publicity-allowed reporters and the public to overlook the cutouts surrounding the Virgin. Though shaped to look like angel wings, in fact, they are photos of female genitalia from behind and below-the kind featured in pornographic magazines and on little stickers pasted in phone booths, inviting customers to call for a good time.

The picture may look lyrical from a distance but it strikes me as pornographic kitsch embodying the oldest stereotypes of women, the virgin and the whore. Ofili is lucky that it was only the mayor who attacked his picture and not the feminist brigade, which should have been even more offended than Catholics. But that’s another piece of political theater.

Published in the 2000-05-19 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads