Every once in a while, America reveals to us its generally hidden face. Of intolerance and conservative bigotry which sits ill with the cosmopolitan values that are so closely associated with the life of coastal, urban America. This conservatism is associated with the Midwest. Surprisingly, it has now surfaced in New York City - the home, with cities like San Francisco and Chicago, of all that symbolizes America to the rest of the world. And bigotry has found a champion in the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, who has threatened to cut off funds to the Brooklyn Museum for exhibiting a painting of Virgin Mary which features a clump of elephant dung on one of Mary's breasts. This might well offend the sensibilities of America's conservative and
vocal Catholics, but is that enough ground for censorship? The museum on its part has defended its right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment, and is likely to sue Giuliani if he cuts off funding. A Cardinal has sided with Giuliani,
interpreting the painting as an attack on the Catholic faith. But for a public official to encourage hysteria at the risk of violating constitutional guarantees must be deeply embarrassing to the liberal establishment which sells America as the sole guarantor of global freedom.
America has efficient machinery to manufacture political consensus, thankfully its capacity to manufacture social consensus is limited - which is why petty tyrants like Giuliani feel the need to crack the whip.
Novedades Editores, S.A. de C.V.
October 1, 1999
HEADLINE: TASTELESS BROOKLYN ART SHOW PUTS BASIC RIGHTS ON STAGE
BY: WILLIAM SAFIRE
Let's assume the curator of the National Gallery in Washington came up with a exhibition called ‘Outrage’. It featured a statue of Moses wearing a Nazi swastika on his chest, a painting of a violent Martin Luther King Jr. raping a woman, and an avant-garde collage of the cutest puppy you ever saw being tortured to death by a sadistic homosexual. Is there anybody I haven't offended??
Yes; Christians. In a real-life abuse of public responsibility, good taste and artistic license, the curator of the Brooklyn Museum of Art is presenting Sensation, featuring a portrait of the Virgin Mary with her breast decorated by a piece of elephant dung.
The museum's serenely elitist board members are either incredibly stupid or knew - and did not care - that this would a) offend the religious, b) anger and divide the city, c) make a ton of money for the exhibition's owners, and d) make the museum's staff the heroes of free expression.
So the Brooklyn Museum has plunged the city into a lose-lose battle. It's now the right to free artistic expression versus the accountability of the spending of public funds. But whoever wins, everybody loses. When basic principles are in conflict, democracies work out compromises that reflect the majority and protect the minority.
I like to think of myself as a big First Amendment supporter. I was all for the Nazis' right to parade and think the flag-burning amendment is a travesty and civil disorder must be defended. I'm for a private gallery's right to display outrage and sensation and an offended public's right to picket peaceably.
But limits exist: you can't steal this essay, protected by copyright, and put it on your Web site. Nor can a museum defiantly spend money raised by taxation for causes opposed by the majority or disgust a significant minority. Sooner or later, the public's elected representatives direct that spending or are replaced. Freedom of expression is a right, but public payment for it is not an entitlement.
Lawyers I know and respect say the mayor will lose because the Supreme Court frowns on any penalty on disfavored viewpoints. Maybe the court's decision last year that governments could impose a decency standard on taxpayer-paid expression will not apply in this case.
If public museums win in federal court the right to offend without being punished by losing their subsidies, they will lose their subsidies beforehand. The art world is thoughtlessly flirting with a democratic public's pre-emptive censorship.
Copyright 1999 Sun Media Corporation
The London Free Press
October 13, 1999, Wednesday, Final EDITION
HEADLINE: SENSATION TRAMPLES ART'S PRINCIPLES
BY: HERMAN GOODDEN, LONDON FREELANCE WRITER
Liberal commentators keep trying to frame the heated debate about the British exhibition of shock-art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art as if this were an issue of censorship versus free speech. It is no such thing. No one is suggesting artists don't have the right to render any subject they choose in any manner they choose and to display those works in any gallery willing to grant them space. The real question is whether it's reasonable or morally justifiable to compel taxpayers to subsidize an exhibition that contains pieces certain to offend large numbers of people. This exhibition, called Sensation, includes a portrait of the Virgin Mary, the most venerated of all Catholic saints, decorated with elephant dung and surrounded with explicit images of female genitalia. Another of Sensation's "art works" is a dead pig sliced from his nose to his curly little tail and suspended in two tanks filled with formaldehyde. I suppose the artist's particular genius in that work concerns his manipulation of a chainsaw. Sensation also presents a dead shark floating in formaldehyde and a mattress decorated with fruits and vegetables suggestively arranged to resemble human genitals. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has had the temerity to question whether the city should continue to give the Brooklyn Museum its multi-million-dollar grants each year if they're going to hang shows as generally offensive as this.
