Sound And Fury, Signifying Zip

The Brooklyn Museum is closed on Tuesdays. So said the guard at the door. No wonder there were no lines, no protesters, no one handing out airsickness bags and copies of the Hail Mary. Some rather conventional cannas in the forecourt waved in a faint breeze, but otherwise the front entrance was still. Standing on the sidewalk seemed oddly apt. Why sully strong opinions by actually seeing the art that evoked them?

Oh, for pity's sake, here we go again. The trial of the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (Mapplethorpe photographs) begat the imbroglio over performances of "Corpus Christi" (McNally play) begat the current Sturm und Drang about the work of the British artists that's being shown in Brooklyn, particularly the work of the artist of African descent who ornamented a black Virgin Mary with elephant dung. "Sensation," the show is called, but the overwhelming sensation is deja vu all over again. The same polemics, the same slogans by folks who proudly say that they have not seen what they revile. Obscenity. Sacrilege. Pornography.

Like this:

"Its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the holy name of Christ."

That's from a review, circa 1922, of a novel by James Joyce entitled "Ulysses."

The quotation comes to mind not because there is any indication of a nascent masterwork in the Brooklyn exhibit, but because it makes clear the depressing dimensions of this sort of debate, if anything that generates so much heat, so little light, can be called a debate at all. Can the uproar over director Kevin Smith's funny new film "Dogma" be far behind? It is easy to imagine the bloodless incendiary descriptions: "a film in which one character admits to being sexually aroused after kissing a female God, and a black apostle suggests that the evangelists were racist." You can see the pickets in your head, hear the criticisms--"anti-Catholic! Blasphemous!"--by people who have not seen the movie, which happens to be outrageous, profane and quite devout. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but there sure are a lot of people willing to carry on about unexamined art.

What a waste of time. It is only in the rearview mirror that art is revealed, anyway. Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and her bland prose and cardboard characters have fallen into the creative shadows, the library cards lying unused, turning the color of tea, in the back of copies of "The Good Earth." Excerpts from Joyce's novel were banned and burned, and last year it was No. 1 on the great-literature hit parade, the Modern Library's list of the top 100 books of the 20th century. I would like to think I would have recognized the genius of Picasso's "Guernica" had I been around for its debut in 1937. But I fear not.

Once there was something called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Its minions confiscated copies of D. H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" in 1922, while everyone from the Holy Name Society to the Salvation Army was rallying around a bill to establish a Clean Books League. Now, in a streamlining of municipal government, the mayor of New York has become a Society for the Suppression of Vice all by himself, calling the art at the museum, which he has not seen, "sick stuff." He insists that he wants to protect taxpayers from complicity in sacrilege by cutting off city funds. This is a red herring, not to be confused with a shark in formaldehyde, which is also in the "Sensation" show. It would be lovely if taxpayers got to decide, case by case, what their money was spent for; there surely would be fewer school bureaucrats. But that's not the way it works. Besides, polls show the majority of the mayor's constituents think he's wrong, which would suggest that what he is really doing is protecting the people of New York from themselves, a paternalistic notion unsuited to a city of unparalleled street smarts and towering Calvin Klein underwear billboards.

Religious intolerance has been the other rallying cry in this imbroglio, because the painting of the Virgin surrounded by tiny magazine cutouts of buttocks has offended some Catholics. (The shark is almost certainly agnostic.) No one seems to know, care or consider that medieval Catholic art, for example, is chockablock with sexual and scatological imagery, the sacred considered as meaningless without the profane as day is without night. There are centuries-old religious manuscripts in museum collections with illustrations far more shocking than the "Sensation" Virgin: prayer books with couples pictured in medias res, books of devotion with illustrated animals defecating in the margins. In deference to the terror that has gripped curators, perhaps it is better not to be specific about where these can be found.

So here is the net effect of all this nonsense: A chilling effect on cultural institutions both in New York and elsewhere, which may lead them to be more cautious, and, perhaps, hesitant to show any work that smacks of the new or the outrageous. An undoubted increase in the market value of the work at the Brooklyn Museum in general and Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary in particular. A windfall for Charles Saatchi, the British advertising executive who owns the whole shebang, and who owes the mayor a nice thank-you note for all the free publicity. The besmirching of the name of a venerable cultural institution which has mounted distinguished exhibits of everything from Egyptian antiquities to Winslow Homer.

Meanwhile, in other news, cops are being accused of savagery, priests of impropriety, and thousands of children are failing in the New York City schools. And civic leaders, both political and religious, are using their bully pulpits for this? So much sound and fury, signifying nothing. That's Shakespeare, which is apt, actually, since the assigning of Shakespeare's work was challenged at a high school last year for religious reasons. Even immortality is no sure hedge against a concerted determination to take offense.