No one could walk into the now infamous “Sensation” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA), without having been over saturated by media hype. An unmediated look at the show has became impossible.
By the time I walked through the doors, the mayor of New York had already condemned the exhibit as “sick stuff.” Art Critics had proclaimed it a commentary on African art. British museum goers had denounced it as American pop art repackaged and shipped back to the states to be sold anew. Countless articles, op-ed pieces, and commentaries had been written on all sides. More than the art itself, it was the fever of information and opinion surrounding it that made the exhibit worth seeing. The most exiting moments of “Sensation” were found not in the museum but in call-in radio shows, and in the New Yorker and the Nation. Hillary Clinton was no exception; she was pro museum, anti-elephant dung.
The controversy ignited when New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani denounced Chris Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary”—a portrait of a black Virgin Mary with one breast made of elephant dung surrounded by delicate butterfly-shaped pornographic pictures—as nothing more then Catholic bashing. But if elephant dung and pornographic butterflies had deflowered the Virgin, her innocence, thanks to the controversy, is now safely under the protection of two security guards and a wall of bulletproof glass. She has been reinstated to her original iconic status, with a twenty-first century twist.
As the weeks went by, suspense grew. Would the mayor evict the museum from its city-owned home and cut off all city subsidies? What would become of the unionized museum employees? Was Christie’s funding the show in order to make a bundle at auction? Would the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights shut it down? Would the union representing the museum workers take action?
Oddly enough, when “Sensation” opened at the Royal Academy in London in 1997 the Ofili painting didn’t cause much sensation. Instead, the controversy orbited around Marcus Harvey’s oversized portrait of the infamous child murderer Myra Hindley, whose crimes had repulsed and fascinated the British public. What offended so many people in the British context was ignored in the American. At BMA, the curators thought it necessary to place a card next to the looming portrait made up of what looked like hundreds of child-size hand prints that asked, “Do you think that this should be one of the most controversial paintings in the exhibit?”—as if to announce their disappointment that it wasn’t. Interestingly, the two most controversial images on both sides of the Atlantic were icons, one religious, one cultural.
If “Sensation” is meant to be shocking, it works. Consider “Great Deeds Against the Dead,” a piece by the Chapman brothers—a jumble of chopped up bloody plastic bodies hanging from a tree. The sculpture was s...
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