The Public Value of Controversial Art

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The Public Value of Controversial Art
Arthur C. Brooks
Professor of Public Administration

The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, USA.

Tel. (315) 443-3719. email:

The Public Value of Controversial Art
All the others translate: the painter sketches

A visible world to love or reject;

Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches

The images out that hurt and connect.

W.H. Auden, “The Composer”


There is probably no point at which the cultural value of art is brought more clearly into public view than when art creates a scandal. This is nothing new. In 1815, for example, Goya’s Nude Maja (La Maja Desnuda) created a public stir that landed the artist in front of the Spanish Inquisition, where he was forced to answer charges of obscenity. The work, today considered an icon of cultural value, was deemed culturally destructive by some authorities at the time.

Similar controversies about cultural value erupt periodically to this day. Over the past 20 years, scandals have erupted on numerous occasions in the United States, in which government funds have gone to subsidize the production or exhibition of art considered by some to be obscene, blasphemous, or offensively unpatriotic. The resulting value clashes between opponents and supporters of the offending art have constituted battles in America’s so-called “culture wars” between one group that is traditional, conservative, and religious, and the other which is permissive, liberal, and secular (Himmelfarb 1999).

There are few better examples of a battle over the cultural value of art than the infamous Sensation exhibit at New York City’s Brooklyn Museum of Art. In September 1999, the Museum opened a show featuring works owned by the art collector Charles Saatchi by British artists under age 40 (Rothfield 2001). The show had several pieces that generated immediate controversy. The most notorious was “Holy Virgin Mary,” a large painting by Nigerian-born artist Chris Ofili, in which the Madonna was adorned with elephant dung and pictures of women’s genitalia cut out from pornographic magazines. Another piece some people found objectionable was Damien Hirst’s “This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home,” which featured a pig split in half and preserved in formaldehyde.

Protests erupted from traditional religious groups, conservative political activists, and New York’s Republican Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. In a September 1999 press conference, Giuliani asked, rhetorically, “How can you ignore something as disgusting, horrible and awful as this?” and proceeded to take action against the government-funded museum.1 He cut off city funding, attempted to fire the Museum’s Board of Trustees, and announced plans to evict the Museum from its building (which is owned by the City).

Sensation’s supporters reacted with equal bombast, accusing the Mayor of censorship by threatening to withhold public resources, and of having no sense of the exhibit’s exquisite quality. Arnold Lehman, the Museum’s Director, declared that the exhibition was “a defining exhibition of a decade of the most creative energy that's come out of Great Britain in a very long time.”2 Lehman, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, sought and won a legal restraining order against the Mayor’s actions.

Public furor disappeared when the exhibit moved on to its next location; the controversy became moot, and the City dropped its action against the museum after six months. While it has faded from public view, however, the case still nicely illustrates the peculiarities of the cultural value of controversial art: It is a paradox in which, in the very same works of art, some people see a positive contribution, while others see nothing but degradation.

This essay explores the differing perceptions of cultural value created by Sensation. Using public opinion data on the exhibit, I find that certain demographically-identifiable groups tend to perceive public cost (negative cultural value) from controversial art, while others will perceive benefits. This fact has clear implications for the design of cultural policies. Specifically, I predict that inducing museum attendance in general (not necessarily for controversial shows) among young people will raise their tolerance for contentious exhibits, such as Sensation.

Beyond illuminating the public opinion in the Sensation case, the broader point of this essay is to show that cultural value is the true driver of public opinion about the arts, and must be better understood and measured by policymakers if they are to design arts policies that create maximum public good. Measurement of cultural value—compared with economic value—has traditionally been considered an exercise in futility by policymakers, who tend to throw up their hands and hope for the best. But as this chapter demonstrates, cultural value is measurable, and the results of such measurement may yield valuable information to neutralize perceptions of negative net cultural value.

The external benefits and costs from art

Most goods and services meaningfully affect only their direct producers, sellers, and consumers. For example, when I make a deposit of funds into my bank account, the only parties likely to perceive it (or care about it) are me and my bank. This, however, is not the case for the class of goods and services that produce what economists call “externalities”: spillover effects onto those that have no direct market relationship to the good or service. Externalities can be either positive or negative. For example, a noisy street fair may negatively affect neighbors not participating in it; or a company’s private research and development might improve existing technology for everybody.

