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6 October 1999

Clash of diversities

Nancy Morton reports from New York on Mayor Guiliani's failed attempt to use diversity to censor the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum

In early October I went to the opening of Sensation, the exhibition of work by British artists such as Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. There were protesters of all kinds - religious groups, animal rights groups, free speech advocates - as well as lots of TV cameras and a line going for miles around the block.

The fuss was over Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's threat to withdraw New York City's $7 million funding from the museum unless it cancelled the exhibition, which he called 'disgusting' and anti-Catholic. He was particularly offended by a piece by Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary. This is a painting of an 'Africanesque' Madonna embellished with elephant dung and magazine cut-outs of women's butt cheeks.

Superficially, Guiliani's threat appeared to be a typical 'cultural war '-type fume. But it was different. What was novel was the way Giuliani - generally viewed as a conservative Republican with an authoritarian streak - used the language of multiculturalism to try to stop the exhibition.

From the outset, Guiliani made it clear that he did not think the artworks shouldn't be aired in public. He did, however, have a problem with the city funding it. He argued that government funds should not be used to stage work that was offensive to any group - in this case, Catholics. He said the show 'should not and can not be suppressed' but, 'You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion'. If work in the exhibition featured Swastikas or racist imagery, the argument went, the museum's supporters would be singing a very different tune. Of course, he had a point.

This line of attack did indeed make it difficult for the curators to stand up to him. The museum refused to back down, and launched a legal suit against the city. At first, the main counter-argument was along the lines of defending free expression. But then, Arnold Lehman, the museum's director, responded by one-upping Guiliani in the diversity stakes. Lehman contended that, far from a mark of disrespect, elephant dung is venerated in many African cultures, and to object to Ofili's painting was to show a lack of respect. 'What they tell us is not a story of blasphemy, but of reverence. Having these sacred objects in our museums teach us lessons of tolerance, understanding and diversity.'

The other museums around the city were too wimpish to rush to the Brooklyn Museum's defence. But they eventually did, although they too realised that their support for free speech had to be qualified by an obligatory reference to respecting diversity. Email correspondence between members of the city's Cultural Institutions Group published in the New York Times revealed that their original letter of support was edited to add the phrase 'mindful of, and sympathetic to, the sensitivities of the many diverse communities throughout New York'.

Giuliani hoped to use the issue in his electoral race for the Senate against Hillary Clinton, but it soon became clear he had miscalculated. Just as the museum's supporters were reluctant to oppose the mayor, there were few who wanted to openly support him. Even John Cardinal O'Connor downplayed the controversy in his Sunday homily at St. Patrick's Cathedral. He thanked city officials for 'expressing themselves on such matters' but added, 'I do not know what the law can do or should do. The law cannot make us respect people.' The only other significant support for the mayor came from sympathetic Republicans in Washington who passed a symbolic resolution in the Senate, calling for the end of federal financing for the museum.

It had become clear that Guiliani's blast had gone amiss. A poll in the Daily News, the city's major tabloid, found that New Yorkers backed the museum by almost a two-to-one margin. The paper summed it up with its front page headline: 'New Yorkers to Rudy: just cool it!'

The Mayor seems to have misread the situation. His biggest mistake was to try to beat the muliticulturalists at their own game. The problem with diversity is that there is always, almost by definition, somebody who is more diverse. He also underestimated the extent to which anybody holding a strong belief can be dismissed as extremist, and that art museums are viewed by the middle classes as untouchable.

The strange thing about this episode is the absence of any serious discussion of the right to free speech. It is important because it safeguards our right to make our own judgements and form our own opinions. This means defending the right to be offensive.

And how was the exhibition itself? Sensation is mostly childish and expresses low opinions of people. But I'm glad I was able to see it myself and form my own judgement.

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