- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

Although the so-called culture wars seem passe, even old-fashioned to those sated by these years of plenty, such battles continue to erupt over the same territory as always: the public square, that expansive space where a nation seeks consensus on subjects ranging from morality to manners, from ethics to education. In New York City, Mayor Rudy Giuliani has now disengaged from one of the more notorious such skirmishes in recent memory, the fight over the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibit. It featured, among other transgressive and just plain dopey British artifacts, that by-now familiar elephant-dung-spackled portrait of the Virgin Mary.

Mr. Giuliani has ended his efforts to eliminate the museum's city support. These had included withholding the city's monthly payments (one-third of the museum's annual $24 million budget) and other expenditures. Mr. Guiliani had rightfully argued that public money shouldn't go toward desecrating Catholicism specifically and religion generally. He had also dropped the city's lawsuit seeking to evict the museum from a city-owned building, and agreed to pay $5.8 million of the $11 million the museum had sought for renovations. In return, the museum dropped its First Amendment lawsuit against the mayor. Although the museum had originally asked the city to pay its estimated $1 million in legal bills, both sides have now agreed to pay their own lawyers themselves.

These developments are generally scored as a victory for the Brooklyn Museum, but it is by no means crowing. That's because, due in large part to Mr. Giuliani's legal efforts, the museum was forced to disclose aromatically unethical financial arrangements. According to the New York Times, when unable to collect sufficient funding from the usual corporate sources, museum director Arnold L. Lehman turned to "companies and individuals with a commercial interest in the display," including dealers who represented the artists on display, and the collection's owner, advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. In exchange for a $160,000 donation Mr. Lehman is said to have concealed, Mr. Saatchi was not only given a large measure of creative control over the show, but also promised a $60,000 refund if it proved successful. In the end, art for art's sake, Brooklyn-Museum-style, turned out to be a little more like art for resale's sake, a fact that tends to unravel slightly that proud First Amendment banner under which the museum fought.

Speaking of the hallowed right to free speech, neither the museum, nor the "arts community," nor the judge who first ruled against Mr. Giuliani has ever explained exactly what that shellacked lump of dung affixed to the breast of the Virgin Mary had to do with what the museum hailed as "the free exchange of ideas and information." Nor how withholding taxpayer dollars from the museum ever amounted to censorship. That is, shutting off the money spigot is nothing like padlocking the door. What Mr. Giuliani took exception to was the notion, apparently and regrettably immutable, that the bourgeoisie must finance all assaults on itself. Of course, one has to wonder what self-respecting or, better, self-loathing avant-gardist would take public money in the first place, a transaction that transforms even a soul free enough to sculpt with excrement into a, gasp, civil servant.

Mr. Giuliani may not have won this one in court, but he emerges from the controversy having taken and held a stance on comity and sense against profanity and sensation in the public square. "If I get the get the opportunity to vote sometime in the United States Senate," he told reporters, "I would vote very, very differently from my opponent on the issue of whether public funds should be used to desecrate people's religion."

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