Economists argue that externalities tend to distort markets, and advocate policies that correct them. In the case of external costs, the party imposing the externality must “feel the pain” in order to make production or consumption decisions that are efficient—in which the benefits from the service or good, net of total costs, are highest. The remedies favored by economists for addressing external costs are usually a variant of taxation: Producers or consumers of the activity in question should face fines, fees, or some other penalties, with the objective that they lower the activity to acceptable levels. External benefits receive the opposite treatment: The activity is subsidized or otherwise rewarded; as such, producers or consumers have an incentive to increase it.

The standard economic case for government support of the arts can be understood as one of correcting a beneficial externality. The traditional reasoning is that the arts, while directly enriching artists, arts firms, and arts consumers, also produce cultural benefits that spill over onto the rest of us. The possible sources of external benefits can be classified as follows (Frey 1997; McCarthy et al., 2001).

  • Education. People may be culturally enriched by living in a community with a vital arts sector, even if they don’t specifically attend arts events.

  • Prestige. The arts may bring external prestige to their community.

  • Option for future use. People may value the option to consume the arts in the future, and hence derive benefit from their current preservation.

  • Bequests to future generations. Future generations may enjoy arts that are preserved today.

  • Economic improvement. The arts can improve a community’s economic conditions by attracting “high-value” citizens who seek an artistic environment.

  • Expressive freedom. Society may benefit from an environment in which tolerance (expressed in subsidies) flourishes for all kinds of art.

  • Diversity. Society might benefit from greater cultural tolerance when majority groups are exposed to other cultures ands taste through the arts.

The external benefits of the arts are not the end of the story, however. Indeed, the case against controversial art such as that in Sensation can be understood in terms of external cultural costs. These costs can be categorized as follows (Bhaba 2001).

  • Offense. People may be offended by indirect exposure to (or even the mere existence of) art that has religious, sexual, or political content. This offense may come because the art denigrates something or someone of value (e.g. the Madonna), or because it glorifies something or someone disliked (e.g. homosexuality).

  • Inscrutability. There may be cost involved with art that is intellectually or aesthetically impenetrable for the majority of people.

  • Exacerbation of conflict. Bhaba (2001) identifies the case in which unusual tastes are thrown up before the majority as “minority public interest.” In contrast to the diversity benefit identified above, this may create conflict between groups.

In the case of most goods and services that create externalities, disagreements arise over the magnitude of the effect, but not its sign. For instance, arguments about pollution abatement policies usually focus on whether, how, and how much to penalize pollution production; they don’t feature one group that believes pollution is bad, and another that believes it is good.

But this disagreement over the sign of the external effect is precisely the case with controversial art. If the Brooklyn Museum’s Director calls Sensation “the defining exhibition of a decade,” and the Mayor calls it “disgusting, horrible, and awful,” we can be confident that there are at least two groups in the population, including one that sees Sensation as inflicting a public cultural cost, and the other that sees it as creating a public cultural benefit. This provides insight into the apparent intractability of battles in the “culture wars”: The sides are culturally too far apart.

This point is especially clear in recent research which shows that, on an extremely wide range of cultural issues, supporters of the arts bear little resemblance to the rest of the population. For example, Lewis and Brooks (2004) find that arts donors are 32 percentage points more likely than the general American population to say they have no religion, 18 points less likely to see homosexual sex as wrong, 10 points more likely to describe themselves as politically left-wing, and 12 points more likely to support abortion on demand.

These differences make arts policy difficult, as long as any of the subsidized content is controversial. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a satisfying policy for any activity if one part of the population perceives efficient treatment of it to involve subsidies, while for the other it involves censorship (or at very least, that it not be government-funded).

If the two sides to this debate are randomly-distributed throughout the population, the design of non-inflammatory cultural policy may be an exercise in futility. However, if the proponents of the opposing viewpoints are demographically distinguishable, there may be more hope for building policies that seek, on the one hand, to support art that is occasionally controversial, but, on the other hand, to avoid provocation of “culture wars” skirmishes. For example, if a certain portrait can be drawn of those perceiving public costs from something like the Sensation exhibit, then museum marketing efforts can be most-effectively targeted to them.
Data and models

What characteristics should influence the sign on the public value one perceives from controversial art? The literature on arts participation and public opinion gives clues in this regard. Studies of arts attendance (e.g. McCarthy, et al., 2004) generally find that performing and visual arts attendees are older, wealthier, more highly-educated, and more likely to be women than those that do not attend. They are also more likely to have received some arts education in the past. Studies of political support for government arts subsidies (e.g. Brooks 2004) indicate that those most sympathetic to arts subsidies have relatively high education levels, are not religious, and are politically left-wing. These past studies allow us to hypothesize that those who would perceive a public benefit from controversial art should be older, have higher income and education levels, be less religious, and belong to the political left.

