- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

Tired of the scandalous politics of power and money, and the trivialization of the serious? Take a break, with a stroll through the art world. It has its own scandals of power, money and trivialization.

Art, like politics, becomes scandalous by creating controversy and for attacking the usual suspects of the politically correct. The "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum has closed, with a whimper and not the expected bang, and now the Whitney Museum is trying to create a similar sensation.

"Sensation," for anyone who has been on the planet Saturn since September, included a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, saying he didn't think the public should pay for "blasphemous art," pulled the municipal funding. The courts, as His Honor probably suspected they would, thought otherwise and the show went on, dung, bare boobs, bombast and all. Blasphemy, like sex, sells. Lots of visitors who attended the show had never before been in the Brooklyn Museum. Some of them had never been in an art museum before.

The Whitney Museum is slightly more indirect. Somehow it was leaked that the polemicist Hans Haacke, a 64-year old German-born artist, was working on a piece, planned for an exhibition to open later this month, attacking Mr. Giuliani. The art was said to associate the mayor with garbage cans and marching storm troopers and his critique of the "Sensation" show was inscribed in the Gothic script associated with the Third Reich a typeface called Fraktur, popular in Germany and often used in the logotypes of American newspapers. It was presumed to associate the mayor with book burners and Nazi censors of degenerate art, but it was mostly just lumpen bad taste.

The mayor as well as the Anti-Defamation League denounced the piece for demeaning not only the mayor, but history and the Holocaust as well. This time the city won't attempt to withhold funds. Good move. Let the art critics have at it.

Private citizen Marylou Whitney is making the kind of protest that is guaranteed to get the attention of curators, administrators and the artists. Even the artists' little brushes are standing at attention. Mrs. Whitney, widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, whose mother founded the Whitney Museum, withdrew her financial support. She doesn't want her family name lending legitimacy to Hans Haacke's kind of "criticism." Just to make sure the Whitney gets the right message, she's giving the million dollars she had intended to give to the Whitney to the Whitney Museum of Western Art in distant Cody, Wyo.

This is powerful art criticism, and maybe the artist is pleased. He got her attention. Naturally the purists, if you can call them that, in the art world, including members of her own family, judge her protest to be philistinism, but others applaud her for standing for principle, integrity, honor, standards and all the things the artist says he stands for.

By transferring her money to another museum, Mrs. Whitney preserves her standing as a patron of the arts while doing nothing to damage the artist's right to criticize whomever he wants. For his part, the artist learns the valuable lesson that no one is obliged to give money for art that insults him. This, someone might observe, is exactly what Mr. Giuliani was trying to do in Brooklyn on behalf of the taxpayer. Mrs. Whitney, like the mayor, would not allow herself to be intimidated.

Hans Haacke had earlier indulged his left-wing politics, as is his right, with mocking pieces about Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms. Some critics who share his politics hailed him as a "social conscience." Fair enough, but can anyone imagine the Whitney hanging right-wing art of similar aesthetic merit, with a "social conscience," associating Hillary Clinton with, say, Josef Mengele?

Avant-garde art once shocked bourgeois sensibilities, but it no longer can. Avant-garde artists today are, in fact, part of the establishment, elitists whose works at chic galleries and museums are celebrated, not censored, for being on the "cutting edge." A political "shocker" like Hans Haacke can hardly shock or offend patrons who applaud his taste (or lack of it).

Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing about the Brooklyn contretemps in the New York Times, observes the sheep-like quality of art connoisseurs. So many people are "so cowed by the art establishment or so frightened at being labeled philistines that they dare not speak out and express their dislike for works they find either repulsive or unaesthetic or both."

How true. Bravo, Mrs. Whitney.

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