What public good is served when taxpayers are made a party to an exhibition that insults faithful Catholics and otherwise flaunts bestial and crude images of dubious artistic distinction? In addition to questioning the museum's taste in displaying Sensation,
Giuliani points out the museum has violated its century-old funding contract with the city. Admittance to Sensation is barred to minors not accompanied by adults, violating a clause that all shows be accessible to patrons of all ages.
Appreciation for art can be notoriously subjective. It's hard enough knowing why a certain piece speaks to you, let alone figuring out why it doesn't strike your neighbor at all. But over the centuries, a consensus gradually emerges and we see the radically disparate styles of Rembrandt and Monet, of Titian and Van Gogh, as necessary and valid points in a larger progression.
I can confidently bet that one century from now, no one will speak of those visionary giants in the same sentence as "that jerk who hacked a pig in two." Every work in Sensation is publicly subsidized from its nose to its curly tail, while those earlier masters produced enormous bodies of work totally without access to public money. Unlike many people I know, I support the public funding of art. How else would operas ever get staged? How else would large-scale or particularly esoteric works ever get
commissioned? But when arts councils and gallery boards insist on attaching funds to works so obviously calculated to offend, insult or gross out their patrons, they aren't helping to promote that fragile philanthropic principle in the taxpaying public at large.
Copyright 1999 Nationwide News Pty Limited
November 17, 1999, Wednesday
SECTION: FEATURES; Pg. 45
LENGTH: 713 words
HEADLINE: Museum v. mayor is just Sensational
BYLINE: Peter Anderson
BACK in January, when the National Gallery of Australia began arranging to show the controversial Sensation exhibition in 2000, it could not have anticipated the furore that has erupted around it in New York.
The exhibition had sparked public debate when it was shown in London and Berlin, but the events surrounding its showing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art are quite another matter, placing a cloud over the negotiations for its Australian showing.
For the past two months, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi collection is currently showing, has been embroiled in a complex struggle with New York City's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, over its right to host
Just before Sensation was set to open, Giuliani declared that he would cut city funding to the museum if it did not cancel the show. Despite having only seen the exhibition's catalogue, Giuliani took offence, describing the work as "sick stuff" and singling out Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary for particular attention. Days later, when negotiations between the mayor and the museum broke down, the matter went to court, ensuring that the exhibition opened in a blaze of publicity. Not that the occasional moment of shock or offence had not been anticipated, perhaps even encouraged, with the museum promoting the exhibition with pre-opening advertising that included a fake "health warning" ("the contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion").
Despite losing the first round in the courts on the grounds that his moves to shut down the exhibition violate the museum's constitutional right to free speech, Giuliani has indicated that he intends to continue the fight.
After all the fuss, it was almost inevitable that such a sprawling survey exhibition would fall a little short of expectations. While the museum shop had managed to capitalize on the controversy and hype with a new range of "anti-censorship" and "shocking art"
merchandise, the exhibition itself seemed to have suffered.
THE fact that the works in Sensation are all drawn from the private collection of British ad-man Charles Saatchi has also presented a few problems, with Giuliani asserting the museum was conspiring with sponsors to inflate the value of the works.
Saatchi is known to trim his large art holdings through the auction market. After the highly successful showing of Sensation in London, he sold about 130 works from his collection through the international auction house Christies for some $2.7 million. For the
Brooklyn showing, Christies is a sponsor of the exhibition, as is Saatchi, and some sizeable contributions have also been made by art dealers who represent artists included in the show. It is these arrangements that have sparked the mayor's allegations of
Significantly, as the details of the museum's sponsorship deals have become public they have generated ethical questions about the relationship between corporate sponsorship, art promotion and publicly-funded art museums.
It is these issues, rather than the outcry over individual artworks, that may in the end present the most significant challenge for the National Gallery of Australia. It could be a challenge that leads the NGA to seriously reconsider its staging of the exhibition.
With the final details of Sensation's Australian showing still being negotiated, it has become essential for NGA director Brian Kennedy to ensure that all the arrangements for holding the exhibition at the NGA will meet the required ethical standards. While not
being drawn on the detail of the Brooklyn Museum's reported sponsorship arrangements, Kennedy is quick to point out that they "contrast markedly with practices at the NGA".
