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Indecent: The New Ruckus at the Brooklyn Museum

by Norma Munn, Feb 01, 2001
 

In his new blast at a work of art at the Brooklyn Museum, a photographic version of The Last Supper that features a naked black woman (the artist) in the role of Jesus, the mayor has again demonstrated his lack of understanding, both about art and about what constitutes a cultural institution's responsible use of public money. His decision to appoint a Decency Commission is also not based, despite his claims, on an accurate reading of the Supreme Court's decision in the Karen Finley case.

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The arts do not exist merely to provide a pretty experience. Artists have always challenged the norms of their times, whether through paintings, literature, song, dance or in today's world, film, photography, performance art and video art. This response to the world is not simply for the purpose of shocking, although by definition a strong challenge to the status quo will shock many people. The challenge from artists comes from what they perceive. The result is sometimes interesting, sometimes a failure, and sometimes stunning in its awareness. It may also take decades for the larger public to recognize the validity of an artist's view. History has demonstrated repeatedly that it is often a mistake to label a piece of art as blasphemous or without merit or simply "bad."

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The display or performance of that challenging art by a cultural organization supported with taxpayer dollars has provided politicians like Mayor Giuliani and Senator Jesse Helms with what they feel is a responsibility to intercede on behalf of the public. They rail against these cultural groups and ignore the Constitution, and the decisions of the courts, and insist that these cultural groups are irresponsible. In fact, just the opposite is true. Museums, concert halls, and stages should and must be places of public debate and dialogue. It is the essence of accountability on the part of arts groups to provide that forum, whether they use taxpayer dollars or not.

What kind of society can we build or maintain if we debate social norms only in the privacy of our homes? This controversy is about more than artists and their First Amendment rights. It is really about the right of the public to hear and see dissenting views. That means that some parts of the public will be offended, some will be bored, and some will be excited by the challenge. There are many reasons why this country has absorbed without constant war a barrage of differing cultures, languages, and religions. One very important reason is that we allowed public debate, display and even proselytizing about these differences. We might not enjoy all of it, but the founders of this country created an avenue for the expression of these differences without punishment. Artists and arts groups honor that commitment when they accept public dollars and refuse to censor. The mayor would dishonor that heritage and also punish those whose views differ from his or his Decency Commission.

To suggest, as the mayor has done in the past, that such views might be acceptable in "private" institutions, but not in "public" institutions is misleading, since no such distinction exists. All of the cultural groups in city-owned buildings are not-for-profit entities governed by Boards with exactly the same legal status as any other not-for-profit cultural group. The effort to claim these groups as "public" because they bear names such as Brooklyn Museum, or Museum for the City of New York, is an attempt to equate real estate relationships with legal status and governance issues. "Public" versus "private" has no basis in law, and the media's careless acceptance of this non-distinction has only clouded the understanding of the average citizen as to what is really going on.

We do not have, and cannot have, two classes of cultural groups in the city. One that accepts public money and abides by standards set by a Decency Commission, and another that has no public money and presents whatever it chooses. Almost every museum in the city receives some city tax dollars although the differences in amounts of funding between the cultural groups in city-owned buildings and those not in city-owned property is considerable. Literally hundreds of cultural groups would be subject to the Decency Commission.

The Mayor's understanding of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Finley case is also at variance with reality. The Finley case dealt with Congressional language that instructed the National Endowment for the Arts to include "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" in the list of considerations it uses to evaluate grant requests. However at the same time Congress rejected efforts to prohibit awards that would have the effect of denigrating particular religions, or of denigrating people on the basis or race, sex, handicap or national origin. The Supreme Court upheld what have been called the "decency standards" only after finding that such standards did not preclude awards to projects that might be deemed indecent. The standards could not punish particular views. In short, you can have a decency standard, but you cannot define it so that it is used to discriminate against particular viewpoints.

While some may wonder if the Finley ruling has any real meaning, it is clear that it does not mean you can establish a Decency Commission to decide that the pictures in our museums, the words spoken on stage, the books in our libraries, or the lyrics of a song are indecent and cannot receive public funding. Artistic expression is by definition a particular viewpoint. It is trite but true that one person's idea of decency is another's expression of a different view. That is not to suggest or imply that pornography is acceptable and should be supported by public funding. Pornography and indecency are not the same, and attempts by the city's lawyers to equate the two in the Sensation case were met with incredulous questions from the judges.

Social norms change. The process is troubling, even unpleasant, and sometimes not good for us. Challenges to religion are especially complex as they touch on some of the most deeply cherished feelings of people. The Mayor and others are not correct in saying that today's artists somehow find Catholicism an especially acceptable target. Artists work from their heart, head and experiences; the artists whose work has so offended the Mayor are in fact Catholic. Strong artistic statements about fundamentalist Christianity are part of the artistic work of the past few years, but those generate little reaction from elected officials. Could it be because there is no group similar to the Catholic League?

It is naive to believe that this hullabaloo has no cause other than the art itself. Published information both in the current situation and in the Sensation exhibit strongly imply that either the press or the Catholic League brought these exhibits to the administration's attention. Certainly except for opera, the Mayor is not noted for enjoying the arts. He does enjoy the political limelight and he enjoys taking on the pose of the righteous fighting opponents whom he paints as silly, dumb or "political.".

Many also believe that this controversy is a diversion from the mayor's recent budget proposals, which recommend a two-thirds cut in the Department of Cultural Affairs' funding for several hundred arts organizations. That recommendation was released on January 25. It received almost no attention from the media. As usual a bevy of capital grants were highlighted by the Mayor and the press followed his lead and made much of them. This is the Mayor's last budget and he now has a perfect record for recommending bone deep budget cuts to the arts. Is it possible that City Hall is laughing at how easy it is to get the press, and hence, the public, to ignore the really important issues?

Neither the artistic community nor the citizens of New York need or deserve a Decency Commission to censor art. It would be helpful, however, if the Mayor would stop taking an axe to the funding for the arts. That would actually benefit the taxpayers.

However, if he must go ahead, and I am sure he will, I nominate Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues in which Donna Hanover recently starred, as the first member. Or perhaps the mayor should appoint Hanover herself, his estranged wife, the mother of his children.

Norma Munn is Chair of the New York City Arts Coalition, founder and President of the Artists Community Federal Credit Union, and former Chair of The City Club of New York.


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