The Art of Controversy
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KWAME HOLMAN: Since it opened at New York’s Brooklyn Museum of Art last week, “Sensation” indeed has caused one, and drawn crowds from curators and critics to simply the curious.
Fully titled, “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” and carrying a mock health warning, the show features 90 works from the collection of British advertising magnate Charles Saatchi.
Among them: Damien Hirst’s “A Thousand Years” composed of flies, maggots, a cow’s head, sugar, and water, another Hirst work, “This Little Piggy went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home” a split pig carcass floating in formaldehyde; Marc Quinn’s, “Self,” a bust of the artist made from nine pints of his frozen blood; and, most controversial, artist Chris Ofili’s work titled “The Holy Virgin Mary;” it is this work — a depiction of a black Madonna adorned with elephant dung and sexually-explicit photos — that was deemed by New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani “anti-Catholic.”
The city acted to revoke the museum’s lease and remove its municipal funding unless it took down the show.
MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI: If I ignored it, then the argument would be on the other side: How can you ignore something as disgusting, horrible and awful as this? And my view is you do what you think is right. I believe opposing this is the right thing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Museum officials responded quickly insisting “Sensation” would be displayed as planned.
ARNOLD LEHMAN, Director, Brooklyn Museum of Art: This is an important exhibition. I mean, this is a defining exhibition of a decade of the most creative energy that’s come out of Great Britain in a very long time. And that’s why we did it, these works are challenging, and thought provoking, and some are beautiful, some are very difficult to look at.
KWAME HOLMAN: The very public showdown stirred emotions inside and outside the arts community and forced many to choose sides. From the political world, Mayor Guiliani’s potential opponent for a Senate seat, Hillary Clinton, said that while she doesn’t like the art,
HILLARY CLINTON: It is not appropriate to penalize and punish an institution such as the Brooklyn museum that has served this community with distinction over many years.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the museum a mixed public reaction could be found.
MUSEUM GOER: I can’t believe that this has caused this commotion.
MUSEM GOER: I don’t know. I don’t have an adverse reaction to it. You know, it’s someone’s view on something.
MUSEM GOER: I’m furious about this. This is a tremendous insult to the mother of my God and to me.
MUSEUM GOER: I think it’s a disgrace that people can bash other people’s religion.
KWAME HOLMAN: The fight over “Sensation” is the latest skirmish in a long battle over controversial art that receives public funding. It’s included disputes over the proposed exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989; a 1995 contemporary art performance in Minneapolis in which one actor cut another to draw blood; and almost yearly battles in Congress over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
In the Brooklyn case, the museum receives $7 million a year, or about a third of its budget, from the City of New York. Today, a federal court in Brooklyn heard the museum’s plea for an injunction to block the city’s actions against its lease and funding until the entire exhibition issue is resolved. “Sensation” is scheduled to remain at the Brooklyn Art Museum through early next year.
JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth Farnsworth has more.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Two lawyers involved in the Brooklyn museum case join us. Michael Hess is counsel for Mayor Guiliani and the city of New York City. Floyd Abrams, works frequently in First Amendment cases and is representing the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Mr. Abrams, what exactly are you asking the federal court judge and what is the status of the case as of the end of today?
FLOYD ABRAMS, Attorney for Brooklyn Museum: We’re asking Judge Gershon to issue a preliminary injunction barring the city from engaging in any more punishment of the museum because it put on a perfectly lawful art show. We’re asking the court to enter an order saying stop withholding the money that you’ve already agreed to pay, stop trying to drive the museum out of its home for 106 years, stop trying to get rid of the board of directors, all because the mayor of the City of New York, Mayor Giuliani doesn’t like an art show. The current status is that we argued it today. We’re going to submit some papers next week to the judge. And I think all of us expect a pretty prompt ruling after that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Hess, let’s get the facts straight about exactly what the city has done. What have you done?
MICHAEL HESS, Corp. Counsel, City of New York: Well, up to now the city has done two things. We’ve filed our own independent lawsuit in Brooklyn seeking to evict the museum from their building because they violated a lease and an obligation under that lease and contract as to the type of shows that they’re supposed to put on. And second of all, the October payment from the city to the museum has been withheld.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And why are you doing this?
