The Art Of Controversy

The controversial art exhibit "Sensation" opened to a crowd of thousands at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday. Artist Chris Ofili created one of the pieces that some find objectionable: a portrait of the Virgin Mary smattered with elephant dung.

Another "Sensation" artwork taking some heat is a dead cow, cut in cross sections and preserved in formaldehyde.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, one of the biggest critics of the exhibit, wants to stop public funding of such art.

CBS This Morning Co-Anchor Mark McEwen spoke to Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, about the exhibit and the controversy.


"The show is like a lot of exhibitions. It's a mixed bag," says Kimmelman. "There are some truly outrageous things in it, and a few things that are pretty interesting. Mr. Ofili falls into the latter category, probably."

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Fighting Over Art Funding


What caused all the brouhaha?

"We're in the middle of a political season, and the mayor of New York obviously may have strong personal feelings about this picture. But in the past he has not chosen to make much of an issue about controversial art as he has now," says Kimmelman.

"It's been said that this being a season when he needs to appeal to conservative Roman Catholic voters around the whole state that he saw this as an opportunity to make clear his conservative leanings," he adds.

A least one survey shows that the lion's share of respondents think the exhibit should be allowed to run.

"Well, I think - I hope what it says is that the people in general understand that art has a complicated life," he says. "The only way to guide what you think of it is to let it be seen and talk about it."

"Part of the problem with the whole debate, of course, is that evicting the museum and shutting the exhibition down is not exactly conducive to intelligent conversations about what works of art mean and what they look like," Kimmelman adds.

Other museums are hesitant to jump into the fray, and Kimmelman says he thinks that's partly because they do not want to fall out of favor with Giuliani.

"Many of these museums are in it for money with the mayor and need his support for capital campaigns to expand or just to support their programs," Kimmelman says. "And I think they were a little scared [of] if they came out and said something.

"It has to be said: The exhibition isÂ…not the cleanest example of an exhibition," Kimmelman says. "The work is something not everybody would support and it beongs to a private collector. A lot of the other museums were not entirely comfortable with that."

Damien Hirst, the artist behind the animals in formaldehyde, has been called by some a better public relations practitioner than artist.

"I think he's both," says Kimmelman. "He is a good PR man but an interesting artist, probably the most interesting in the show, for a lot of reasons that have to do with things that concern artists and the history of art and [not] whether he slices up dead animals."

Commenting on the painting of the Virgin Mary, Kimmelman says, "I'm not Roman Catholic, and I'm not personally offended by it. It's interesting. You can have people who give exactly opposing opinions about the same image."

"There isn't a fixed meaning to one thing," he continues. "I respect people who say, 'Using this as a provocative thing is a negative thing.' I understand that elephant dung is supposed to be a reference to fertility and the earth. That's the great thing about art. It's not necessarily one thing."

A series of protests – as well as long lines of museum goers - greeted Saturday's official opening of "Sensation."

Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" got mixed reviews from people at the museum:

"I think it's a very beautiful work of art. The colors, the mosaic effect, the blending of the colors," says one person. "Yes, it is beautiful."

"They say it's art and pass it off as art. I say this damn painting should be thrown the hell out of there," says another.

"I don't understand why someone has to reach into my wallet and take my tax money and use it to desecrate the mother of God," comments a third person on the scene.

"I mean, the whole elephant dung thing was actually quite beautiful and earthy and made me think of Mother Earth and nature more than anything else," observes another.

Both the museum and the city have filed lawsuits over the conflict. The museum filed suit in federal court, responding to Giuliani's threat to withhold the museum's annual $7 million in city funding. The funding, which was approved by the City Council, is about one-third of the museum's annual budget.

The city later filed a lawsuit in state court in an effort to evict the museum from its building for violating its lease.

In the latest addendum to the legal battle, attorneys for the museum filed papers Friday accusing Giuliani of violating the museum's equal protection privileges under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The papers, which named the mayor as an individual defendant and sought punitive damages, also said the mayor isn't entitled to withhold funds already authorized by the City Council.