A unique dataset exists to investigate the question of whether supporters and opponents of controversial art are demographically distinct. In September and October of 1999, the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut conducted a random telephone survey of 1,006 American adults regarding their views on controversial art in general, and the Sensation exhibit in particular. The survey consisted of about 40 questions, which probed respondents’ views on the propriety of objectionable art, censorship, and public funding. It also collected a limited amount of demographic information from each person.

The survey is useful, but not perfect. Indeed, upon reading the questions, it seems that one intention of the survey designers might have been to elicit public support for the Sensation exhibit. For example, before asking about whether Sensation should be banned, or public funding withdrawn, they describe the exhibit for respondents unfamiliar with it by saying, “…the exhibit…includes material some people have said is offensive. The material includes a picture of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung on one breast.” Clearly, this is a major understatement of the controversial content of Ofili’s work. Not surprisingly, the survey results portray a public not especially scandalized by the work. As Table 1 shows, 57 percent of those surveyed thought that the Museum had a right to show Sensation, 60 percent felt the City should not be able to ban the exhibit, and 60 percent did not feel the City should be able to withdraw its support. Based on these results, the Research Center’s Director concluded that “The assumption by many that the Brooklyn Museum event is being met with strong public opposition is just not true. Americans prefer that museums be free to display art that they think is appropriate.”3

Table 1. Public opinion about the Sensation exhibit


The Brooklyn Museum of Art has a right to show Sensation

The government should be able to ban this exhibit

The government should be able to withdraw funding because of this exhibit

Strongly agree




Mildly agree




Mildly disagree




Strongly disagree




Source: Center for Survey Research and Analysis, University of Connecticut

The real extent of public tolerance for controversial art such as that in Sensation is probably overstated in these responses—perhaps dramatically so. However, the data still allow us to discern the variance in views on the questions in Table 1 (and indirectly, variance in perceived public value) that is explained by sociodemographic variation in the population.

The demographics in the Connecticut data are summarized in Table 2. They show that the sample is slightly more than half women, is approximately a decade older than the average American, and has a household annual income of about $54,000. The sample is fairly politically balanced, and is three-quarters Christian (although we only have information on religious affiliation, not on the more important variable of the intensity of religious practice). The sample is more educated than what is found in most random surveys, with 37 percent having completed college or higher. It also appears more arts-loving than we would expect: While other surveys, such as the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, usually place the annual likelihood of attending a museum at around 27 percent (McCarthy, et al, 2004), these data found 38 percent of respondents attended a museum in the past year. Altogether, one suspects that there is a sample nonresponse bias built into these data, in which those uninterested in the arts were least likely to participate in the survey.
Table 2. Demographics of survey respondents


Mean (Standard deviation)

Respondent is a man


Respondent’s age

54.9 (16.18)

Respondent did not complete high school


Respondent completed high school


Respondent completed university


Respondent holds postgraduate degree


Respondent classifies self as politically “left”


Respondent classifies self as politically “centrist”


Respondent classifies self as politically “right”


Respondent’s household income

$53,865 ($33,595)

Respondent identifies self as a Christian


Respondent visited a museum in the past year


Source: Center for Survey Research and Analysis, University of Connecticut

Using these data, I use a two-pronged strategy to estimate perceived public value in Sensation on the basis of personal characteristics. First, I estimate the degree to which the demographics in Table 2 predict the degree of support for the positions in Table 1, using a statistical technique called ordered probit regression, which measures how a one-unit change in each of the Table 2 variables affects the propensity to move up the scales in Table 1.4

Clearly, the variables in Table 1 are only indirect proxies for perceived cultural value. Together, they describe attitudinal results of the value people perceive. For example, the belief that Sensation creates positive public value should lead people to be more likely to believe that the Museum should be able to show the exhibit; less likely to believe the government should be able to ban it; and less likely to believe the government should be able to withdraw funding. The decision to attend museums should also indirectly reflect perceptions of value, to some extent.

A useful technique to find the latent measure of perceived cultural value lurking behind these variables is Principal Component Analysis, which constructs a new variable (or distinct variables, if there appeared statistically to be more than one) on the basis of the three in Table 1, plus museum attendance. The latent variable, which I call CULTVALUE, is centered around zero (and has a standard deviation of one). The minimum value is -1.71; the maximum value is 1.24. Note that CULTVALUE is distributed arbitrarily around zero, so negative estimates do not necessarily have the practical implication of negative external value. (Similarly, positive estimates do not necessarily denote positive external value.) Rather, this is simply a comparative index.