"The standards of probity at the NGA are extremely high," he said. "It would be impossible for an Australian auction house to sponsor such an exhibition."
While there remain a number of issues to be explored and resolved before the Australian showing is confirmed, Kennedy is clear on why he wants to host the exhibition. "The only reason to do the exhibition is because it is a very strong selection of work by the current generation of young British artists," he said. "There is no more potent show than Sensation."
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
October 1, 1999, Friday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section B; Page 6; Column 5; Metropolitan Desk
LENGTH: 1004 words
HEADLINE: Political Memo;
Giuliani Base Is Shored, But the Risks Are High
BYLINE: By ADAM NAGOURNEY
If there is one place in New York where Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani can generally count on a warm reception, it is the Metropolitan Opera House, where he has for years been reliably cheered by performers and audiences alike, an affirmation of both
Mr. Giuliani's support for opera and his perceived record at improving the quality of life in the city.
But when Mr. Giuliani showed up for opening night on Monday, taking an operatic reprieve from his fight against the Brooklyn Museum of Art to present a commendation to the tenor Placido Domingo, he encountered an unfamiliar reaction. A loud swell of
boos mixed in with the applause that rose from seats filled with men in black-tie and women in evening gowns. For Mr. Giuliani and his supporters, the fight with the museum has emerged as a formative moment in his presumed campaign for the United States Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton. By denouncing an exhibition at the museum as offensive and anti-Catholic, the Mayor has presented himself as a defender of the largest voting bloc in New York -- Catholics -- while addressing concerns among many Republicans about his ideological standings.
But as Mr. Giuliani's reception at the Met suggests, the political implications of the battle are anything but clear.
His move to shut down the exhibition at the city-subsidized museum has presumably allowed him to nail down the Republican and conservative voters who will be indispensable to his success. "This certainly shows that he has the willingness to respond in a common sense way to the conservative view of issues," said Michael Long, the chairman of the state Conservative Party, who has previously voiced concern about Mr. Giuliani's conservative credentials.
But these are voters who probably would not have supported Mrs. Clinton in the first place. And there is, several pollsters said, an equally persuasive argument that the Mayor may pay a cost for this shoring up of his political base: his vehement stance on the
museum issue could unsettle some of the few voters who appear to be up for grabs in this race, in particular Democrats and independents who have enthusiastically supported Mr. Giuliani as Mayor.
"This is going to turn off the people who were neutral on Rudy, who were kind of the moderate types," said Mitchell L. Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University. "He's basically going to lose some of the Democrats who
otherwise might have voted for him."
Edward I. Koch, the former Democratic Mayor who was once a supporter of Mr. Giuliani, agreed that the issue worked to Mr. Giuliani's disadvantage. "I believe this is going to be Giuliani's downfall," he said.
Mr. Giuliani's aides asserted that the Mayor was not engaged in a calculated maneuver to position himself in the Senate race, but was reacting with genuine outrage to an exhibition that offended him.
But the aides say his stance is also good politics, putting him on the popular side of an issue, portraying Mrs. Clinton as out of touch, and showing the decisive leadership that his advisers say will be a central part of his appeal in the Senate race.
"The upside of this is, once again, this is a person -- the Mayor -- who is not afraid to speak out when something is patently and clearly offensive and wrong," said Adam Goodman, a Republican consultant to Mr. Giuliani.
That said, Mr. Giuliani's course presents him with the possibility of modest gains, and potentially high risks.
For example, in reviewing the political benefits, the Mayor's advisers noted that Catholics make up over 40 percent of the statewide electorate and have helped elect a number of Roman Catholics to statewide office. But polls suggest that white Catholics are already overwhelmingly in Mr. Giuliani's corner. In a poll of 911 registered voters taken by Quinnipiac College in September, with an overall sampling error of plus or minus 3 percent, 57 percent of white Catholics said they were for Mr. Giuliani, compared to 32 percent for Mrs. Clinton.
"Does he gain anybody he wouldn't have already?" asked Maurice Carroll, director of Quinnipiac's Polling Institute, in Hamden, Conn. "Probably not."
Similarly, Mr. Giuliani's actions have raised his stock with the Conservative Party. But by any measure, Mr. Giuliani will be in
serious trouble if, six months from now, he is worrying about Conservative support.
The risk is that Mr. Giuliani's stark confrontation with the museum could prove problematic with the sliver of the electorate that describes itself as undecided, which is 7 percent in Mr. Carroll's poll. That is particularly the case with the independent-minded
voters who voted, for example, for President Clinton in 1996 and Senator Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat, last year, but who have been impressed with Mr. Giuliani. His advisers hope to draw those votes away from Mrs. Clinton.
