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The Brooklyn Museum Affair

Pornography, Violence & Art

By Carter B. Horsley

In the United States, the world’s leading democracy and upholder of the principle of basic freedoms put forth in the Bill of Rights, the courts have slowly but surely reinforced the rights to speak and publish freely, the nation’s most important legacy to the world.

Generally, the American public is against censorship of all forms although it understands its need in cases of "national security." There are, however, many Americans who feel that some things should be censored such as pornography and excessive violence, and, occasionally, art.

Art can often be a very effective tool in proselytizing causes and its subject matter can at times be controversial. In recent years, the art of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano has unleashed great storms of outrage for their content, the former for his homo-erotic images and the latter for his sacrilegious creations.

In September, 1999, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York City threatened to take away all public funding from the superb Brooklyn Museum of Art if it did not cancel an exhibition on "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" that originated at the Royal Academy of Art in London. The mayor, who actually sought to evict the museum from its premises and stopped a major payment of funds to it, took offense at such works like Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virigin Mary," a painting that incorporates photographic images of women's private parts and elephant dung, and other "works of art" that showed cut-up animals, describing them as "sick stuff." He has also attacked the show as "Catholic bashing." Ofili has won the Turner Prize in England.

Censorship generally fails and self-regulatory and self-policing standards are usually more effective.

No one under the age of 17 was to be permitted into the exhibition unless accompanied by an adult, which is reasonable self-policing. The mayor, however, used this admission policy as an excuse to intimidate and censor the museum and threatened not only to take away its public funding but also to get rid of the institution's board of trustees. The museum, in response, decided to let in those under 17 although it still cautioned they should accompanied by an adult.

The controversy heated up quickly. Rallies in defense of the museum, with such speakers as Jane Alexander and Susan Sarandon, among others, were held, night vigils against the museum took place, and the issue became a hot topic on national television.

The mayor is wrong in seeking to impose his taste on public and trying to penalize a major cultural institution of the city. It is fine for him to criticize the exhibition, or individual works if he chooses, but censorship is not the right approach and here the mayor is dictatorially wrong in seeking to suppress art, even if it might be bad art. In the face of mounting criticism, the mayor said he and the city were not trying to suppress the exhibition, arguing that the museum's contract required free admission and his permission if it were to "close" the museum, a reference to the fact that the museum initially said that children under the age of 17 would not be admitted.

Other art institutions in the city and the New York Civil Liberties Union have attacked the mayor's stance in this issue and they are right. City Council President Peter Vallone wrote the mayor a letter stating that the council will not go along with the "de-funding" and the Association of Art Museum Directors issued a statement defending the museum's exhibition and "the free exchange of ideas" and criticizing the mayor for "setting a precedent that could cripple museums across this country."

To be against censorship does not mean to be not critical. The free exchange of ideas is the very foundation of democracy and the American way. The mayor is entitled to his opinions and should, and does, have the courage of his convictions, but he should not put the museum’s desperately money where his mouth is.

Art is not a popularity contest and great political leadership should not be, either. They both should be passionate and compassionate.

Philosopher-kings are rare enough that we should not, sadly, expect aesthete-kings. We do, however, want political leaders to be sensitive to the fundamentals of the freedom of expression and Mayor Giuliani has shown himself to be a little rough around the edges here when confronted with the cutting edge of art, which can be ragged, rusty and raw and not always refined and sublime.

The mayor does have a sense of humor. He clearly was not amused at this exhibition and indeed many people may not be. The museum charges admission and has great collections of American and Egyptian Art among its vast holdings for those who do not want to see this exhibition that caused a stir when it was first shown in London. The show is avoidable and its audience is not captive. Threatening to take away all the museum’s public funding is wrong and overkill and it will probably increase the museum’s attendance for the curious who want to see what this brouhaha is about. That would not be bad because the Brooklyn Museum is one of the city’s great cultural assets and it and the outer boroughs are too often overlooked and slighted.

The mayor might better spend some of his time attacking the violence of video and computer games and working with the Board of Education to make sure that our schools make an extra effort to explain to our youth the real world consequences of violence and perhaps also make sure that no public subsidies are being squandered on companies that pander to, and profit from, excessive, gratuitous violence in video and computer games, and the like as the amounts spent on corporate tax breaks probably exceeds the small amounts given to museums that directly enrich the public.

Pornography, which has been around a very long time, exploded in the public marketplace in the 1960’s when stores specializing in "XXX-rated" materials blossomed all over central business districts and newsstands also began to sell such publications rather openly, a reflection in part of that decade’s "sexual" awakening and also of the fashion industry’s focus on titillation.

Pornography has not gone away, despite efforts by New York City to ban its shops from most of midtown. It proliferates, of course, on the Internet, and movies and television have steadily stretched the boundaries of propriety to attract larger audiences. It is also sold openly at many newsstands and magazine stores.

At the end of the 20th Century, violence in the media has become a greater, and more legitimate concern. The spectacular advances in special effects in the movies have whetted the appetite for ever more dazzling, shocking and realistic images.