In building CULTVALUE, the measure of support for allowing the City to ban the exhibit contributed approximately 57 percent of the value; lack of support for the right of the Museum to show the exhibit contributed 25 percent; lack of support for the government’s right to withdraw funding contributed 11 percent; and past museum attendance contributed eight percent.5 Figure 1 depicts the distribution of CULTVALUE, and shows that positive values fall in a narrower range than negative ones. This suggests that those who perceived a lower external value from Sensation felt their position more deeply than those who perceived a higher one.

Figure 1. The perceived cultural value of Sensation, constructed from principal components

We can explore the role of demographics on perceived value by looking at how the Table 2 variables (except museum attendance, which is now embedded in the CULTVALUE) affect CULTVALUE. I do so using the Ordinary Least Squares procedure, which measures the change in CULTVALUE attributable to a one-unit change in each of the variables in Table 2.

Results and discussion

The ordered probit models show that the variables that push up support for the Museum’s right to show Sensation also push down support for the government’s right to ban the exhibit or withdraw its funding. These variables are museum attendance, age, being a man, and identifying oneself as a political liberal. In contrast, the variables are pushed in the opposite direction by being a political conservative.

Exposure and sympathy to art are the strongest predictors of support for Sensation: Visiting a museum over the past year is associated with an increase in more than half a support category for the Museum’s right to show the exhibit. Thus, for example, if two people are demographically identical, except one has attended a museum and the other has not, and the non-attendee mildly disagrees that the Museum has the right to show the exhibit, we can predict that the attendee will mildly agree that it should be able to do so.

It would probably be an error to assert that museum attendance is entirely what causes this difference in attitude, because an unmeasured predisposition to consume art most likely stimulates both museum attendance and attitudes toward Sensation. Thus, the variable that measures perceived value, taking attitudes and attendance into account simultaneously, should be useful.

The Ordinary Least Squares model tells us that the main predictors of positive perceived value from Sensation are age, being a man, and being on the political left. Self-identifying as a political conservative pushes perceived value down.

While the effect of political beliefs is not especially surprising, the age and gender effects might well be. Indeed, we might predict that women (who attend museums more than men) and young people would be more likely than men and older people to tolerate—and find positive public value in—controversial art such as the Sensation exhibit. However, we consistently see precisely the opposite pattern in these data. One explanation, besides the straightforward assertion that women and young people are intolerant of controversial art, is that these groups are especially likely to react negatively to question wording or some other aspect of the survey context. The absence of an education effect in the regressions here is also quite surprising, given the fact that past research has shown higher education associates with more attendance and support for government arts subsidies.

The predicted values of CULTVALUE (constructed with the coefficients in Table A2) are summarized in Table 3. In this table, I predict CULTVALUE on the basis of sex and political orientation, as well as several age levels. These ages are the median (57), the 25th- and 75th-percentiles (43 and 69), as well as 25 (to look at the young adult population in the sample). All the predicted values lie within the range of the data. The lowest predicted negative value, -0.92, belongs to a 25-year old woman who labels herself a conservative. The highest predicted positive value, 0.49, belongs to a 69-year old man who is politically liberal. Recall that CULTVALUE is distributed arbitrarily around zero. Thus, what the predictions tell us is that groups with lower perceived values are more likely than others to see either negative externalities or lower positive externalities.
Table 3. Predicted estimates of CULTVALUE


Political left male

Political left female

Political right male

Political right female

25 years old





43 years old (25th-percentile)





57 years old (median)





69 years old (75th-percentile)





These results contain two main cultural policy and management design implications. First, those perceiving the highest and lowest levels of public value in Sensation—as constructed on the basis of opinions on whether the Museum should show the exhibit, and whether the government should take action as a result—are identifiable demographic groups. Therefore, we can rule out the possibility that positive and negative perceived value is spread throughout the population either randomly, or solely on the basis of variables not identified here.

Second, the “target” demographic groups for managers and policymakers depend on the policies we seek to undertake. For example, if the objective of the Brooklyn Museum were to enhance tolerance for exhibits such as Sensation, broadening audience attendance would probably be a productive strategy. Further, a group the Museum might focus on in particular would be young people, who currently appear to be most intolerant of Sensation (and sympathetic to government attempts to ban it or cut off its funding). Note that this strategy does not imply that the Museum needs to undertake outreach to young adults for controversial art in particular—the key appears simply to be to get them to the Museum in the first place.

