As expected, a Federal judge has rejected Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s attempt to withhold funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art for exhibiting the odious Sensation exhibition. Once again, First Amendment fundamentalist Floyd Abrams has made the world a safer place for the market in the foulest varieties of obscene expression, and he was duly rewarded with a segment on National Public Radio’s “All Thing Considered” (Saturday, Nov. 6) that featured an 8-year-old girl attacking the Mayor for attempting to shut down a show she had very much enjoyed seeing. With friends like that, the fiercest antisocial elements in our decadent culture are certain to enjoy a prosperous future.
What was not to be expected, however, was that the Mayor would be so promptly vindicated in his further charge that the Brooklyn Museum had conspired with Charles Saatchi and other vested interests–as The Times belatedly reported on Oct. 31–to “inflate the value of the works on display” in the Sensation show. Whether any laws have been violated as a result of these hugger-mugger financial machinations remains unclear. What is now beyond question is that the entire project of bringing this shabby inventory from the Saatchi Collection to Brooklyn has from the outset been what even The Times , after publishing some 60 or more news stories, editorials and reviews in ardent defense of the exhibition, has finally been obliged to concede is “an ethically dubious enterprise.”
That from the outset the Sensation exhibition has also been an esthetically barren enterprise is not something The Times will probably ever bring itself to concede. But that no longer matters. No one not directly involved in the trade–the trade, that is, in contemporary art futures–gives much of a damn anymore about the critical judgments of Michael Kimmelman or Roberta Smith, the newspaper’s chief critics. About events like the Sensation exhibition, these critics now enjoy the same level of credibility as Joe Lockhart’s daily “spin” game at the Clinton White House. Mr. Kimmelman’s everybody-does-it defense of the Brooklyn Museum’s financial deceptions is itself a vivid example of Clintonesque ethics. About the only thing missing from that ethically dubious defense was the Al Gore mantra of “no controlling legal authority.”
As for Ms. Smith’s equally pathetic attempt to defend the Sensation show on the grounds that it brings New York “up to speed” on the great things happening on the London art scene, that is neither accurate reporting nor sound criticism. For what the Sensation show brings us “up to speed” on is simply Mr. Saatchi’s latest venture in the art-futures market. Because of the Sensation scandal, all the world now knows exactly how this market-manipulation venture works. Mr. Saatchi first commissions work that is guaranteed to cause outrage, then promotes it as his latest “discoveries,” then importunes once-respectable institutions like the Royal Academy of Art or the Tate Gallery to endorse it, and then makes a killing in the art-auction market. This is what now passes for “avant-garde” art in London–and, of course, in New York–and it has proved to be a highly successful business enterprise.
What gets marketed, however, isn’t so much the art as the buzz, to which critics like Ms. Smith are always eager to contribute their support. And if the buzz is sufficiently repellent–if it delivers on its promise to offend decency, promote perversity and celebrate violence–there will be no shortage of well-heeled fools eager to write checks for the privilege of acquiring a piece of the action. That they, too, may stand to profit in the auction market is a further incentive, of course, but meanwhile they collect kudos for being so “advanced” in their artistic tastes.
To the extent that the uproar over the Sensation exhibition has now laid bare the essentially commercial character of such “avant-garde” events, the show itself may someday be seen to have served some redeeming social purpose, after all. Thanks to the total lack of conscience, tact and taste which Arnold L. Lehman, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, brought to the organization, the financing and the promotion of the Sensation show, all art museums that traffic in this particular vein of “cutting-edge” hucksterism have also suffered a significant loss in public confidence. The sheer quantity of cynical hokum that it has long been standard practice for our art institutions to invoke in defense of whatever horror or inanities the art traders are currently promoting as avant-garde is no longer as persuasive as it once was for anyone not involved in the market. We haven’t witnessed the death throes of this phenomenon yet, but some of the other institutional defenses of Sensation have shown signs of moral fatigue and a distinct diminution of mental acuity.
Consider, for an egregious example, the obtuse contribution of Glenn D. Lowry, the current director of the Museum of Modern Art, to this scandal. Writing on the Op-Ed page of The Times on Oct. 13, Mr. Lowry warned: “If Americans wish to continue to be a major cultural force well into the next century, then we must recognize that the arts–and contemporary art, in particular–are not just important to our society, but also our collective responsibility.” He called for “engaging in an open debate” about exhibitions like the Sensation show, yet his own contribution to the controversy was clearly designed to sidetrack the debate that was already in progress by invoking the names of Manet and Cézanne and Picasso and Pollock. And when was the last time that MoMA invited public debate about its own policies on contemporary art?
Now if the future of the United States as “a major cultural force” really does depend on accommodating the commercial interests of Mr. Saatchi, then the whole question of American cultural influence in the world needs to be radically reconsidered. But that is not where America’s future cultural interests lie, of course. Much may depend, indeed, on our ability to resist such accommodations to current sensations.
What made Mr. Lowry’s remarks especially alarming is the fact that MoMA’s own current expansion plans call for an even greater concentration on contemporary art than in the past. If the Sensation show is to be taken as a model for the kind of “daring” art that can now be expected to fill MoMA’s vast new exhibition spaces on W54th Street, then we are in for even greater disasters in the next century.
Mr. Lowry was responding, of course, to the remarkable article which Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had contributed to the Times Op-Ed page on Oct. 5. “We are meant to view the art in this show, or most of it,” wrote Mr. de Montebello, “as visual pronouncements, even statements of a higher order, aimed at making us pause, think and reconsider our surroundings, our beliefs.… Well, here is where I part company, at the risk of apostasy, with many colleagues and critics alike. I have seen the exhibition, and I think the emperor has no clothes.”
And further: “In the end, what remains terribly disturbing to me is that so many people, serious and sensitive individuals, are so cowed by the art establishment or so frightened at being labeled philistines that they dare not speak out and express their dislike for works that they find either repulsive or unesthetic or both.” Mr. de Montebello even characterized Kiki Smith’s Tale , in the current show of The American Century at the Whitney Museum of Art, as “simply disgusting and devoid of any craft or esthetic merit.”
This really was an important contribution to the current debate about contemporary art, or at least the aspects of contemporary art that are designed to make headlines and controversy, and because of it Mr. de Montebello was the only member of the New York art establishment to acquit himself with professional honor in this dismal episode. It was a reminder, too, of why the Metropolitan Museum is now so often the most important of the few New York art museums where considerations of esthetic quality remain the top priority.
As to why The New York Times mounted its blitzkrieg coverage in defense of the Sensation exhibition, that is not much of a mystery. As soon as Mr. Giuliani took action against the Brooklyn Museum, The Times clearly seized upon the event as a means of inflicting significant damage on the Mayor’s campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. As they did twice with Bill Clinton, The Times ‘ top brass is preparing to hold its collective nose while endorsing Hillary Clinton for the Senate, and the Sensation controversy offered the paper a handy weapon for that purpose.
My own guess is that the Times blitzkrieg has backfired, politically and otherwise. It has damaged the paper’s credibility, it has damaged the credibility of the city’s art establishment, it has made the paper’s critics look ridiculous, and it has probably won the Mayor some friends he didn’t have before. As for the Brooklyn Museum’s credibility on artistic matters, that will not be repaired until the time comes to appoint Mr. Lehman’s successor.