Victor Bloom MD
Mitch Albom says of the controversial Brooklyn Museum show which mayor Guiliani threatens to close down,
I"This exhibition -- "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" -- is owned by an ad executive, so we should have known we were in trouble. It not only features the Virgin Mary slung with elephant poop but also a real pig and a real cow's head hanging in formaldehyde."
This controversy stirs up the question of What is Art? and whether government should exercise any power of censorship. While Guiliani racks up the votes from his constituents and the ACLU comes to the rescue of the First Amendment, art lovers are in a quandary.
The show originated in England where there was less controversy. England seems to be used to the outrageous behavior of its rock stars, and the director of the show says with raised eyebrow that we Americans are quite prudish.
Really? Considering the fact that the average American is bombarded by the media of gratuitous sex and aggression to further the aims of consumerism, it is hard to imagine outside observers considering us prudish. This is a country where some schools distribute condoms and neighborhood social agencies distribute clean needles for drug addicts.
Defenders of questionable art say controversial exhibits are protected by the First Amendment and the Supreme Court. The highest court in the land upheld freedom of speech in the case of the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati, where the curators were cited for pornography, and an attempt made to close down the exhibit.
Having seen the exhibit, I could see that Mapplethorpe was a brilliant and talented photographer. It's just that he didn't take pictures of Yosemite National Park. In the exhibit were beautiful details of single flowers, along side nude photos of human forms usually covered or deleted in more traditional art. I must say the photos were impressive, but it was also certain that many people would be shocked and disgusted, according to the mores of their subculture. The Supreme Court upheld the museum's exhibit, not wanting it to be banned just because it might offend some people. The principle seems to be that the citizen has the right to view the exhibit or stay home, just like anyone can watch television or turn it off.
Defenders of the Saatchi exhibit cite a similar right, now that mayor Guiliani threatens to cut off city funds to the museum, which gets one third of its budget from the city. In this case, the mayor says the exhibits are not art. Furthermore, many of the works are extremely repugnant to the average person.
The Sunday New York Times Magazine had an in-depth article with photos about the controversy, and I can see what the mayor is talking about. If I may hazard a psychoanalytic interpretation, the exhibit items are calculated to be obnoxious, provocative and iconoclastic. This is not simply avant garde art. What seems to be motivating the 'artists' and collector is the philosophy of letting it all hang out, pushing for a world where anything goes. This anti-authoritarian attitude is in vogue, and it is promoted by people who have never developed beyond adolescent rebellion.
Probably the most provocative example was a statue of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung. How can such a defilement be rationalized or explained? One way to do this is to consider that modern art has become conceptual, rather than representational and visual. The Virgin Mary is the symbol of purity and goodness, while elephant excrement is the symbol of waste and degradation. Does the artist think he/she is making a statement about religion? Either he/she thinks that Christianity is a negative force, or he/she feels that many people, by their actions and words, defile the sanctity of religious belief.
Major statements are being made against the value and validity of Western Civilization. Multicultural politics and the philosophy of diversity argue that there are equivalents in many cultures of Plato and Aristotle, Socrates and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Moliere. The philosophy of deconstruction has caused many to shake up their notions of what is good, what is art, what is acceptable conduct.
It is interesting that in our present age of trying to build self-esteem into our children, by letting them do almost anything they want, and praising every scribble, the anti-authoritarian trend extends to people who call themselves artists, simply by constructing objects with a strong antisocial bent.
Interestingly, the art collector is a clever entrepreneur, and his collecting and exhibiting of these 'art' objects leads to increasing their value, temporarily. More interesting is the fact that the publicity around this exhibition will most certainly increase the patronage of the show. When all is said and done, the museum makes more money and Saatchi is laughing all the way to the bank.
That is unless the mayor succeeds in putting the kebash on the show.
Dr Bloom is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University School of Medicine. He is a member of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and on the editorial board of the Wayne County Medical Society. He welcomes comments at his email address--- hyperlink and visits to his website--- victorbloom.com.