The broader implication of this result is that, if a cultural policy objective is for more people to see controversial art in terms of its external cultural benefits (such that exhibits such as Sensation do not provoke public scandal), demand-side policies such as arts education should be particularly beneficial. Supply-side cultural policies--subsidies to artists and arts organizations, for the most part--will not likely have this beneficial side-effect.6


The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s notorious Sensation exhibit represents an excellent example of how the ambiguous sign on the net cultural value of public art can lead to bitter battles over relatively small public expenditures (which is one aspect of economic value).7 Indeed, the American “culture wars” in general are probably at least partly-explained by this kind of value disagreement. However, as this essay demonstrates, these disagreements are not necessarily inevitable, because cultural value could be better-understood and measured than it usually has been in the past, leading to better (and less controversial) arts policies.


The empirical specification for the ordered probit model is for survey respondent i, where is a constant term, and is a random disturbance. A series of parameters (j=0,1,2) defines the categories in Table 1, where (“strongly disagree”) if ; (“mildly disagree”) if ; (“mildly agree”) if ; and (“strongly agree”) if . The results are summarized in Table A1.

Table A1. Ordered probit regression results


The Museum has a right to show this exhibit

The government should be able to ban this exhibit

The government should be able to withdraw funding because of this exhibit


-0.38 (0.26)

0.31 (0.27)

0.77*** (0.27)

Visited museum

0.59*** (0.1)

-0.24** (0.1)

-0.20** (0.1)


0.014*** (0.003)

-0.007** (0.003)

-0.013*** (0.003)


0.21** (0.09)

-0.19** (0.09)

-0.09 (0.09)

High School

-0.10 (0.2)

0.22 (0.2)

0.11 (0.2)


-0.10 (0.22)

0.30 (0.23)

0.26 (0.22)


0.04 (0.24)

0.36 (0.25)

0.30 (0.25)

Political left

0.30** (0.13)

-0.21* (0.13)

-0.30*** (0.12)

Political right

-0.28*** (0.11)

0.50*** (0.11)

0.47*** (0.11)

Household income

0 (0.0016)

-0.0003 (0.0015)

0.0009 (0.0015)


-0.12 (0.11)

0.10 (0.11)

0.09 (0.11)





Note: *** denotes significance at the .01 level, ** denotes significance at the .05 level, and * denotes significance at the .10 level. Household income is measured in thousands of 1999 U.S. dollars.

The Ordinary Least Squares model is , where Z is simply X from the model above without the variable for museum attendance. The results are summarized in Table A2.

Table A2. Ordinary Least Squares regression results


OLS Coefficient (st. err.)


-0.68*** (0.23)


0.012*** (0.003)


0.17** (0.08)

High School

-0.06 (0.17)


0.03 (0.18)


0.10 (0.20)

Political left

0.23** (0.10)

Political right

-0.50*** (0.09)

Household income

0.0011 (0.0010)


-0.08 (0.09)





adj. R2


Note: *** denotes significance at the .01 level, ** denotes significance at the .05 level, and * denotes significance at the .10 level. Household income is measured in thousands of 1999 U.S. dollars.

Bhabha, Homi (2001). “Introduction: The Subjunctive Mood of Art.” In Rothfield, Lawrence (Ed.). Unsettling "Sensation": Arts Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy. New Bunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.
Brooks, Arthur C. (2004). “In Search of True Public Arts Support” Public Budgeting & Finance 24(2): 88-100.
Frey, Bruno S. (1997) “Evaluating Cultural Property: The Economic Approach” International Journal of Cultural Property. 6 (2) 231-246.
Herszenhorn, David M. (September 30, 1999). “Brooklyn Museum Accused of Trying to Lift Art Value.” The New York Times.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude (1999). One Nation, Two Cultures. New York, Knopf.
Lewis, Gregory B. and Arthur C. Brooks (2005). “A Question of Morality: Artists’ Values and Public Funding for the Arts.” Public Administration Review 65(1): 8-17.
Rothfield, Lawrence (2001). “Introduction: The Interests in ‘Sensation.’” In Rothfield, Lawrence (Ed.). Unsettling "Sensation": Arts Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy. New Bunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.


2 ibid.

3 See

4 For technical details on this and the other statistical models, see the Appendix to this chapter.

5 All of these measures are statistically significant, and they do not reveal any other latent factors.

6 Not everyone would assert that increasing tolerance for an exhibit like Sensation is a desirable thing to do, of course. Some might argue that this represents a cultural coarsening (e.g. Bennett 2000).

7 Ironically, it was precisely the controversy in the Sensation case that linked the cultural value of the exhibit to its economic value. The public outcry resulted in far higher attendance than expected for the exhibit, and a dramatic increase in the market value of the collection on display. Some believe that this was one of the objectives of the exhibit’s owners and sponsors all along (Herszenhorn 1999).

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