Leave Art Censorship To The Artists, Not The Government

1 October 1999

By Stentor Danielson

In order to fulfill a course requirement last year, I attended a semester's worth of lectures sponsored by the art and art history department. And, to put it bluntly, I saw some really stupid art. Worse than the sculptures that were oh so warmly received last spring.

Because of that, I can sympathize with New York City Mayor Rudolph Guliani. Guliani has seen some art that is rather stupid. And he is not pleased. But, while I can appreciate his distaste for bad art, I cannot approve of his attempt to eliminate it.

Guliani has cut the funding of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and threatened to evict them from their city-owned facilities, because of an exhibit titled "Sensation" which is scheduled to open Saturday. Among the objectionable works in the exhibit is a portrait of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung. The museum, however, has filed a lawsuit against the city charging that Guliani is violating their First Amendment rights. And they should.

I must admit that, as a Christian, I am not happy with the notion of attaching elephant dung to a picture of Mary. I say this bearing in mind that Chris Ofili, who created the piece, is a Roman Catholic.

As an artist having seen the work in question, I think I can reasonably say that there is no real artistic purpose to the exhibit. Even givn Ofili's explanation to The New York Times that the dung symbolizes natural beauty. Natural beauty is the last thing a viewer will think of upon seeing excrement, especially when that excrement is globbed and smeared around on a sacred painting.

But that doesn't give Guliani the right to attack the Brooklyn Museum.

It seems rather foolish to let a politician -- who needs no art background to attain his position -- decide what is and what isn't acceptable art. If the government is going to fund art, it should fund it all. It should not simply cut an entire museum from the rolls because one politician doesn't like an exhibit. "Sensation" is not the culmination of the Brooklyn Museum's existence on earth.

The lecture series last semester convinced me that art is an impossible category to define. I didn't think a pile of books soaked in cow's blood was art, but the art department clearly did. Guliani clearly didn't like "Sensation," but somebody must have, because it won Britain's Turner Prize for contemporary art.

That is not to say that artists should be free to create whatever horrible things they want, and display them to the public in the name of free speech. But the censorship should not come from the government. It should come from the art community itself.

A piece of art that is clearly intended to offend the viewer is comparable to swearing. Both are crutches used by the inarticulate. When people cannot express what they are feeling in such a way as to communicate its power, they fall back on using an expression that shocks, in order to get an emotional response. But that response is a poor parody of the effect of real eloquence. And you can swear as easily in art as in language.

The title of the exhibit -- "Sensation" -- makes it clear that this is an artistic version of swearing. Ofili and his co-ehhibitors should hang their heads in shame. Art should draw the viewer into a greater understanding, not repel him with offensive imagery.

The art community needs to take a good long look at itself. Do we want to present ourselves to the country as potty-mouthed junior high school students, standing with our toes touching school property as we smoke our cigarettes, seeing how much we can get away with? Or do we want to be refined and mature?

It is the artists' responsibility to garner respect for a field that has alienated most of the public. And we can't do that by creating exhibits that deliberately offend the very people whose support makes our pursuits worthwhile.

Yet to retain this control that allows us to make the world of art strong, we must be free of outsiders who second-guess us. That means that political meddling in the world of art, such as Guliani has tried to accomplish, must not be allowed.

My advice is that we not give those who produce what are, in effect, visual curse words the satisfaction of a job well done. Remember, something can only offend us if we let it. If we ignore "Sensation," or refuse to be offended by it, Ofili and his co-exhibitors have accomplished nothing.

Artists need to learn that being bizzarre or avant-garde is not a goal for which to strive. Communication with the audience is. If that communication happens to take a bizzarre or avant-garde form, that's fine. But communication itself should be the foremost goal.

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