Anyone who doubts that politics rather than piety has inspired New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s quest to evict the Brooklyn Museum over an art show called “Sensation” might ponder this. At the very moment Giuliani stood denouncing a young British painter’s depiction of Mary in artistic media that include elephant dung, the Whitney Museum in Manhattan opened its fall season by giving prominent place to “Piss Christ,” Andres Serrano’s notorious photo of a crucifix in urine that a few years ago launched Jesse Helms’ crusade against the National Endowment of the Arts. The fact that Giuliani unleashed his Torquemada imitation over “Sensation” but stood silent about Serrano might have something to do with the fact that the Whitney’s board chairman is a major Giuliani donor.
“Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” opened Thursday. I haven’t seen it but it is clear that the guiding spirit of the show — which comes to Brooklyn after two years of immensely popular runs in London and Berlin — was as much P.T. Barnum as Lorenzo DiMedici. The promotional material, in true sideshow-barker fashion, even warns that “the contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety.”
It’s equally clear that by threatening to shut down a museum to prevent the opening of a show he considers sacrilegious, Giuliani is using the machinery of government to prevent an unpopular viewpoint from being aired. The Brooklyn Museum wanted a circus, but its directors did not expect Giuliani to seize the ringmaster’s whip.
The last time New York was embroiled in such a free-for-all over artistic censorship was 1937: an episode, as it happens, recalled in “The Cradle Will Rock,” a new film by Tim Robbins scheduled for release in just a few weeks. A then-little-known theater director named Orson Welles and producer John Houseman, employed by the government-funded Works Progress Administration, announced plans to stage the world premiere of “The Cradle Will Rock,” an agitprop musical about steel workers and unions by composer Marc Blitzstein, an outspoken pro-Communist. Fearful of giving ammunition to anti-New Deal crusaders in Congress, WPA officials ordered Welles and Houseman to cancel the show. When they refused, soldiers evicted the company and padlocked the theater.
Undaunted, Welles asked patrons to show up anyway. With piano and costumes loaded on the back of a truck, Welles and his newly unemployed band of actors led the opening-night audience on a parade uptown to another space Houseman managed to secure. What started as an act of official censorship became a legendary moment of artistic defiance, and propelled the young Welles and Houseman to notoriety.
While the mayor was headed to court over the Brooklyn Museum, I encountered one of the actors in Robbins’ film. “It’s quite astonishing,” the actor told me. “Here we are opening this film — and the mayor suddenly makes the story relevant. We could not have paid for publicity — not just publicity, but public education — like this.”
But if politically colored censorship ties the Brooklyn Museum debacle to such earlier free-speech fights, there are differences, too. The mayor and his aides depict the creator of “Sensation” and his defenders as members of a narrow Catholic-bashing elite. (Chris Ofili, painter of the image of Mary that has so riled the mayor, traces his roots to a Nigerian culture in which elephant dung has sacred connotations.) More startling is that Giuliani’s presumed Senate rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democratic New York politicians and even other museum directors evidently share that view: They’ve all wrapped cautious defense of the Brooklyn museum’s funding in ritualized denunciation of a show they have not attended, fearful that the public can’t draw its own distinctions between bad taste and the Bill of Rights.
But the public isn’t buying this tale of its own resentment and stupidity. Friday’s New York Daily News reports a poll demonstrating that city residents support the museum’s right to stage its show by a 2-to-1 ratio — the majority holding across lines of class, race and religion, including Catholics. The paper reports that “many of those polled were passionate about their positions.” Only 10 percent of New Yorkers think the mayor should have the power to cut off the museum’s funding. As with Monicagate and impeachment, it would appear that the public’s ability to judge matters of sexuality and expression, to distinguish private religious views from public values, runs far ahead of the politicians and pundits.
This matters because one of the most deleterious consequences of a decade of attack on arts funding has been the near-suspension of debate among civil libertarians about the artworks themselves, about the responsibilities and content and mission of art in the public realm. And here, the comparison with that last great New York censorship fight bears some unexpected lessons. Whether an enduring theatrical monument or a flash in the pan, the original “Cradle Will Rock” was a public-spirited artwork about the deepest issues dividing American society.
Blitzstein’s musical language, while biting and acerbic, was accessible to anyone who’d heard classical music or jazz. The whole Federal Theater Project was conceived by the same New Dealers who employed classically trained painters to put art in post offices and schools, who paid young writers like Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison to collect the memories of ex-slaves and Dust Bowl refugees and who sent Shakespeare troupes to inner-city neighborhoods and remote towns. The Federal Theater Project and WPA were rooted in a vision of art as deeply embedded in the fabric of life, comprehensible through the prism of daily experience. This is a far cry from the idiosyncratic, inaccessible artistic vision of conceptual art from which “Sensation” hails.
The public’s overwhelming and sophisticated rejection of Giuliani’s inquisition suggests that it ought to be possible for a defense of free expression to coexist with a more vigorous debate about the content of art. We can defend the NEA, defend the imperative for radical, taboo-bashing, experimental art-making, and still ask if the Whitney would so readily display a sculpture called “Piss Torah,” with a scroll dropped in a jar of urine. If civil libertarians and artists want the public’s support for free expression, they also ought to trust the public with uncomfortable, even angry questions, and not wait for the mealy mouthed pieties of politicians. Otherwise, the constituency for art will become ever more insular, the defense of free expression finally as abstract as the art itself.
In 1907, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem condemning the “eunuchs” of Dublin’s cultural establishment who fomented riots to try to shut down John Millington Synge’s play “Playboy of the Western World” because of its frank depiction of Irish womanhood. Yeats envisioned John Synge as “Great Juan” and wrote of his attackers: “Even like these to rail and sweat/staring upon his sinewy thigh.” For Giuliani to seize control of the Brooklyn Museum because of “Sensation” would be a crime. But the fact that he rails and sweats at art of such little sinew, that is tragedy.