Sociologists, psychologists, and educators frequently debate the impact of pornography and violence on the American culture and periodically there are Congressional hearings and national commissions.

There is an obvious explanation for the growth in recent years of religious and moral groups of a "conservative" nature that call for higher moral values in the country: pornography and violence are pervasive and hard to avoid or ignore.

Common sense tells us that exposure to most forms of pornography may be sexually arousing and even "prurient," but not necessarily destructive of traditional moral values. Some of it can be construed as degrading to women but generally most pornography involves showing people of both sexes enjoying sex and, in that light, can be seen as having some educational and healthy values. Such abandonment to carnal delights, of course, can encourage people to experiment with their own sexuality and that of their mates and in an age of veneral diseases and AIDS that can have serious repercussions. If pornography were limited to conventional sexual acts, the problem would be primarily an educational one. Pornography, however, takes many forms and the Internet abounds in websites, and usergroups, that offer more "prurient" forms that generally would be considered "perverted" by much of society. These "forms" include bestiality, gay sex, unusual and/or "deviant" sexual practices and devices, and sado-masochistic practices. These "forms," clearly can be very disturbing to many people and should not be readily available for children.

There are some "parental control" computer software programs available to "lock out" such sites but the sites proliferate faster than updates to the programs and most people still are not good at updating many of their programs. Furthermore, the problem is compounded by misleading E-mail messages with innocuous headings inviting people to visit "adult" sites. Most porno sites, to their credit, open with messages stating that they contain explicit and possibly objectionable material and should only be viewed by adults. Their home pages, however, can be accessed simply by clicking "enter" and are usually full of very graphic and explicit pictures in many categories that are meant to entice surfers into subscribing to have access to more. Similar material is also widely available and free in various user groups on the Usernet section of the Internet but the better Internet Providers such as America On-Line provide customers with "parental controls" that can block most of these from being accessed by other users, such as children, on their accounts.

Parents must be vigilant and responsible and take appropriate precautions, such as invoking the available "parental control" programs and options. It would be helpful if the porno industry would police itself more and stop its flood of e-mail and also remove the explicit graphics from their home pages and operate on a subscription basis. Some operators of these sites have in fact kept a lot of the X-ness off their home pages, but not all.

In the summer of 1999, one site apparently managed to redirect links to non-pornographic websites to its own on the Altavista search engine, one of the best, and such stealth is certainly not to be tolerated, even if it did not involve a porno site.

More disturbing is the practice of many newsstands openly displaying pornographic magazines. There is nothing wrong in selling them, but having them quite visible is another matter.

Violence, on the other hand, is a much more important social concern and no one cannot be bothered by the proliferation of violence, especially by young people, in the past few years in the United States.

There can be no denying that the amount and level of violence in American culture has dramatically escalated in recent years. Those who oppose censorship, particularly of violence in movies, television, and computer and video games, say that no direct causal relationship has been scientifically established between viewers and isolated acts of real, versus virtual, violence. Furthermore, their argument usually goes, even where there might be a causal relationship, the perpetrators of real violence are a miniscule fraction of the population at large and would probably have committed their violent acts without the exposure. Those who profit from ventures with violence, of course, like to minimize its possible affect on their paying audiences, adopting a laissez-faire attitude that the customer is always right, or whatever.

Violence and pornography, of course, can sometimes have legitimate artistic purposes, but that does not mean that incessant, unrelenting and gratuitous bouts of either can be therapeutically redemptive.

While this is not a new problem, it has taken on urgency because of the nature of many video and computer games that have become obsessions for many young people and who often spend several hours a day honing their killing skills in these games. As technology has advanced, the "virtual" games became more intense, more thrilling, and gorier.

The preponderance of very violent games is staggering and make up the great proportion of games sold on such video game devices as Sony Playstation, Nintendo and Sega Dreamcast. While there are many fine titles that involve flight and sport simulation or educational programs for reading and language, these are not the most popular with young people and far too many parents have ignored the recommended age levels for the games.

Again, it is the parents who are at fault for not exercising proper parental control. Yes, it is true that not all children who play such games will become serial killers, but these games routinely drill into the players an insensitivity to the reality of violence, especially since the players seldom lose. In addition, these games have few, if any, socially redeeming values and are often very deceptive. One Playstation game has a charming animal character with an amusing name like Jocobo, who traipses delightful across fine scenery but has nothing to do with the guts of the game which is pure violence with other characters and is probably in the game only to be switched to quickly when parents stick their heads in the proverbial door.

The entire focus of many of these games is in slashing and smashing opponents to death. Kill. Kill. Kill.

Sometimes there is a preface to the game that might state that the player’s mission is to defend civilization or whatever from the villains he is about to face, but that usually is the extent of the redeeming social values if any offered in these pscyhologically deeply disturbing games where being quick on the trigger is all that counts and "collateral damage" be damned.

By selling such games, their producers and distributors are making their shareholders happy but the result is a generation of violence-enthused people who would have been the pride of Adolph Hitler.

