“In Rudy Giuliani’s New York, where the curtain is being lowered on civil rights and civil liberties, anyone who dares to challenge the Mayor, this joyless man with the angry visage who throws out his chest and struts around the city telling everyone how tough he is — anyone who dares to challenge him is treated like a criminalâ€¦Mr. Giuliani rules by fear.” â€“ Bob Herbert, New York Times, May 28, 1998
Yesterday in this space, we began to explore Rudy Giuliani’s predilection for curtailing First Amendment freedoms when it suited his purposes as mayor of New York during the pre-9/11 era. As tomorrow’s Florida primary approaches–and with it the culmination of Rudy’s high-stakes gamble to ignore the early primaries and create a Sunshine-State “firewall” for his candidacy–let’s look back on his very public, very frightening spats with the Brooklyn Museum, and their implications for Rudy’s fitness for the presidency.
The second-largest art museum in New York City, the Brooklyn Museum opened in 1897–a year before Brooklynites voted to become one of the city’s five boroughs. It has long been a source of immense pride for a borough that still tries to view itself as distinct from Manhattan; nevertheless, for decades the Brooklyn Museum has been treated by the city as a poor cousin to grand Manhattan museums such as the Met, MoMA and the National Museum of Natural History. It receives far less public funding than any of those three, and its physical upkeep has been given far lower priority even though its beaux-arts building is owned by the city.
In October 1999 the Brooklyn Museum installed an exhibition entitled “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” that earlier had been shown in London and Berlin. It had created an uproar in London because it included a portrait by Marcus Harvey of convicted child-murderer Myra Hindley, created from hundreds of copies of a child’s handprint.
The exhibit’s arrival at the Brooklyn Museum quickly caught Rudy’s attention not because of the Hindley image, but because it included a multi-media work by Chris Ofili titled “The Holy Virgin Mary.” The problem wasn’t so much the subject matter as the materials used — which included images clipped from porn magazines and blaxploitation films, as well as a single, resin-covered clump of elephant dung. Ofili, who is of Nigerian descent, uses the latter substance frequently in his work; it is used in a variety of rituals (religious and otherwise) by tribes in that region of Africa, who also employ it for medicinal purposes.
But, really, who cares about context? We’re talking about a Madonna “smeared” with elephant shit, as the media soon reported. The Catholic League quickly cried foul, and Rudy immersed himself in the controversy, announcing that he would withdraw the museum’s city funding, seize control of its board of directors, and begin the process of evicting the museum from its city-owned building because it had mounted this “sick stuff.”
“You don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion,” he said. “And therefore we will do everything we can to remove funding for the Brooklyn Museum until the director comes to his senses and realizes that if you are a government-subsidized enterprise, then you can’t do things that desecrate the most personal and deeply held views of people in society. I mean, this is an outrageous thing to do.”
Rudy’s bona fides as a practicing Catholic were already in question at that point (Pro-choice? Check! Three marriages? Check! Living with a gay couple? Check!). It’s worth mentioning that he was, that fall, in the early stages of an anticipated knock-down-drag-out battle with Hillary Clinton for a U.S. Senate seat, and needed to pump up his Catholic-conservative credentials to boost his upstate appeal.
Still, his over-reaction to the “Sensation” exhibit bordered on the hysterical — really, to evict the museum entirely? — and knocking it down was a no-brainer for U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon. Her opinion noted that “there is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy.”
Rudy slammed Gershon’s decision as “the usual knee-jerk reaction from some judges” and threatened to appeal, but he eventually was forced to sign a binding legal agreement abandoning all efforts to punish the museum (in return for the museum dropping its First-Amendment lawsuit against him). Soon afterward his Senate campaign imploded, amidst revelations about prostate cancer, his affair with Judith Nathan and his separation from second wife Donna Hanover.
At that point, in the spring of 2000, Giuliani’s career was decidedly on the wane; New Yorkers had grown tired of him, the state and national Republican establishments were happy to be rid of him as a candidate, and the battle to replace him as mayor had already begun in earnest. By the next spring his lame-duck status was becoming a tiresome issue — much like the stature of a certain current occupant of the office Rudy currently covets.
Then, in April 2001, the Brooklyn Museum once again offered him a chance to show off his twin joneses for intolerance and egomania. The offending work this time was a photograph by Renee Cox called “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” featuring a nude Cox sitting in Christ’s place at the table. She is surrounded by black disciples — except for Judas, who is white.
See a larger image here.
Giuliani threatened to break his agreement with the museum, and this time he also announced he was setting up a “decency commission” that would enforce content standards at all city-funded museums. He said he was looking for “a way to get this dispute to the place where I think we could win it, which would be the Supreme Court of the United States.”
He didn’t come close to getting that far, of course. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, a candidate to replace Giuliani that fall, said Rudy’s proposal “sounds like Berlin in 1939,” and even Republican governor George Pataki (never a Rudy fan until after 9/11) said he was “very reluctant about the government coming in and setting standards that have to apply.” The artist herself noted that her work had aroused no particular uproar when previously mounted in the sleepy suburb of Ridgefield, Connecticut, and suggested that Rudy “get over it.”
Nevertheless, Rudy re-activated the city’s dormant Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission and handpicked new members, turning it into a vice squad and tasking it with determining punishments for museums that mounted exhibits that didn’t meet his moral standards. In August it emerged with a draft report — which stated that city-funded museums must enjoy “freedom of expression granted under constitutional law.” D’oh!
Giuliani demanded a revised draft that was more punitive and less accommodating, but before the commission could act further during that fall of 2001, certain events transpired that rendered Rudy’s censorship battle somewhat…less relevant, let’s say.
On September 10, in the wake of these many attempts to censor artistic works and other forms of speech, Rudy was an embarrassment to many of his fellow New Yorkers — a man who couldn’t respect the diversity of thought and the unfettered expression that had long been the mark of one of the world’s great cultural centers. A day later he was a national hero, and New Yorkers for whom he had long since become a lingering afterthought were forced to re-evaluate their feelings toward the man.
They gave him his due — for awhile — until his 9/11 heroism transmogrified into a jingoistic support for George Bush’s war in Iraq. It all culminated in his hilarious 2004 convention statement that, as the Twin Towers fell, “I grabbed the arm of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and I said to him, ‘Bernie, thank God George Bush is our president.'”
Notwithstanding the degree to which Kerik himself has helped pull Rudy down from his perch atop the GOP leaderboard, that statement alone should disqualify Rudy from the presidency. But Rudy’s attacks on the Brooklyn Museum should serve as a warning to anyone in this country who values freedom of expression: Quite simply, even if he overcomes long odds and wins in November, he can’t be allowed to demagogue the arts from the highest office in the land.