- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2000

Mayor Rudy Giuliani finds himself once again on the front line of New York's museum wars, only this time, rather than fighting for the honor of the Virgin Mary and the New York City taxpayer, he is himself degraded as the subject of a work of "art" that portrays him, along with Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Sen. Jesse Helms, as Nazis.

The inspiration for this utterly fatuous and disreputable exercise in agitprop? Mr. Giuliani's decision last fall to rip the umbilical cord of free-flowing public money from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, whose "Sensation" exhibition included Dung Virgin, among other offensive and offensively dumb works. In response, Hans Haacke, a 62-year-old German-born political artist, put together a little something titled "Sanitation," which the Whitney has seen fit to include in its dependably freakish biennial show. The work features a row of garbage cans containing speakers broadcasting a tape of marching soldiers. Hanging over the cans is a framed copy of the First Amendment, along with six quotations printed in Fraktur, the Gothic script adopted by the Third Reich. Three of the six quotations are statements made by Mr. Giuliani about the "Sensation" exhibition, while the other three are more general statements on art and culture made by Messrs. Robertson, Buchanan, Helms.

Artistic it ain't. And as political philosophy, it reveals a quality of mind and heart about as subtle and discerning as a sledgehammer in a paper bag. Does attempting to withhold public monies from the display of anti-religious or pornographic art really rank with the murder of six million Jews? Should a museum stoop even to ask this question? The Whitney, of course, isn't exactly tortured over any of this. Likely the only question on its mind is whether this latest exercise in effrontery will draw in the kind of crowds that flocked to Brooklyn to see what all the fuss over "Sensation" was about.

Chances are, however, it won't work. Because the Whitney receives most of its $20 million budget from private and corporate sources, the exhibition is not a drag on the taxpayer, and the city has no official position to take. In other words, the lights, cameras, and action over "Sanitation" will be at a minimum because there promises to be no media-thrilling battle over artists rights (punctuated by strangled cries of "Censorship!") this time around. After all, censorship is not, and has never been Mr. Giuliani's aim. Rather, his objections to "Sensation" came from a conviction that the bourgeoisie need not subsidize attacks on itself.

Not that Mr. Giuliani hasn't commented on "Sanitation." Reacting as a "private citizen," Mr. Giuliani has called the exhibit "exaggerated political demagoguery" which does "a grave injustice to people who suffered in the Holocaust." Likewise, Abraham Foxman of the American Defamation League has written the Whitney deploring its contribution to Mr. Haacke's "trivialization of the Holocaust." Meanwhile, in a particularly hearty exercise of the First Amendment, Marylou Whitney, whose mother-in-law Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the museum 70 years ago, has withdrawn her financial support of the museum and resigned from its national fund-raising council.

Whitney director Maxwell Anderson told the New York Post that the mayor is "jumping to the conclusion that [Mr. Haacke] is trivializing the Holocaust, but it is quite the contrary. [Mr. Haacke] is actually saying that those who trivialize freedom of expression are on a slippery slope leading to other forms of repression." Thanks for the gloss. It seems clear from the tramp-tramp-tramp of "Sanitation," however, that it is Mr. Haacke and the Whitney who are the trivializers using a terrible evil to argue a petty point.

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