Public sensibility is a valid concern of good public policy, including the selection of art exhibits.
Brooklyn Museum of Art director Arnold Lehman's decision to exhibit "Sensation" was an act of irresponsible public stewardship. "Sensation" is wrong for the Brooklyn Museum not because the art it contains is offensive to some, or of marginal quality in the view of many, but because there is no scholarly or civic rationale for an American public museum to host it.
"Sensation" showcases the work of 44 young British artists whose average age is 35. The youngest artist is 28. The oldest piece of art in the show--a gigantic color photograph of a scalp punctured by a bullet hole--was made in 1988. None of these artists has been making art for long enough for anyone to know whether their work will be worthy of inclusion in a museum show even 10 years from now. Any scholarly interest here is speculative at best and only further compromised by the fact that the show wasn't organized by a curator but, in essence, by the collector who owns all the works, advertising magnate Charles Saatchi.
So if "Sensation" fills no academic purpose, does it have a civic need?
The only reason for a public museum to show new work by young artists is to increase those artists' visibility. Any community would expect its museum to make some effort to show off rising local talent. But, of course, none of the "Sensation" artists lives, works or was born in the United States, let alone in Brooklyn. Again, the only person who stands to benefit from increasing this particular art's visibility is Saatchi.
So why did Lehman choose to risk the Brooklyn Museum's budget and jeopardize its good name to show a private collector's stash of trendy British art?
Because "Sensation" is a guaranteed blockbuster, though not of the standard variety. Most blockbusters attract crowds by displaying works by well-known and much-loved artists. The French impressionist Claude Monet, who has been the subject of an unprecedented number of recent exhibitions, is the marquee example. Like "Sensation," these blockbusters also often lack significant scholarly purpose. But they do serve a civic need--they bring high-quality art to masses of people.
Unlike conventional blockbusters, "Sensation" plays off public sensibility by offending it, rather than embracing it. Instead of showing people art that they will love, the Brooklyn Museum is giving them art that they are sure to loathe.
Sparking controversy seems to have been the Brooklyn Museum's plan all along.
Months in advance of the show's opening, the museum adopted a marketing campaign hyping the shock potential of "Sensation." A notice sent to potential patrons included a mock health alert, warning that the exhibit could cause "shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety." The number to call for tickets is 800-SHARKBITE (a takeoff on one of the artists' work). And even though "Sensation" also includes some relatively staid abstract painters and sculptors, the Brooklyn Museum's marketing materials feature only the most controversial artists.
Lehman claims his defense of "Sensation" is grounded in the 1st Amendment, a copy of which is being provided to each museum visitor. Even the most casual observer of a decade of National Endowment for the Arts disputes knows that the right to free speech doesn't guarantee a right to public subsidy. Lehman isn't defending free speech; he's trying to legitimize his desire to profit from pitting his museum against public sensibility.
After all, the Brooklyn Museum is charging visitors $9.75 ($29 for a soft-cover catalog) to see what the artistically overendowed New York City already offers for free.
In recent years visitors to SoHo's Gagosian Gallery (where admission is always free) could have seen one-man shows by some of the most controversial "Sensation" artists. Gagosian is where Damien Hirst's infamous shark-in-formaldehyde had its American debut in 1996. The following year Gagosian featured brothers Dinos & Jake Chapman who turned the gallery into a graveyard occupied by fused-together, child-size mannequins, unclad aside from wigs and tennis shoes, and often donning genitalia as facial features.
Marc Quinn--whose signature work is a frozen cast of the artist's own head made from eight pints of his blood--also showed just last year at Gagosian. The overlap of Gagosian's roster with the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition schedule only further underlines the degree to which Lehman is confusing the role of a public museum with that of a cutting-edge gallery.
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's hard line against the exhibit no doubt came as a surprise. But a show designed to offend the public is likely to attract the ire of politicians on the eve of an election year.
That reality is just one of many considerations that a responsible public steward, who puts his institution's health above all else, would weigh when charting its course. Lehman either failed to recognize that or consciously decided to confront it.
Either way Lehman has put the Brooklyn Museum on the firing line. A good steward would admit his mistake and save his museum.
Lynne Munson is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. Her book, Exhibitionism: Art in the Age of Politics, will be published next year.