Peter Levine

 Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum Controversy (2000)


1.      About the “Sensation” exhibit

         a.      Installation by Young British Artists at Brooklyn Museum

         b.      Health warnings:

                   i.       "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria, and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder, or palpitations, you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition."

         c.      Works included

                   i.       Marcus Harvey portrait of the child-killer Myra Hindley, painted with real children’s hand prints

                   ii.      Damien Hirst, A Thousand Years (decaying cows head with live flies and maggots)

                   iii.     Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" (incorporates elephant dung and photos of genitalia)

                            (1)    “Elephant dung on Virgin could not be derogatory as Olifi (born in Nigeria) used same material in an image of African slaves” Afrobluff

                            (2)    “Use of elephant dung symbolizes regeneration”

                            (3)    More Chris Ofili paintings

         d.      NY mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to take away funding of Museum

                   i.       Stopped by the courts

         e.      Critics: “Sensation” a scam conspiracy involving museum and owner of the art who was trying to raise its market value

         f.       Supporters: Giuliani using a cultural controversy to appeal to conservative voters to promote his campaign against Hilary Clinton for senate seat

2.      Censorship: Argument that threat to reduce museum funding was (wrongful) censorship and violation of first amendment right of free speech

         a.      Once government decided to fund an institution of discourse and expression

         b.      Can’t use its $ to influence decisions about images exhibited

         c.      Decisions must be left to curators of the museum

         d.      Academic freedom analogy:

                   i.       State should not use its funding authority to micro-manage content of professor’s lectures or publications

                   ii.      Same with public museum exhibits

         e.      Court in Brooklyn case ruled that once museum been supported by government, can’t take away $ and evict from city-owned building because of “perceived viewpoints of the works in that exhibit” (for this lacks content neutrality)

                   i.       Levine agrees “probably unconstitutional”

3.      Censorship? Some argue that reduction in overall level of government support for arts is “de facto form of censorship”

         a.      National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding controversies

4.      Levine: Constitution can’t compel government to subsidize art in first place: 1st amendment does not guarantee art funding!

         a.      When Supreme Court ruled that individual artists can’t be denied federal grants because of content of their work

         b.      Congress cancelled all support for individual artists

5.      Public must decide art funding in general

         a.      Do they need or deserve public subsidies?

         b.      Priorities? Money to amateurs, students, professionals, big city artists, regional institutions, contemporary works or old masters, video installations, novels or public monuments?

         c.      Arts funding not entirely different from appropriations for schools or homeless shelters

                   i.       Settled by public deliberation

6.      *Levine rejects idea that elected officials should never be able to refuse to fund controversial art

         a.      Doesn’t public have a right to make critical judgments that some works of art are bad?

         b.      For example:

                   i.       Ofili, himself a Catholic, is black as night. Imagine for a moment if a guy named Kelly sat down at an easel, produced a painting of a black man being dragged behind a pickup truck driven by a laughing rabbi with a smiling Billy Graham standing on the bumper, urinating on the victim's battered corpse and decided to call it art

                   ii.      Ok for the public to refuse to fund such “art”

         c.      Shouldn’t Canadian government be allowed to decide not to fund special effects artist Remy Couture’s “Fake Diary of Serial Killer?”

7.      Levine’s critique of avant-guard artists refusal to justify/defend their art to public who pays for it

         a.      If post-modern artists successfully undermine distinction between art and despised objects such as cows heads, then case for arts subsidies will weaken

         b.      Shocking the bourgeoisie is no way to persuade them to pay for art

         c.      Republican supporter of NEA says: “You can’t expect public funds to be used on the cutting edge because artists have to be responsible to the people who pay the bills, just like Michelangelo had to answer to the pope”

         d.      Except when there is a controversy about public money, the Art world mostly just talks to itself

         e.      Levine approves of way Christo engages the public with his works

8.      Levine favors political deliberation about publicly funded art

         a.      By both art supports, art critics and public officials

         b.      Assumes arts policy belongs in normal give and take of politics

                   i.       Like debate over zoning and welfare reform

                   ii.      Instead of decided by constitutional principles

         c.      Worries about Chris Ofili unwillingness to deliberate:

                   i.       “I don’t feel as though I have to defend my work. You never know what’s going to offend people and I don’t feel its my place to say any more”

                   ii.      Levine: “Maybe it is not a painter’s job to justify his art in words”

                   iii.     But defense of publicly funded controversial artworks as valuable art is needed and possible

9.      Deliberation involves

         a.      Heed multiple perspectives

         b.      Respect facts

         c.      Achieve as much common ground as possible

         d.      Examine arguments, rather than assault opponents characters



11.    Giuliani: Government may not finance blasphemous art as breaches separation of church and state

         a.      “Always wrong to use public $ to finance vicious attacks on religion”              

         b.      Levine’s reply: If state must be neutral about matters of faith, then it cannot discriminate against irreligious expression

12.    Jeffersonian Principle: People should not be compelled to pay for something (especially ideas?) they don’t like

         a.       Not explicit in Constitution, but often invoked

         b.      To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical"

         c.      Giuliani: Government should never support anything that causes very deep offense to some

13.    Jeffersonian principle problematic if applied literally and comprehensively

         a.      Unions should not lobby government with members dues

         b.      Student governments should not use mandatory activity fees for controversial purposes (CofC green fee or support of gay/straight alliance)

         c.      Congress should not fund political campaigns with tax money

         d.      Everyday public school teachers propound ideas before young people that make some of us cringe

         e.      Freshman at Pratt Art Institute: “I find the Mayor offensive, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop paying my taxes”

14.    Levine supports using this Jeffersonian reasoning in some cases

         a.      “Fact that some citizens abhor the Confederate flag seems a sufficient reason not to fly it over a statehouse as it expresses official disrespect for their views”

                   i.       Even those who support public funding for Sensation would not support funding to place those artworks permanently in the National Mall....(out in the public)

         b.      Elected officials ought to pay some attention to it

                   i.       Avoid decisions that will offend people’s deepest convictions

         c.      But sometimes offense should be given

                   i.       When those who take umbrage are morally wrong

                            (1)    Artworks depicting people of different races (or sexes) holding hands or marrying should not be barred from public funding or display

15.    Even offensive work might later turn out to be great

         a.      Shakespeare and Joyce were controversial in their time

         b.      Edouard Manet’s Olympia had to be placed high in the Louvre when it was first displayed as people spat on it

Questions on Levine’s Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum Controversy

1.         Describe the controversy over the Sensation exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum. While considering arguments for the other side, defend your view on what should have happened in that case.

2.         Explain the analogy between academic freedom and freedom of artists/curators to produce/display what they want. Is this a good analogy?

3.         May the government ever refuse to support art because it does not like the content of the proposed artwork? May the government ever ban art (privately produced and displayed) because it disapproves of the content?

4.         Is the reduction in the public funding of art in this country tantamount to censorship of artists? Does the 1st amendment guarantee art funding?

5.         Do you agree with Levine that like advocates of other publicly funded projects (such as homeless shelters and schools), artists and the artworld needs to publicly argue for and defend public monies spent on art?

6.         Is it a painter’s job to justify his/her art in words?

7.         What is the Jeffersonian principle? Describe several possible interpretations of it.

8.         Is this a good principle? What are some problematic counter examples for it? What are some examples that support it?

9.         Might artworks that are offensive to the public when first produced later be seen to be great works of art? Give an example.