Furor over public art funding will be continuing ‘Sensation’

Friday, October 1, 1999

NEW YORK — The recent controversy over “Sensation,” an art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City, has revived what promises to be an eternal debate over the public funding of art.

The question whether government should fund — or not fund — art that some people may find offensive was one of the key questions at the heart of the forum, “Exploring ‘Sensation’: Art, Outrage and the First Amendment,” sponsored by the First Amendment Center at Newseum/NY today.

The event also served to release a national poll of 502 Americans conducted over the last several days by the First Amendment Center and the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. Among other findings, the survey shows that Americans continue to show support for public funding of the arts, and disagree with the idea that public funding should be contingent on the content of artworks.

Three in five Americans (64%) surveyed supported public funding for the arts in general. Fifty-nine percent said the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit should be allowed to open without government interference.

William Donohue, president and CEO of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said at the forum that he had never supported government-funded art and never would.

William Donohue...
William Donohue

“If you want to insult my religion, you have a constitutional right to do that,” Donohue said. “Do it in private quarters. Don’t ask Catholics to pay in their taxes for attacks on their religion when in fact the government can’t use my money to promote my religion.”

Donohue was one of the first to call for the defunding of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. “It’s not because the art is offensive in a kind of general way. [Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary] is hate speech. It is a direct assault on Catholics,” Donohue said.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been echoing Donohue’s sentiments over the last several days. The mayor has threatened to revoke city funding for the museum, urging that taxpayers should not foot the bill for a show that he deemed “pedophiles on parade.” Both the mayor and the museum have filed suit: the city in state court in an effort to evict the museum from its building, the museum in federal court to retain its annual $7 million in city funding.

Giuliani has promised if the exhibit opens as scheduled tomorrow, the city money will dry up. The $7 million represents about a third of the museum’s annual budget.

Panelist Susan Ball, the executive director of the College Art Association, a group that represents more than 14,000 teachers of art and art history, said, “this is not an issue about offensive art, it’s about political coercion, or the [coercion of Mayor Giuliani].”

Susan Ball...
Susan Ball

“We live in a democracy, and in a democracy you vote — it’s everybody’s right to vote,” she said. “Once having given the funding, then there’s no right to come in an retroactively attach strings.”

Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the government did not have an obligation to fund public art, but once it does, it should not be able to defund it because some works offend some people. “Government-coerced silence — that’s censorship,” Siegel said.

Norman Siegel...
Norman Siegel

“In 1965 in this country we made a policy decision … to create the National Endowment for the Arts. The decision to defund a museum requires ‘strict scrutiny’ — if the decision to defund was designed to suppress, to punish, to penalize a specific expression that’s disfavored [or] unpopular, you have a First Amendment problem,” Siegel said. “We cannot have the politicians making the decisions with regard to what goes in and what stays on the walls of our public museums.”

“When these controversies occur,” Siegel said, “you look to the guidelines that the courts have set forth. While the debate is going on, we have to respect those decisions and have to at least recognize that you can’t put the spin on it that you want for your own ideological reasons. You’re not really being fair to the debate.”

Ball reminded the audience at Newseum/NY that this debate was nothing new; it has been going on throughout history.

“It’s not an issue of garbage; it’s partly cultural,” Ball said. There have been images throughout time, around the world, that people have found offensive or “gross,” Ball said, and the publicity surrounding the “Sensation” exhibit has undermined the value of the art.

“It’s uneven, like any exhibit,” Ball said, but added that the normal course of sifting out the poor art would take longer because of all the hype.

John Leo, a culture columnist for U.S. News & World Report and the New York Daily News, sided with Donohue, splitting the panel down the middle.

John Leo...
John Leo

“The First Amendment is a trump card when you speak [as an individual], it’s not a trump card when you speak with public money. There are limits to public spending — the First Amendment doesn’t always win,” Leo said.

Leo speculated that the museum’s motivation for launching such a controversial exhibit was to raise its attendance. “The museum was desperate to get people to come to the place. If this were a serious art show it would have been in Manhattan,” he said, to groans and boos from the audience.

Siegel and Ball addressed the silence of the New York art community as the debate has unfolded. Ball said an explanation for it might be fear of the mayor.

“I think it was clear that there is a lot of fear, what’s referred to as the chilling effect,” she said. “The mayor has a reputation for being vindictive. The museums in this city are dependent on public funding and there was a certain amount of fear.”

“After a week of silence from the art community, there’s a counter-development where people are beginning to speak out,” Siegel said. “Historically when you have these kinds of struggles dealing with basic freedoms, silence means approval. We in NYC should not be silent. We should not even be quiet on this. I think you’re going to see in the days to come people throughout the city, across racial lines, economic lines, religious lines beginning to talk about what freedom of expression is about.”

Donohue said the basic disagreement he had with Siegel was in their definitions of freedom.

“For [Siegel] liberty begins and ends with rights. For me, it’s only part of the equation,” Donohue said. “When you have civil liberties, it means the minority must win out against the majority — I respect that. But you don’t have a free society just by anointing people with rights. Civility and community are dependent on the majority winning out over the individual. You’ve got this balance. If you’ve got nothing but civility and community you have no individual rights. You also have no liberty, though, if all you have are individual rights.”

Siegel said that there could be conditions on public funding for the arts, but “I think that should be decided by the principles and values of the First Amendment. An open, robust marketplace of ideas — the good ideas drive out the bad ideas.”

But until then, the debate still rages. “This debate is going to go on and on in our lifetimes,” Leo said.