MICHAEL HESS: Well, the basic reason is because, as I said, the museum has a contract and a lease going back over 100 years with the city, which gives some obligations to the museum, as well as obligations to the city. For the first time in the course of that lease, the Brooklyn Museum has violated that obligation to put on an exhibit that really is to have open access to the public, to train young people in artistic things, and to really put on an appropriate show for the citizens of the city. This they’re not doing, actually by their own admission, because while their lease specifically says that the museum should be open to young people to schoolchildren, at the start of this exhibit, one of the strictures put on the exhibit by this museum is that no one under 17 may attend unless accompanied by an adult. That alone violated the lease without getting the mayor’s approval and caused the mayor to react the way he did.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Abrams, what is your response to that?
FLOYD ABRAMS: Well, what the museum is trying to do was to be as responsible and serious as possible by saying this is a really challenging exhibition. This is an exhibition which is best scene by kids with adults. The mayor, however, took the position that he had the authority to decide whether children could be kept out. And he said, no, I will not approve; I will not give my authorization to have children only allowed in the museum with adults. So the museum, trying to avoid litigation on this issue, the museum came in and said, all right; we’ll let the children in, we’ll post warning signs around — and they’ve done that — and we’ll post advisories and tell parents we really think your kids ought to see it together with you. It’s just a shame it worked out this way. This is a very interesting, provocative, challenging, controversial effort, which the people of Brooklyn, the people of the New York, the people of America ought to have a chance to see. It’s just a shame that because of the efforts of Mayor Giuliani we almost lost that. And the museum is paying very dearly for holding to its principles.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Hess, what is the city’s view of the art in this exhibit? What’s wrong with it from your point of view?
MICHAEL HESS: Well, the city’s view of the art is that it’s totally inappropriate, certainly for children, and beyond that, it’s really not even for the general public the kind of exhibit that taxpayers should pay for. I think the viewers should understand that the mayor is not saying that this art should never be shown anywhere. This is not an occasion where the mayor has said let’s burn the paintings or let’s lock them up. He’ saying they can be shown in a private gallery. They can be shown in a private museum. But because of the nature of the art itself, the more than controversial, the actual upsetting, violent, disgusting view of some of these paintings, they shouldn’t be supported by taxpayer money. So that’s the real focus of this. It shouldn’t be supported by taxpayer money, and it violates the lease that the Brooklyn Museum entered into, which lease talks about shows appropriate for schoolchildren.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Abrams, the museum’s response to why taxpayer money should go to this art?
FLOYD ABRAMS: Taxpayer money ought to go for culture because it’s good for taxpayers. Taxpayer money ought to go to the Brooklyn Museum as it has for a hundred years because the Brooklyn Museum serves the public; it serves it by having 125,000 school kids visit every year. It serves it by teaching kids. It serves it by having exhibitions of a variety of sorts. One sort is a particularly challenging, controversial sort. It’s good for the people of Brooklyn and New York to have a choice for them to decide whether to go to this exhibition, and for the mayor to react by throwing the museum out, by having one of his aides say to the head of the museum, take that one picture down, that picture down B you take it down or we’re cutting off all aid — seems to me contrary to the whole notion of freedom of expression in America.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Hess?
MICHAEL HESS: Well, I think the mayor’s view, and to speak for a moment about that one picture, which has been the center of controversy, that picture is a picture entitled “The Virgin Mary” and it’s a picture, as was said before, of the Virgin Mary surrounded by small vaginas and covered with elephant dung. Now the mayor, in seeing that, said that’s not appropriate. It’s not controversial only. That’s a word that the museum uses: Controversial, challenging. It’s much more than that. In the mayor’s view, it’s totally inappropriate to use taxpayer money to put that up on the wall. In addition, we feel that, again because there is a contract between the museum and the city, there’s an obligation on the museum’s part to look at what they’re putting up on the wall before they do it. And to limit this kind of painting. The museum’s director has said, no, he doesn’t feel it’s his obligation at all. He takes the show as he received it from London, and just puts everything up on the wall. We think that violates the contract and the lease. And if he won’t do it, then it becomes the city’s obligation, since we’re on the other side of that lease, to look at what’s going up on the wall. And when something as vile as that — because it absolutely does derogate someone’s religion, because of that the mayor draws the line and says this isn’t controversial or challenging art, this is way over the line, and the taxpayers shouldn’t pay for it.
FLOYD ABRAMS: You know what…
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Mr. Abrams, very briefly — I have to move on to our other guests — but very briefly respond.
FLOYD ABRAMS: The mayor is saying, in effect, if there is a book in the library that we fund, I can take it out if it’s offensive. That is profoundly dangerous, profoundly dangerous, and that’s why we had to go to court.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Thank you both very much.