You Call That Art!?

Art can get messy—even in the absence of elephant dung and Mayor Giuliani. In the process of being something beautiful or profound or disturbing, art can bring together all those things we’re not supposed to talk about in polite company—religion, sex, politics, public funding. This can be a good thing. Or not. Last fall’s imbroglio over the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art had more to do with the cynical manipulation of free publicity (by all involved) than with the public conversation that can appropriately arise from art.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani surely had one eye on the points he might win from upstate Catholic voters for his senatorial campaign, as he attempted to withhold the museum’s city funding in a sudden impassioned defense of the Virgin Mary. And the museum’s director could barely contain his glee over the national publicity he was getting, even as he was decrying the city’s assault on free speech and art as a sacred untouchable.

While some clearly profited from the controversy, the rest of us benefited not at all. The general public is not now better educated on how their tax dollars (whether local or federal) are spent on the arts, nor are they better informed about how to interpret contemporary art or how arts institutions and markets interact.

The nonreligious members of the art world are not now more informed about why people of faith might be offended by certain works. Most artists will not find that the controversy increased public receptivity or comprehension of their life’s work. Most religious people will not find that it increased the public’s receptivity or comprehension of their faith.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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