Sanitation or Garbage?

Wisely, and with understated eloquence, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has chosen to downplay an egregious assault on his character and an offense against decency posing as “art.” It is left for others to ask the directors of the Whitney Museum of American Art why they would be party to a crude, ad hominem attack on the Mayor.

This piece of agitprop, called Sanitation , is the creation of Hans Haacke, a German-born artist. Taking off on the Mayor’s criticism of Sensation , the controversial show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year, Mr. Haacke has printed Mr. Giuliani’s words in a Gothic typeface associated with the propagandists of Nazi Germany. The exhibit will also include up to a dozen garbage cans, and loudspeakers that will fill the space with the sounds of marching troops.

So Mr. Haacke’s artistic point is-what? Apparently, he thinks Mr. Giuliani thinks and acts like a Nazi. Which means-what? No wonder the Anti-Defamation League sent the Whitney a letter arguing that the exhibit trivializes the monstrous crimes committed by real Nazis who sent 6 million Jewish people to the gas chambers. The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, was careful to note that he supports an artist’s right to free expression. Nevertheless, he wrote, the ADL would have expected “that the leadership of the Whitney would have chosen not to contribute to [Mr. Haacke's] trivialization of the Holocaust.”

Needless to say, people at the Whitney insist that Mr. Haacke meant no such offense. Perhaps not. Perhaps he is, in fact, so creatively challenged that he could not think of a better way to make his very important political statement. Perhaps, in his way of thinking, anybody who disagrees with his opinion is just a jackboot away from implementing a police state.

The museum’s directors ought to explain exactly why they decided this offensive exhibit deserved to be included in the museum’s Biennial show. And please, let’s not talk breezily about artistic freedom. If the issue were simply about freedom … Well, that’s the problem. The issue should be art, not politics.

Bureaucratic Child Abuse

Some might say the city’s chronic inability to come up with an effective system of caring for its most disadvantaged children has become something of a joke-except that the punch line is so cruel. Crueler still is the vast silence of politicians at all levels about the horrid ways in which New York has been leaving its weakest citizens in the hands of incompetent, bumbling bureaucrats.

The latest report from the Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel, a group of national experts, shows that the system is still a Dickensian nightmare peopled by caseworkers who often don’t seem to know the first thing about the families whose futures they hold in their hands, and Family Court judges who routinely pluck kids away from their parents and place them in foster homes, even when there is little evidence of abuse or neglect. The judges, the report found, were so fearful of making a mistake in leaving a kid with potentially abusive parents, that they have been almost blindly sticking the kids in foster care. The report found that the problems were particularly pronounced among private foster care agencies, which the city uses to handle 90 percent of the cases. Among other findings: Teenagers around the city are being shuttled into group homes prematurely; many caseworkers have no skills when it comes to assessing domestic violence; and families are often referred to services that have no bearing on the actual problem. In short, families in crisis are just as likely to be further battered by the system as they are to be saved.

Why have none of the city’s elected officials stepped forward to show some leadership in this catastrophe? Surely, their callous disregard could not be because children don’t vote, could it?

Sell 110 Livingston

Some ideas just get better with time. In his State of the City address in January, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the city would sell the Board of Education’s grim headquarters at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. People thought he was joking. Fortunately, he wasn’t. Now the Mayor has announced that buyers for the building, and its two nearby outposts, will be aggressively sought by his administration. Selling 110 Livingston has both practical and symbolic value: The city would make some money, downtown Brooklyn would be able to woo a corporate tenant, creating jobs, and the Board of Ed would get the message that most New Yorkers are grievously dissatisfied with its performance. The Board of Ed, naturally, does not share Mr. Giuliani’s enthusiasm. Why, one might ask, would the board choose to remain in its dilapidated headquarters, rather than move into a more comfortable and efficient facility?

For several years, New York’s 1.1 million public school students have suffered because of the mental stupor that plagues 110 Livingston like a virus. By forcing the Board of Ed to pack up and move, the dysfunctional network that runs our schools would stand exposed in the light, long enough for a dismantling of obsolete areas and a flushing out of toxic, ingrained customs. The city could trim the excessive managerial personnel, who have been hiding out in 110 Livingston rather than working in classrooms with students. A new headquarters could stand as a model of a new commitment to education.

The Board of Ed, which must approve any sale, has said it is studying the idea, and would not get behind Mr. Giuliani’s plan just yet. The Mayor responded succinctly: “Study! That’s what the city used to be doing. It used to study itself to death.” Indeed, if the board stopped studying its own survival, and started making sure city students are studying, period, they might have an argument to make about why they should be left to their big, rambling headquarters.