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...

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About the Author

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