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Art Wars.

Can a city ban offensive art?


New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has criticized an exhibit called "Sensation," a collection of recent British art showing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show contains highly controversial works, including a partially decomposed shark, a bisected pig preserved in formaldehyde, and a portrait of the Virgin Mary surrounded by elephant dung.

Giuliani called these works "sick stuff," which, indeed, is a phrase that may be uttered by many' viewers. But the Mayor has also threatened to withhold city financing from the Brooklyn Museum, arguing that "to have the government subsidize something like that is outrageous." This grossly distorts the First Amendment, whose very purpose is to insure freedom of speech without intrusion by government.

New York City owns the Brooklyn Museum of Art and provides nearly a third of its operating budget. Government has no obligation to finance art. But the Supreme Court has nonetheless affirmed that once government decides to provide funding, it has no fight to impose "a penalty on disfavored viewpoints." Clearly, Giuliani's threat amounts to such a penalty.

No matter how you assess the art in "Sensation," a rock-hard principle remains: Public financing of the arts cannot be a pretext for government censorship, not on behalf of Roman Catholics or anyone else.

--EDITORIAL The New York Times


Let's assume the curator of the National Gallery in Washington came up with a show called "Outrage." It featured a statue of Moses wearing a Nazi swastika on his chest, a painting of a violent Martin Luther King Jr. forcing Elizabeth Cady Stanton into submission, and a collage of the cutest puppy you ever saw being tortured to death by a sadistic homosexual. As Mort Sahl used to say, "Is there anybody I haven't offended?"

Yes: Christians. In a real-life abuse of public responsibility, good taste, and artistic license, the Brooklyn Museum of Art is presenting "Sensation," featuring a portrait of the Virgin Mary with her breast decorated by a piece of what is described delicately as elephant dung. (As they say with a smirk at the Brooklyn Museum, "dung happens.")

The museum's board members are either incredibly stupid or knew--and did not care--that this would offend the religious faithful. They also knew, or should have, that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had to respond to reflect his values, and did.

I like to think of myself as a big First Amendment type. I'm for a private gallery's right to display outrage, and an offended public's fight to picket peaceably.

But limits exist: You can't steal this essay, protected by copyright, and put it on your Web site. Nor can a museum defiantly spend money raised by taxation for causes opposed by the majority or which disgust a significant minority.

Freedom of expression is a right, but public payment for it is not an entitlement.

--WILLIAM SAFIRE Times columnist
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Title Annotation:two opinions on controversial art exhibit
Author:Safire, William
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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