Giuliani’s attempt at censorship is tyrannical

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has threatened to end city funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of an exhibit he finds offensive. Giuliani, however, is behaving tyrannically and is inspired more by a need to appease conservative voters for his upcoming Senate race than a strong conviction to prevent public offense. He is the mayor, not an art critic who has sole jurisdiction of the contents of the city’s museums.
Giuliani claims to be offended by several works in the display, “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection”; particularly a work entitled “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which depicts an African-American Virgin Mary with elephant dung carefully applied. He is threatening to discontinue the city’s funding of the museum, which totals $7 million per year. He also threatens to terminate the building’s lease with the city and seize control of its board of directors.
He has not, however, seen the exhibit, nor has he spoken with artist Chris Ofili, who produced the work depicting the Virgin Mary. Ofili, a Roman Catholic, says he certainly did not intend to disparage the Catholic church or the Virgin Mary. Even if he had meant to, the work still would be legitimate art, and Giuliani should not attempt to censor it. Dung was used, Ofili said, as a cultural reference to his African heritage, as Ofili has done in previous works. Giuliani was also offended by other works, including a shark in formaldehyde and a bust of an artist made from his own frozen blood. It would be difficult to interpret either of these two works as culturally disparaging or insensitive.
While the work might be offensive to Catholics, Christians, members of the general public and Giuliani himself, the mayor should not determine whether certain works should be included in New York City’s art museums. Publicly funded museums are intended for the use of the public at large, and the contents are determined by a board of directors comprised of art experts. The entire museum is being funded by the city, not just one piece of work or one agenda. Though Ofili’s work is offensive to some, it is appreciated by others. Similarly, classical works depicting naked women or sensationalizing religious themes are offensive to others but should not be censored.
Giuliani’s distaste is defensible but his attempt to censor art is not. He claims that according to a lease signed in 1893, the museum “shall at all reasonable times be free, open and accessible to the public and private schools of the city.” By exhibiting the controversial work, he says, the museum is violating this lease. In 1998, however, the Supreme Court decided that federal arts grants could issue “advisory language” about art works but could not impose “a penalty on disfavored viewpoints,” because this would violate the First Amendment.
Giuliani is only attempting to appease his conservative constituents for his upcoming Senate race. He did not threaten to close the play, “Corpus Christi,” last year, even though it featured a homosexual Christ. Currently, however, many conservatives are accusing him of being too moderate, and they are threatening to deny him votes. All art is potentially offensive and is valued differently by everyone, but its public value still remains. The government should not be the arbiter of the public’s cultural values.