But the whole nasty showdown is less about art than about generating buzz (and money), says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
October 06, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

New York’s mayor battles the Brooklyn Museum

There’s a little brouhaha going on in New York that you may have heard of. On one side is the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which has mounted an exhibition called ”Sensation” that features the work of modern British artists. On the other is New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has yanked the Museum’s city funding for displaying what he calls ”sick stuff” — works like Damien Hirst’s dissected shark carcasses in formaldehyde-filled tanks, and Chris Ofili’s portrait of the Virgin Mary as an African folk-art Madonna festooned with dried elephant dung.

Ooh, scary stuff. Fact is, just about everybody’s coming off as crass yammering opportunists in this dung toss. The Brooklyn Museum, a world-class institution that has the unfortunate distinction of being stuck in a déclassé borough, would do anything to bring the moneyed hordes of Manhattanites out to Brooklyn, and dangling an aesthetic scandal in front of our hall monitor of a mayor is a pathetically easy trick. Rudy, for his part, has his eye on the state senate, and what better way to appeal to conservative upstate voters than to tell the city’s black-dressing art slime to bugger off?

The media wants to sell papers and attract viewers, so they’re flogging the story for all it’s worth. First Amendment absolutists and religious protesters have dragged out their soapboxes. Charles Saatchi, who owns the collection, stands to see its value soar on notoriety alone. And the artists? Some, like Ofili, seem dedicated, thoughtful, and in it for the expression. Others, like Hirst, clearly relish playing the bad boy.

Is the art in ”Sensation” good? Is it bad? Oh, puh-leeze, that’s utterly beside the point. (For the record, the city’s art critics have mostly slammed the show, if only to distance themselves from Saatchi’s icky commercialism.) This whole donnybrook was conceived and is being used as a PR device by everyone involved — and that only proves how impossible it has become for art, or even pop expression, to truly shock people in this country anymore. The ongoing battles in the culture wars have become frozen in calcified, P.C. posturing on both sides, and the cynics are taking advantage of the empty middle ground. In such a stalemate, little that genuinely gets under your skin and makes you see the world afresh can make it across the battle zone without being politicized.

A case in point is Kevin Smith’s new movie ”Dogma,” which features Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as fallen angels, mucks around in the rococo details of Catholic faith, and by all accounts (I haven’t seen it, though I intend to), is the work of an articulate, funny, and, yes, devout believer. Which didn’t stop the picketers from showing up at the New York Film Festival premiere, threatening eternal damnation to those who dared to go see the movie. And which certainly won’t stop the film from becoming another circus-like, highly politicized ”sensation” when it opens in November.

Hey, folks, good art — even good narrative entertainment — is supposed to hit you where you live. But how can it do that when everyone is so quick to put on their armor?