The episode, for example, could stoke concerns among those voters, voiced by respondents in polls and encouraged by Mrs. Clinton's campaign, that Mr. Giuliani is temperamentally unsuited to be a member of a 100-person deliberative body. "When you ask who would work better with others in the Senate, she wins hands down -- despite the fact that the Senate just tried to impeach her husband," said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie.
An editorial in yesterday's Albany Times Union seemed to underscore the risk noted by Mr. Miringoff. "Trying to seize control of a public museum to protest a single exhibit is the political equivalent of smearing portraits with elephant dung," it said, alluding to one of the paintings at the center of the controversy.
And Mr. Giuliani could find that his actions could play into what has been the early strategy of Mrs Clinton's strategy. To try to push Mr. Giuliani to the right, identifying him with Republican Congressional leaders in Washington, again in hopes of appealing to that small group of undecided, independent-minded voters.
Copyright 2002 Deutsche Presse-Agentur
July 8, 2002, Monday
LENGTH: 585 words
HEADLINE: Wife of "cyber-dissident" appeals as Vietnam denies censorship
The wife of a Vietnamese man jailed after translating a U.S. State Department article on democracy appealed Monday for his release as Vietnam's state-run media launched a blistering attack on critics of its press freedom.
The arrest of Dr. Pham Hong Son is illegal because he has not been formally charged with any crime, Son's wife wrote in letters addressed to Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh and a host of other officials.
"If there is evidence of any crime, my husband must be tried publicly," Vu Thuy Ha, 32, wrote. "If not, he must be freed to return to work and to take care of his family." Son, 35, a doctor employed by a medical supply company, was taken away by security police on March 27, his wife says. His home was searched and his computer seized.
A month before, Son had translated an article entitled "What is Democracy?" from a U.S. State Department web page and posted it on a Vietnamese-language web site. He had also forwarded one of his own Internet articles titled "Some Good Signs for Democracy in Vietnam" to Manh and several Vietnamese newspapers.
Ha said she was kept in the dark about her husband's whereabouts for more than a week until she was told by the Public Security Ministry that he was being "temporarily detained" on suspicion of spying for a foreign government. She scoffs at those charges, saying her husband is a patriot.
She was also instructed to tell no one, not even her family, of her husband's arrest, she wrote.
Son is the third "cyber-dissident" detained this year by Vietnam's authoritarian government.
Computer science teacher Le Chi Quang was arrested at a Hanoi Internet cafe on February 21 after publishing a text on a web site saying the government gave too much away to China in a 2001 border agreement.
Tran Khue, a literature professor, was put under house arrest March 10 after posting an open letter to Chinese President Jiang Zemin asking him to re-examine parts of the border accords.
Vietnam's government has not commented on the arrests, except to say that Vietnam has no political prisoners and all those arrested have broken the law.
But state-run media on Monday launched a blistering attack on "slanderous and offensive" press freedom groups that last week criticized Vietnam's censorship and persecution of dissident writers.
An editorial in Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People's Army) accused the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontiers of an "evil plot" to undermine Vietnam's image by "drawing a false and sinister picture of the press freedom situation in Vietnam."
The two press freedom groups last week called Communist Party leader Manh a "predator on the free press" and criticized a government directive calling on newspapers to tone down coverage of an organized crime scandal.
Last week, government spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said Vietnam has full press freedom, pointing to the existence of more than 450 publications nationwide as proof.
All of Vietnam's newspapers, radio and television are effectively controlled by the Communist Party, which controls printing presses and airwaves. Writers can be jailed for revealing "state secrets" including inner-Party politics and anything deemed off-limits by the Ideology Committee.
Vietnam also tightly controls the Internet with a firewall that allows it to block access to 2,000 web sites - mostly political or pornographic - and to monitor all activity on the web from Vietnamese accounts.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
June 6, 2001, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 4; Column 3; Foreign Desk
LENGTH: 1077 words
HEADLINE: Santiago de Cuba Journal;
In Book-Starved Cuba, Little Feasts for the Hungry
BYLINE: By DAVID GONZALEZ
DATELINE: SANTIAGO DE CUBA
Among the books that Marcia Perez Castillo keeps in the lending library at her home is "The Challenge of Liberty." Its very location underscores the book's theme, since she has it hidden in her bedroom. She tucked away similar volumes on democracy and
dictatorships in an improvised rare books section, stashed in the ceiling under a dusty plastic sheet.
