Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Art Wars

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Art Wars

Article excerpt

Can a city ban offensive art?


New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has criticized an exhibit called "Sensation," a collection of recent British art showing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show contains highly controversial works, including a partially decomposed shark, a bisected pig preserved in formaldehyde, and a portrait of the Virgin Mary surrounded by elephant dung.

Giuliani called these works "sick stuff," which, indeed, is a phrase that may be uttered by many' viewers. But the Mayor has also threatened to withhold city financing from the Brooklyn Museum, arguing that "to have the government subsidize something like that is outrageous." This grossly distorts the First Amendment, whose very purpose is to insure freedom of speech without intrusion by government.

New York City owns the Brooklyn Museum of Art and provides nearly a third of its operating budget. Government has no obligation to finance art. But the Supreme Court has nonetheless affirmed that once government decides to provide funding, it has no fight to impose "a penalty on disfavored viewpoints." Clearly, Giuliani's threat amounts to such a penalty.

No matter how you assess the art in "Sensation," a rock-hard principle remains: Public financing of the arts cannot be a pretext for government censorship, not on behalf of Roman Catholics or anyone else.

--EDITORIAL The New York Times


Let's assume the curator of the National Gallery in Washington came up with a show called "Outrage. …

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