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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Dung Gets 'Art Card' From New York Mayor




New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has a reputation for thuggishness. Last month, the mayor slipped out his nightstick and whacked the Brooklyn Museum of Art up-side the head.


The mayor claimed that an exhibition was filled to overflowing with "sick stuff," which warranted its shuttering under the threat of withdrawal of $7 million in city funding. Forget the First Amendment. Giuliani had cleaned up the degenerates from Times Square, and now it was the turn of that nasty art museum in the borough across the river.


This was pretty much business as usual for hizzoner, but with a noteworthy twist. Being mayor of New York is usually the end of the road for a politician - when was the last time a New York mayor got elected to anything else? - but Giuliani has other aspirations. He wants to be a U.S. senator. To help consolidate his conservative political base, Giuliani played the "art card."


We all know about the race card, but the art card is a relatively new weapon in the political arsenal. Like the race card, the art card requires the presence of two simultaneous but seemingly contradictory conditions: a high public profile and social marginalization. As never before in American life, art now fills that bill.


Art has become a multibillion-dollar industry in America, symbolized in part by the rapid transformation of the art museum into a venue of mass entertainment. Artists, meanwhile, occupy a marginal place in the social landscape. The combination of high public profile and low social standing makes for a political target as big as a barn door.


Here's one example of how the art card reverberates through the echo chamber of mass media. In the wake of Giuliani's mugging of the Brooklyn Museum, three right wing radio hosts took to the airwaves to loudly bemoan the incivility of contemporary life. It wasn't the mugger that had them riled, it was the mug-ee.


Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh and Paul Harvey each wailed in turn about the decline of American moral life implicit in the willingness of an art museum to display a painting of the Virgin Mary "splattered with elephant dung." Their reference was to a work by painter Chris Ofili, 31, who is among 40 artists in "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection." Ofili was singled out for Giuliani's harshest rebuke.


Use of the term "splattered," which all three radio jocks employed, is certainly provocative. It suggests an impudent, even violent heaving of the excrement, in an apparent effort to defame or slander a beloved religious icon. But the moment these three radio stooges uttered the word "splattered" I knew that none of them had actually seen the painting that was fueling their righteous moral indignation.


I haven't seen it either - at least, not in person. A photograph of the painting clearly shows, however, that nothing is splattered on it. Instead, a single large turd, apparently preserved, has been affixed to the picture's surface. (More about that unusual attachment in a moment.)


Where then did the word "splattered" come from? Who knows? What is worth noting is that none of these upholders of traditional American values felt the slightest obligation to look at the art before making their pronouncements.


Conservative Republicans do not have an exclusive franchise on this brand of yahoo-ism. Take, for another example, Hillary Rodham Clinton - Giuliani's likely Democratic opponent in the New York Senate race. Five days after Giuliani first threatened the museum, Clinton denounced the mayor's actions as "a very wrong response."


The museum then filed suit against Giuliani, arguing that retaliation for exercise of First Amendment rights is unconstitutional - a position many legal experts expect to prevail.


Clinton, however, having properly denounced the mayor's authoritarian tactics, then had this to say: "I share the feeling that I know many New Yorkers have that there are parts of this exhibition that would be deeply offensive. I would not go to see this exhibition."


The undeclared Senate candidate did not say how she knew that the as-yet unopened show featured "deeply offensive" art. Maybe she heard it on the radio.


Of course, nobody I know was much looking forward to "Sensation." The hubbub over the work of a new generation of British artists has been ongoing for most of the 1990s, yet, with few exceptions, the interest was confined to Britain.


"Sensation" had been a success at London's Royal Academy of Arts two years ago, but the American art world looked on with indifferent bemusement. To them, most of the young British artists seemed rather local. But informed lack of interest in this particular art was not the reason Clinton planned on staying away from the Brooklyn Museum. The art card, once played, cannot be unplayed. She was obliged to trump it, denouncing Giuliani's signature thuggishness while also denouncing the show.


Like the race card, the art card exploits irrational fears. Americans love entertainment, but they don't much like art. Too girly. Oh, they'll pay it lip service all right. But when push comes to shove, Americans would rather not look art in the eye. Might mean they're girly too.


So art remains an amorphous thing, surrounded by sentimentality and cliches. Art is big now - big as mass entertainment - but it's also a curious blind spot in the national culture. As with any blind spot, the public can be easily blindsided.


That, in fact, is just what the Brooklyn Museum of Art was hoping for when it added "Sensation: Young British Art From the Saatchi Collection" to its exhibition schedule. The museum is New York City's second largest, but it's not a glamour spot like its Manhattan brethren. Director Arnold Lehman wants to change all that.


"I absolutely knew that there would be controversy," Lehman told The New York Times of his original decision to book the show, "and that the controversy would help to bring more audience into the museum.''


P.T. Barnum with scruples? Lehman is emerging as a hero in his firm response to Giuliani's assault. That doesn't mean, though, that the original motives driving "Sensation" are virtuous. No less than Giuliani, the Brooklyn Museum was happy to exploit art's "alien" quality for its own purposes.


Meanwhile, about that elephant dung. Chris Ofili is black and a practicing Roman Catholic. In some African cultures, elephants are linked to the power of the chief, while their dung, sometimes used in making spiritually potent ritual objects, can be symbolic of regeneration.


For an Afro-British Catholic artist to thus affix a clump of elephant dung to the soulful breast of an image of a black Madonna might well be something other than a religious slur.


Of course, like Mayor Giuliani, Clinton and the rest, I haven't actually seen the offending painting. But then, when the art card is being played, actual art is immaterial.


Christopher Knight is the art critic for the Los Angeles Times, to which he contributed this comment.