There were metal detectors outside the Brooklyn Museum for the opening of "Sensation" on Thursday night, and Chris Ofili's suddenly notorious Madonna was protected by the sort of plexiglass shield that sheafs the more nervous cabbies. A uniformed cop was patrolling the guests, but when he was asked his opinion of the show, he very sensibly held his tongue.
Brit art worlders included Marc Quinn -- whose description of the maintenance necessary on his Blood Head should be a part of the piece --- Jay Jopling and Sam Taylor-Wood. David Bowie did not sing, nor show his face, but other bold-faced names -- Hugh Grant, et al -- punctuated the Brooklyn Museum's heroic spaces. Local art celebs, like Chuck Close, also showed up to lend their emphatic support. It would have been nice to see a few more museum directors around, but doubtless they had pressing engagements someplace else.
The first question on all art world lips, incidentally, was this: Just what had Mary Boone been wearing when she was hauled off to the can? (Answer: The martyr Boone had been wearing a glowing tangerine mini-dress and matching stilettoes).
The second question was: Just what is all the fuss about? The most offensive thing about Ofilli's work is that it's kind of decorative. Damien Hirst's set-pieces are as skillfully engineered as any 19th-century painting, and if the Chapman Bros. irritate it's because that naughty schoolboy stuff wears thin pretty damned quickly. Will they still be doing punk rock when they're 40?
The absent Mayor Giuliani was, of course, question number three. Some saw him as a bumbling hero. Indeed, there was a crackle of energy at the opening that you would not have predicted for a show that had been up in London a couple of years ago, and it was being said that Victoria Miro, Chris Ofili's London dealer, and Gavin Brown, who does the honors in New York, can sell anything they lay their hands on. In more general terms I would say that the view of the mayor was that, yes, he has been authoritarian, but until now he had been seen as a "good" authoritarian, along the lines of General de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher, rather than all the you-know-whos. Now, by this stereotypical act -- slamming some art he had looked at only in reproduction -- he has entered history, if not quite the way he might have wished.
Mayor Giuliani is, of course, just one in a lengthy line of local worthies to have attacked art that is offensive to their exquisite sensibilities. In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari describes Michelangelo's dealings with Lorenzo il Magnifico and various popes. When one Biagio da Cesena, "the master of ceremonies, a person of great propriety" was in the chapel with the Pope, being asked what he thought of Michelangelo's work, he said that "it was a very disgraceful thing to have made in so honorable a place all those nude figures showing their nakedness so shamelessly, and that it was a work not for the chapel of a Pope, but for a brothel or a tavern."
Michelangelo promptly added a painting of the fellow "with a great serpent twisted around the legs, among a heap of Devils in Hell" to the work. Vasari adds "nor was Messer Biagio's pleading with the Pope and with Michelangelo to have it removed of any avail, for it was left there in memory of the occasion, and it is still to be seen at the present day." It is very much hoped that the "Sensation" artists restrain themselves from depicting our good mayor in any such vengeful fashion.
ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST is a writer, reporter and cartoonist. He is currently at work on Famous: Some Journeys through Celebrity Worlds (William Morrow).
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