The other night I was watching the best show on TV, The Simpsons, and here's Bart in the opening sequence writing about a million times on the blackboard: "I will not make art from dung." I'd forgotten about all the silliness in the Big Apple a few months back when the mayor and senator wannabe tried to close down the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
My first reaction to that story was that it was more New York local news that ended up on my doorstep because it was easy for the national media to cover. But then as now I perceived enough hypocrisy from every direction to stimulate a chuckle or two. We have Mayor Giuliani and the Catholic League denouncing an art exhibit that none of them had even seen, calling it sick, blasphemous, and unsuitable for Brooklyn, a borough known widely for the direction of its moral compass. They object particularly to a painting of the Virgin Mary that has a clump of resin-coated, pin-studded elephant dung on it. The head of the museum responds with a figurative Bronx Cheer. The mayor counters by threatening to pull the plug on city funds and fire the museum's trustees. The museum threatens to sue the city, and pretty soon the dung appears daily on the front pages of the tabloid press, which gleefully churns out extra editions. In the process, the Sensation exhibit lives up to its name, attracting record crowds seeking prurient titillation as well as hordes of protesters.
This story has plenty of interesting angles. A crusading and ambitious mayor, supported by an important voting bloc, attempts to shore up the crumbling values of his community. But in order to do this, he must trample on the First Amendment right of free expression in the arts in a city that considers itself the cultural capital of the world. Plus, New Yorkers love a good old fashioned shouting match. The media couldn't devise a better plot if they staged it themselves. But that's exactly what happened, according to Steven Dubin writing in Art in America magazine.
The Sensation story began when a writer for the New York Daily News called William Donohue, head of the Catholic League, described the art works over the phone, and asked for a comment. Unaware of the exhibit before the conversation, Donohue sent a lackey out to buy a catalogue and subsequently issued a press release to the media and sent letters of complaint to every member of the city council. At that point, the Daily News was ready to break the story with the headlines "Brooklyn Gallery of Horror / Gruesome Show Stirs Controversy." From there the rest of the New York media jumped in and, within a week, Mayor Giuliani declared himself the arbiter of public morals and the sole judge of taste, milking the situation for all its inherent political gain. Meanwhile, the Catholic League turned up the heat on the heathen and received more public attention than ever before.
Dubin calls this scandal "a classic pseudo-event, conjured by the media's hunger for a good story." The dominoes were all lined up. It took but one phone call to topple the first one. So the media manipulated themselves. They made news from dung, man.