Ms. Perez runs one of the more than 60 independent libraries in Cuba, relatively small collections of everything from pristine college texts and yellowed paperbacks with cracked spines to photocopied American magazines and dissident tracts. She and her fellow librarians see themselves as part of a larger movement for freedom of expression in a country where the government limits what people can read or write. But as Ms. Perez has learned, keeping books available for readers hungry for more than the usual fare
found at state-run libraries has been difficult. Shipments, especially of political books from Europe and the United States, have been confiscated and some libraries have been under surveillance or searched by authorities, she said. When some books on democracy and peaceful resistance vanished from her home, she decided to organize her collection less along the Dewey Decimal System and more to deter decimation by collaborators with the authorities.
"I had to have some control over the books," she said. "Some people have come here and first ask for water. By the time I get back, they have taken some books. So I had to hide them in other rooms."
The libraries are supported by donated books from the United States and Europe, as well as diplomats who regularly deliver magazines, newspapers and political books. A member of the European Parliament recently suggested providing them with more
financial assistance, as has Senator Jesse Helms, who included the libraries in legislation intended to help human rights and dissident groups.
Such aid will most likely be met with skepticism from the Cuban government, which says dissidents and human rights advocates are on the American payroll. Cuban officials have called some of the libraries centers of counterrevolutionary activity, and in some cases have called in librarians for questioning after they sponsored conferences on human rights or social problems.
"It is not a pure space for books," said one Cuban official. "When you have external financing with its own objectives, the term 'independent' goes to hell."
Cuba's literacy rate is unmatched in the Caribbean and Latin America after the revolution made eradicating illiteracy a priority. But a common complaint is that there is little to read beyond the offerings in the official media and state libraries, and foreign magazines and books are scarce.
"Newsweek is a very interesting magazine," said Madeline Hernandez, who often goes to Ms. Perez's library to read recent issues. "Here we only get the news they want us to see. But that magazine has everything."
The first independent library was started in Las Tunas by a couple who made their collection available to the public in 1998. They were motivated by comments made at a book fair by President Fidel Castro, who said there were no banned books in Cuba, only
limited funds with which to buy books for public libraries.
But supporters of the libraries said their rapid growth was proof that the state-run libraries were not meeting the needs or interests of readers, at least those interested in human rights and democratic reform.
"In Cuba, all the schools and universities have libraries," said Ricardo Gonzalez, who runs an independent library in Havana. "The National Library of Cuba can be compared with any in the third world. So why do these humble libraries succeed? Here you can read
with liberty. You can choose. There are different books from an ideological point of view."
The variety is evident in the 400-book library that Norman Jorge Rodriguez Cabrera has in his living room in Santiago. It includes books on religion, peaceful resistance, the fall of Communism and pamphlets on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a document that human rights advocates here have long fought to disseminate.
"I wish I had more shelves for more books," he said. "It's small but it is a library with love."
The library also includes books on the Cuban revolution and Marxism, as well as writings by Lenin commonly found in public libraries.
"I like this because there are people who ask questions," he said. "Sometimes you have to focus them. Sometimes people do not know. In literature you can let them learn the situation in which we live, before this era, now and in what could be the future. I like it because information, reading is culture. It is power."
He keeps his library open all day long, closing only when he goes to sleep. He said about six people a day come by to borrow a book for a week. Sometimes, though, he has to track down overdue books -- there are no fines -- when borrowers lend them to friends nervous about going themselves to the library.
"This is a known house, so they prefer to ask someone who has less fear," he said. "But the doors are always open to the society. And to the government if necessary."
Ms. Perez recalled how soon after she started her library, the authorities confiscated some 200 books, mostly about politics, given to her by a friend who was moving to the United States.
"When my friend was going to leave the country, state security pressured her and said if the books were not given to them they would not let her leave Cuba," she said. "State security came here to remove them. They told me if I did not give them the books, they would search the house."
Yet only a fraction of her library's books can be considered political. Like others, hers has the slapped-together feel of castoff collections: college texts on engineering or mathematics next to dog-eared copies of Sinclair Lewis and Mark Twain.
The most popular books, in fact, are on parapsychology, mysticism and Eastern religions. She shares them with friends like Juan Antonio Rodriguez Betancourt.
"I'll read anything about mysticism," he said. "For example, the mystery of evil and good. That is something the great priests and wise men have asked themselves. It is the question of the century. If God is love and knows everything, how come He created evil, or is it alien to God? The mystic studies that and begins to understand it deeper."