Holy Elephant Dung!

Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, says the directive came as a complete surprise. "At 10:45 a.m. on Sept. 21, I got a call from the cultural-affairs commissioner with a message from Mayor Giuliani: cancel the exhibition or the city will terminate all funding for the museum. Boom, just like that."

The Battle of Brooklyn is the latest skirmish in the culture wars that have raged ever since a 1990 show of Robert Mapplethorpe's X-rated photographs invited a fusillade that eventually gutted the National Endowment for the Arts. This time the target is "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," scheduled to open Oct. 2. One work in it particularly enraged the mayor: a semiabstract, Africanized image of the Virgin--surrounded by floating female buttocks and genitals clipped from porn magazines, and embellished with some resin-coated balls of elephant dung. Giuliani fumes that the painting is "sick" and "disgusting" and "desecrates somebody else's religion." Chris Ofili, the black Roman Catholic artist who created "The Holy Virgin Mary," says the picture is simply a hip-hop version of highly sexualized old-master paintings of the same subject.

This latest confrontation of edgy art and politicians on edge is a little odd. Yo! We're in New York. "Outrages" more potent than Ofili's are available in any SoHo gallery, off-Broadway theater or public-access cable channel. In fact, the Whitney Museum's just-opened "The American Century, Part 2," features Andres Serrano's infamous "Piss Christ" photograph, plus a sculpture of a nude woman trailing a long strand of excrement. A Giuliani envoy at the preview extolled the mayor's efforts to bus schoolkids to the show.

"Sensation's" artists hope to shock, and the hosting museums know the show is big box office. It caused a furor, but no shutdown, in its 1997 London debut. The city of New York has known for at least a year that the BMA planned to import the show. Skeptics wonder if Giuliani's indignation is a timely move in a possible Senate campaign. Whatever the motive, the Association of Art Museum Directors issued a statement Friday: "If the mayor acts on his intentions, it will set a precedent that could cripple museums across the country."

Many observers believe that unless a court rules it illegal to cut off money already allocated, Giuliani can't back down without being humiliated. For his part, Lehman says he's moving ahead with the show--canceling it would damage the BMA's credibility. At the weekend in the city that fancies itself the arts capital of America, the BMA still couldn't get the mayor to sit down and talk. Maybe the real lost art here is negotiation.