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    My Eye
by Thomas Hoving
 
         
      Who's to blame for the Brooklyn mess?

The artist Chris Ofili. Gotta blame him!

How dare this crazy, perverse, twisted-minded kid slather a "portrait" of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung and surround her image with clippets from pornographic magazines in a perverse attempt to cling to fading renown after his fading Turner Prize triumph by bashing a vulnerable church? He wouldn't have done this with Judaism or Islam.

Gimme a break! Elephant dung, which contrary to New York Post reports was not in fact slathered on this picture, to Ofili is not symbolic of attack. He looks upon the material as a symbol of regeneration. It shows up in other works in the show that have nothing to do with religion. And he created the Virgin surrounded by hints of pornography because as a Roman Catholic kid he was oddly affected by the inexplicable nudity of "putti" flying around in religious paintings and in those that showed the Virgin suckling the Christ Child. He wasn't the first.


I hate this picture. I hated it when I saw it in London. I think it's puerile and inept and I think Ofili is a mediocre artist whose name will be remembered in art history as a mindless provocateur. But, like it or not, his picture wasn't intended to be an anti-church statement and isn't. Is it even art? You bet it is, under the definition that art happens when anyone, anytime, uses any form of material for a deliberate statement. Yet, mind you, because it fits the general definition that doesn't guarantee that it's good or lasting art. It sure isn't, in my opinion.

The Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman? Gotta blame him!

How dare this "aggressive" character try to land big crowds to boost attendance at his museum!

And how could this Lehman be so politically insensitive NOT to have realized that publicly-funded "sick" art of Ofili's kind is just what the radical right loves to slam, disguising their urge to censor by decrying publicly funded arts projects. This "Holy Grail" cooked up by the likes of Helms, Armey and Buchanan has been for years now a solid plank in the right-wing platform.

How could he have failed to know what art pros have known for some time -- the church is actively going after what it perceives as "heretical" art?

And, how dare he accept and shill a show that other (unnamed) museums rejected and thus become part of the "scam" no doubt manipulated by Charles Saatchi and the show's principal sponsor, Christie's, to inflate the market value of the art which will no doubt soon after the show closes be put on the block fetching big money?


Gimme a break! Why shouldn't a museum director beat the bushes for record attendances every month of the year? Are museums supposed to be hidden under a wet blanket? Are they better because no one comes? Why shouldn't a museum director seek controversy? Why should Lehman have kowtowed to the censor-loving ideologues in the far right and family-value hypocrisy? Why should he care what a private collector might or might not do about his collection after the show? Museums all over America display works that might go the block at any time and this is part of the business. Besides, the ownership by Charles Saatchi was hardly a secret. Nor was Christie's sponsorship. The auction house, by the way, sponsors shows all the time and never makes a secret side-deal to sell collections.

The Brookyn Museum board of trustees. Gotta blame them!

For not being canny enough to have pre-consulted in boring detail about every work of art coming to the show with the Mayor's board representative and prepared a paper record showing that the Mayor's office had to have known everything about the exhibition. Also for not having gotten in touch with archdiocese officials to forewarn them and explain carefully what Chris Ofili was really trying to do.


Would have been smart. But come on! Boards meddle far too much as it is. They hire the CEO to run the place -- the language is usually "at their pleasure" -- and ought to leave the details up to him or her. In fact, when the chairman Robert S. Rubin sneaked off -- apparently without the knowledge of the staff, although I'm not sure because I got this from the press -- and tried to undercut a deal with the Mayor's loyalists, all that showed was that this Rubin was the wrong Rubin.

The members of the so-called Cultural Institutions Group that receive lots of City money. Blame them!

For hemming and hawing for days and issuing a cake-and-eat-it-too, part-condemnatory, part-conciliatory letter to Hizzoner.


Please! What are these institutions who are deeply indebted to city and taxpayer money supposed to do -- commit group seppuku? Everyone knows that one of the prerequisites of the museum directoring trade is -- toadying.

The Mayor? Gotta blame him!

For his knee-jerk, untutored, prosecutorially insensitive, overreactive, vote-seeking desperation to pin down the blue-collar out-of-town vote.

For failing to be a statesman of the George Mitchell type.

For failing to understand that the cream of New York is its cultural institutions.

For attempting to wreak a punishment that's way beyond the perceived "crime."

For stamping on the First Amendment by using a concatenation of phony arguments to "prove" that the Brooklyn Museum has broken its lease.

Gimme a break! Rudy Guliani is a right-wing pol, desperate for votes in a forthcoming murky election for the Senate. I can't blame him for trying to pin down his out-of-town blue-collar voters.

But for the rest, I can.

Hey, Rudy, back off. Be something of a George Mitchell and work out a compromise. Even now. Don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Hold your loyalists in check and make a deal. The museum wants one, you want one, the people want one. You ought to know as a hard-charging prosecutor that the very best time for a settlement is just before the court doors open.

Come on, give us all a break!


THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 
         
 
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