The Art of Controversy

October 8, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And now some commentary on the implications of this case from David Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and formerly head of the Whitney Museum in New York, and Matthew Rees, a writer on politics and culture for the Weekly Standard magazine. Mr. Ross, before we get into some of the specifics, let’s look at the broader picture. What do you think is at stake here beyond this specific case? What’s at stake?

DAVID ROSS: Well, I think the main issue is whether or not as a nation, if we want to really generalize this, we respect what artists do, what they try to do, the effort that they make to take their most personally held feelings about themselves, their place in the world, and their place in society, their sense of religiosity that they may hold very privately and try to express that to others.

That is the essence of being an artist; one human being expressing something extremely private and personal and trying to touch other people with that effort. That’s what we celebrate. That’s the essence of why we so carefully have to protect the freedom of artists to be able to explore their own feelings, to be able to communicate freely and not to have the fear that by communicating something that may offend someone else, that somehow they may bring upon them the wrath of government.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Rees, what do you think is at stake here, beyond the Brooklyn case itself?

MATTHEW REES: Well, Mr. Ross and his allies are framing the issue as one of artistic independence, when the issue really is subsidized irreverence or subsidized decadence in many respects. He says that the issue at stake is whether or not we’re going to take artists seriously.

I’d like to see all of the other examples in which Mr. Ross thinks we’re not taking artists seriously. It’s not as if museums are shutting down displays throughout America. The reality is that this is an extreme case with an extreme exhibit that involves $7 million of taxpayer money. And I think there’s a very strong argument for certainly not having the government fund these sorts of exhibits, and perhaps displaying a little bit of judgment when deciding whether or not to put these kinds of exhibits on display.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Before you respond directly to that, as a museum director, how do you see your responsibilities to the public to not offend certain sensibilities?

DAVID ROSS: I think every museum director, every curator, every board of trustees which, by the way, is the governing body here — there is a board of trustees at the Brooklyn Museum, just as there is at SF MOMA –has a responsibility to think clearly and carefully about what they present and to make judgments based on their own sense of aesthetic value and quality.

Now, that said, these are the most debatable terms we can have. And when we have issues like those that are raised by Chris Ofili’s paintings, those issues should be broadly and openly debated. I don’t in any way reject the idea that there are people who find the work offensive and difficult and maybe even disgusting and insulting to the sense of who they are, and their own sense of their relationship to God. That’s a very serious thing.

But in relationship to that feeling, the obligation then is to talk about it; to let the expression of that work of art generate a useful dialogue, because this work of art is a serious thing. It’s not something that was just done to make someone angry or to insult someone.

Chris Ofili is a very serious painter. Now, let me respond quickly, if I can, to the other comments, because $7 million is a big number. But that’s not what is being used by the city to fund this exhibition. As we know, no city money is going into funding this exhibition. That’s the money that goes into providing the basic resources, one-third of the budget of that museum so that the city of New York and especially the people of Brooklyn can be served by this great museum.

And the real issue here isn’t that there are hundreds of examples of other cities and other mayors and other museums being similarly attacked for works of art that may be unpopular or difficult. The problem is the precedent this sets. If one mayor, one city, can reach into a great museum like the Brooklyn Museum and threaten it and bring it to its knees based on the feeling of that mayor, which I don’t doubt is a sincere feeling, then I think the doors are open to a kind of censorship that would create an enormous chilling effect in this nation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Matthew Rees, your view of that?

MATTHEW REES: They like to frame this around things like the First Amendment. There is no government right to subsidized art. This is not an issue of the government shutting down newspapers or publications or displays that it simply doesn’t like and finds offensive. This is a case in which you have an exhibit that is offensive to millions of people who live in New York City. And I think it would actually set a very useful precedent if it suggested to some of the artists and the people who put on the displays that perhaps they should think twice before having an exhibit like this at a city-funded museum.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Rees, what about the argument that the trustees could fire the director or that nobody will come to see it if it was really offensive to people, what about just letting that sort of procedure take care of it?

MATTHEW REES: I think that would be perfectly reasonable if there were not government money at stake. And I think also there is…we’re all adults here. I like to think we are. And the ideas that perhaps some of these people will show a little bit of judgment and realize that perhaps this is so offensive and the idea that it should be on display at a city museum, they know that this was going to create a great deal of controversy and it’s going to bring attention to the museum. But at what price?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ross, I wanted to ask you about that. There is a commercial aspect to this that offends some people, too, that the museum did this because it would make news, it was provocative and that’s what museums have to do to get people to them now. What’s your response to that?

DAVID ROSS: Well, the Brooklyn Museum does many things to bring people to it, just as well all do. I think the Monet show brought a lot of people and there is nothing much provocative about Monet today, although in his own time there were probably people who hated it.

The reality is that when government decides to support museums or libraries, then the rules of the First Amendment apply. So since we are in that condition, the kind of decisions that have to be made by those who have the stewardship of our museums as their responsibility are made within the framework knowing that the First Amendment grants us certain protections.

I believe that that board of trustees and I know that Arnold Lehman and his colleagues thought about that all very seriously. The commercial side of this is an easy attack. Was this show considered to be popular? We already knew it was popular from its showing in London.

But I think if Arnold didn’t believe that the works in there and the artists in that show were worthy of serious merit and worthy of generating a critical discussion, around the exhibition of their newest work, then I don’t think he would have done it. Yes, there’s a little show business in museums these days, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Matthew Rees, we’re just about out of time but very briefly your response?

MATTHEW REES: Well, I don’t think there’s anything particularly avant-garde about this. I think what would be truly radical, perhaps would be to put on more traditional classical, representational art that would appeal to our better interests as opposed to this, which appeals to our more prurient interests.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Thank you both very much for being with us.