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Jewish World Review April 6, 2001 / 13 Nissan, 5761

Diana West

Diana West
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For heaven's sake, a little decency! -- TO barely suppressed titters and the media's open ridicule, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani dared, in broad daylight, to hold a press conference on what may be the last American taboo: public decency and his new commission devoted to it.

It all started in February, when the mayor became combustibly irritated by "Yo Mama's Last Supper," a fairly hideous photographic depiction of said supper on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This glorified snapshot features a naked woman as Jesus Christ, and it struck the mayor, reasonably enough, as being an affront to Catholicism (not to mention aesthetics, but that's another story). As mayor, Mr. Giuliani could do more than simply explode: He announced that a commission would study whether the public should fund religious defamation, no matter how artistic.

This was a far cry from the last time the mayor came across such tripe and actually withheld city funding from the sponsoring museum--also to barely suppressed titters and open media ridicule. That was back in 1999, when the controversy over the "Sensation" exhibition, also at the Brooklyn Museum, brought "Elephant-Dung Virgin" the near-transcendent kind of fame that took the Mona Lisa centuries to build.

Although Mr. Giuliani lost in court and had to reopen the public purse to the museum, the resulting legal tussle exposed an amusingly corrupt arrangement between the museum and the "Sensation" collection's owner, British advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, designed to gin up his artworks' value before they went on the block. In other words, "Sensation" was a case of art for resale's sake--courtesy, in large part, of the taxpayer.

Still, the question lingered: Should public money subsidize religious defamation--particularly, in "Sensation's" case, for the profit of a private collector? That's what Mr. Giuliani wants his decency commission to examine. Not that he's calling it a decency commission. According to the New York Times, he's abandoned the word "decency" entirely, "saying that reporters were trying to demean his commission by using it to describe the panel."

And this is where it becomes clear how far the civic ideal of public decency has fallen: It is now possible to "demean" a city commission--which means, of course, to degrade or lower its status--by associating it with "decency." If the end of the Cold War stymied thriller writers, this new consensus on public decency would have left a Sinclair Lewis (he of "Babbitt" fame) with terminal writer's block.

"I can't control what you call it, " Mr. Giuliani went on to say.

"If you want to call it a decency panel, good. If you want to call it an indecency panel, I don't know, maybe you're more comfortable with that."

So far, no commission members have taken to wearing brown paper bags in public, although neither do they seem particularly comfortable with or certain about what they have come together to do. This should come as no surprise.

Having spent the last thirty years or so erasing all boundaries, society has no road map to show the way to public "decency," "appropriate" behavior, "good" manners, or any number of off-the-beaten-track destinations. That is, where once there was broad consensus that a portrait of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung affixed to one breast (against a background decoupaged with genitalia) shouldn't hang anywhere in public, let alone in a city museum, there is now, at most, only the vaguest sense of ambivalence about an artist's right to express himself.

But even with that right enshrined, there remains plenty of room to debate whether, as Mr. Giuliani put it, there should be "a different assessment made when public dollars are being used than when private dollars are being used" for art in city museums. This is a big question considering that in New York, taxpayers spend $115 million a year subsidizing the arts in the city's five boroughs. This is noticeably more, as commission member Bartle Bull pointed out, than the $105 million the National Endowment for the Arts spends in all 50 states.

If Mr. Giuliani's commission answers yes, what might happen? Would curators have to rush about draping Rodins and figleafing El Grecos? Hardly. Saatchi' s "Dung Virgin" might have to go on sale, er, display in a privately owned gallery. Likewise "Yo Mama." Hardly a resounding victory for any existing blue noses. On the other hand, that's not to say that such an outcome wouldn't be a definite boon for the public. No more could it said that anything goes--anywhere. This would go a long way toward restoring the sense of place and order that have been missing for decades.

"Dung Virgin" and "Yo Mama" may have their place in society, but it's not in the great public museums. Is it really so indecent to say so?

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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03/02/01: Who's sorry now?
02/23/01: 'Ecumenical niceness' and other latter-day American gifts to the world
02/16/01: Elton and Eminem: Royal dirge-icist meets violent fantasist
02/12/01: If only ...

© 2001, Diana West