As a child, I loved my twin-holstered toy six-shooters and was raised on The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and John Ford movies with John Wayne. I knew that guns were serious and could kill but not everyone who surrounded my heroes were villains so I felt I should look before aiming, a notion alien to most of the video and computer games. My heroes also occasionally demonstrated they could talk and understand social values, something also lacking in most of the games.

Common sense tells us that if someone spends a great deal of their awake hours in their important, formative years concentrating on mayhem it will have an effect on them. Thrills can be fun, but salivating, drooling assassinations as a major staple of life is not a good diet.

Ask a child to read a book today and you are a likely to encounter considerable resistance. Ask a child to watch an old, black-and-white movie today and you are likely to encounter resistance.

This resistance is understandable for a generation weaned on 16-million color palettes on their computer screens and spectacular special effects and morphing. I remember trying to show a young person one of my favorite films, the 1950 version of "King Solomon’s Mines" with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr and the fantastic Watusi tribe, and that person was very bored because it could not compare with the Spielbergian romps with which he was familiar. I was disappointed and my feeble attempts to explain that for its era it was every bit as good as "Raiders of the Lost Arc" or whatever, got nowhere.

James Gleick, a former journalistic colleague of mine at The New York Times and the author of several excellent books on American culture, has recently published an interesting book, "Faster," on the American fascination with speed.

The "sound-bite" culture of television news, the rapid cut editing of movies, the quick zinger, the headline are, in and of themselves, not the end of civilization.

Impatience, however, might be.

Impatience breeds intolerance and distemper. Impatience tends to be insensitive to history.

The pernicious problems of pornography and violence are not insoluble and require society and families and businesses to excerise responsibility. Self-policing is always preferrable to enforcing regulations that may be too sweeping and overreaching.

Americans are not the only nationality to be simplistic and want easy answers to bothersome questions. Sometimes they are too simplistic. The constitutional right to bear arms was created in an era when arms were needed for survival and defense. Times have changed and the Constitution has been amended many times, but the gun lobby in the United States opposes sensible prohibitions against such weapons of violence despite the ever-increasing evidence that ownership of guns does not preclude violence, to be it mildly.

There is no reason for any citizen of the United States to have automatic weapons or handguns and it is incredible that members of Congress who vote against such prohibitions get re-elected and it does not set a good example for the younger generation.

The film industry adopted a rating system a generation or so ago and by and large it works because movie theaters have box-offices where admission tickets have to be bought and the ticket sellers can see the purchasers. Television began to adopt a rating system much more recently, but the only obstacle to viewing is parental control, if available.

The mayor's attack on the Brooklyn Museum has brought it an enormous amount of publicity and television programs have even shown Ofili's painting with close-ups of the "dung" breast although not of the photographs of parts of naken women that are placed like star's in the paintings golden background. The imagery Ofili uses may be offensive to some, but certainly is not thematically unrelated to the notion of a "virgin" mother. Moreover, the painting has considerable style and the museum has many other "Madonna" paintings of a more conventional nature in its permanent collections. Many of the exhibition's other works showing desicted animals and young girls with genitalia for noses and a pedophile with the fingerprints of young children are just as shocking. Furthermore, "The American Century, Part II" exhibition (see The City Review article), which opened the same month, at the Whitney Museum of American Art has numerous works that could be considered by some to be no less offensive including the infamous works by Mapplethrope and Serrano, "Piss Christ." The mayor might argue that the Whitney is not a city-owned museum, but it receives public subsidies in the form of tax relief.

Art does not necessarily have to shock, but sometimes it does. The Whitney museum has a sign at its door warning that some of the works may be objectionable to some people. That is a common-sense warning.

The question of whether it is appropriate for the public to subsidize all, and any, forms of art is legitimate. All art is not great and all art is not appreciated by everyone. Great art is not necessarily popular and unpopular at is not necessarily great. In the best of all worlds, perhaps art should not be subsidized. Such an approach, however, would deprive all but the rich from much of the enriching, educational experience of art for it would mean the end of public museums, many of which have assembled their treasures as tax-deductible gifts.

A life without art is poor.

Art by definition is the highest form of expression even if it is not always pretty, or politically, or religiously, correct.

We need more, not less, art, and we need political leaders who have some sense of art and design for they are entrusted with not only guarding our heritage but improving it.

Museums are very important and deserve public support. The mayor's strong-arm tactics about the Brooklyn Museum are preposterous. He and others surely can protest and boycott its exhibitions, but they should not seek to destroy it on the basis of one exhibition. Perhaps he might try to create an XXX-rated zoning district for it and see whether that will pass political muster. He could also expand the role of the city's Art Commission to have it review plans for future exhibitions in publicly-assisted museums, but he should first establish clearly which museums receive public assistance in any form and perhaps confer with the Internal Revenue Service. Such strategies are apt to run into a lot of unnecessary and difficult controversy.

Censorship, whether direct or indirect, is not the American way.

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A reproduction of Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" painting can be seen at


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