A few weeks ago, when the Brooklyn Museum of Art unfurled a banner proclaiming the word "Sensation" between the columns of its beaux-arts faade, it may not have anticipated the furor it would cause.
After all, this is New York, for decades the center of the avant-garde and self-proclaimed cultural capital of the United States. But these days, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is in charge, and his battle to withhold public money from the controversial exhibition he has deemed "disgusting" has met with a perhaps surprising degree of approval around town.
In many ways, the exhibition has come to signal a new era in the city where cutting-edge artists used to squat in Soho lofts and Greenwich Village literati would kvetch about the world in sidewalk cafes.
Today, a thriving economy has brought yuppies and boutiques to Soho, making it a hip haven for the wealthy and driving most artists away. The Village, too, has become known more for its $3,000-a-month rents than bold new art. And, as if to make matters even worse for New York's art scene, the city now finds itself on the front lines of the culture wars.
The city's pugnacious mayor has built a reputation for his no-nonsense crackdowns on everything from homeless squeegee men to triple-X porn shops in Times Square, and molding the city into what some New Yorkers glumly call Disneyland.
A better New York?
Still, while others accuse the mayor of using authoritarian, heavy-handed tactics that trample freedom of expression, most have not complained - crime has plunged to record lows and the city's economy is booming. In this milieu, even New York's bedrock political philosophy of libertarian liberalism - government subsidies with no interference - has begun to lose its political appeal.
During this art crackdown, even defenders of the avant-garde have been cautious, and at times even uncomfortable. The current exhibition has provoked outrage from groups as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Among other things, the "Sensation" show includes a pig sliced in two and suspended in glass tanks of formaldehyde, a self-portrait sculpture made with eight pints of the artist's own blood, and works that use dead flies and maggots. At the center of the fray, however, is a painting of the Virgin Mary globbed with elephant dung and pasted with cutouts from pornographic magazines.
Sick stuff, says Mayor Giuliani, who also called the work "anti-religious."
"I understand they want to make money, but this is what you do, like, on the 42nd Street of about 20 years ago, not what you do at a venerable and great museum," Giuliani says, harking back to a time when the well-known street in Times Square was the most famous red-light district in the nation.
The mayor's tactics
To stop the exhibit, which is scheduled to open tomorrow and run through Jan. 9, Giuliani has said he will cut off $7 million in city funding to the museum - almost one-third of its annual budget - and to try to evict it from its city-owned building.
The museum has responded by filing a lawsuit, charging the mayor with violating the First Amendment right to free speech by withholding funds.
"The law is that once the government makes a decision to fund free expression, then it can't pick and choose based on the content," says Councilman Ken Fisher (D) of the 33rd District in Brooklyn. "I grew up three blocks from the museum, and that was the first place I was exposed to culture and art, and same will be true for my kids. That's why I think the mayor is misguided in his approach to this."
Public funding for the arts has long been a target of conservative Republicans. The Republican-led Congress attempted to cut most of the funding for the National Endowment of the Arts in 1994, and earlier this week, the US Senate passed a nonbinding resolution saying federal funds for the Brooklyn museum should be withheld unless the exhibit is canceled.
Indeed, many observers see Giuliani's fervor in trying to shut down the exhibit as an attempt to bolster his expected run for the Senate.
"He's always vulnerable to the conservative wing of the party," says Nick Mills, professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "This is certainly a way to improve his credentials with them."
Giuliani supports a woman's right to abortion, and has supported gay rights in the past - both anathema to conservatives.
Though it would be no surprise that the attack on the Brooklyn exhibit would play well in the Republican-dominated upstate New York, it is also somewhat popular in New York City now, especially with its strong Catholic constituency.
"I think on all grounds, Giuliani has a winning political issue," Professor Mills says. "I don't see an upside for the defenders of [the art exhibit] - First Amendment decencies say that one ought to, but I don't think that plays particularly well in any kind of electoral battle."
Repugnance vs. expression
Is unabashed civil libertarianism - even in New York City - falling prey to a politics of repugnance, where personal revulsion is stressed over freedom of expression?
For her part, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Giuliani's expected opponent in the race for one of New York's US Senate seats, has tread cautiously.
"I share the feeling that I know many New Yorkers have that there are parts of this exhibition that would be deeply offensive," she says. "I would not go see this exhibition."
But she continues, "Our feelings of being offended should not lead to the penalizing and shutting down of an entire museum."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society