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by Conrad F. Goeringer
September 30, 2020

Religious conservatives and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani say that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund blasphemy But is the squabble over an art exhibit part of a larger agenda to restrict free expression, including the right to criticize religious belief?

Listen to Mayor Giuliani, Cardinal John O’Connor, or the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and one would believe that the venerable Brooklyn Museum of Art has become the equivalent of one of those seedy peep-shows that used to dot the cityscape near 42nd Street. One can almost see the museum’s esteemed director, Arnold Lehman, sporting a plaid jacket and standing outside with smarmy look as he accosts grandmothers and youngsters... “Wanna’ see some dirty pictures?”

The “dirty pictures” in question are part of an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum aptly titled “Sensations.” Included is a piece by artist Chris Ofili, winner of the 1998 Turner Prize for art, which depicts the Virgin Mary with African features and skin, embellished with a clump of elephant dung and pictures of buttocks. It certainly lives up to the promise and warning of the exhibition, that it provoke our attention, jar our sensibilities and prompt us to look at the world in different ways.

But Mayor Giuliani brands the exhibit “disgusting,” “blasphemous” and an insult to Roman Catholics. The Catholic League for Civil Rights, echoes the refrain, and plans on distributing vomit bags this Saturday in a protest outside the museum. Cardinal O’Connor, never shy when it comes to presenting the Vatican stamp of approval or condemnation on popular culture, says that he is “grateful to city officials” for taking steps to cut off funding for the Brooklyn Museum, and institute a coup d’etat by obtaining a court order to seize control of that institution.

There is a familiar cant here which declares that since government is funding the museum, taxpayers -- presumably through their elected representatives like Mayor Giuliani -- should therefore “have a say” in determining what is exhibited. William Donahue of the Catholic League suggests that Catholics, and indeed anyone else who finds the materials objectionable, should not be compelled to pay for such “art” through tax money. The same objection crops up yearly when Congress debates the funding for groups like the National Endowment for the Humanities; poster kids for the Christian Coalition rise from their seats in the House or Senate, and begin denouncing some work of publicly funded art which consists of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

They may have a point. Atheists, after all, usually object to the public funding of religion as not only a violation of the separation of church and state, but a form of coercion that requires the nonbeliever to subsidize religious groups and practices. Surely this is wrong, as Madison, Jefferson, and the U.S. Supreme Court have opined.

The issue in New York City, though, may not be so much about the public funding of things which religious groups find “blasphemous”, but more the fact that such artwork, opinions, or writings are permitted in the first place. The Catholic League takes aim at a host of privately-funded events, including films like “Stigmata” and “Priest.” The League has yet to display what may be its true colors in demanding that government ban such cultural fare, but it is interesting to note that in the New York Legislature, at least one bill proposes to ban anything that “insults” or denigrates the religious beliefs, symbols or practices of any group.

Mayor Giuliani insists that the city is well within its proper role in trying to shut down the “Sensations” exhibit, and seize control of the Brooklyn Museum of Art since its directors have defied His Honor’s dictates. Museum directors are outraged, and so are civil libertarians. Whatever merit there is to the argument who pays the piper picks the tune, these people still see a dangerous form of censorship at work. Were Giuliani and Cardinal O’Connor to prevail, we would have a situation where only that which passed the scrutiny of certain government and religious elites would be displayed in “the peoples” galleries. Do we want that?

We may be dangerously close to a time when some political or religious group will actually propose making blasphemy a “hate crime,” ...
Giuliani could not appeal to taxpayers when he instigated his notorious “cleanup” of 42nd street and other venues across the city populated by exotic bars and adult bookstores. Alas, the U.S. Supreme Court continued its agenda to downsize the First Amendment by upholding the “right” of New York City (and other government entities) to zone out of existence private establishments related to the sex industry. One can presumably locate a religious book shop on 42nd street which peddles literature depicting gays as sinners, or Jews and blacks as spawns of the devil. Just try selling a magazine, though, which might have pictures of consenting adults engaging in some of the most pleasurable acts we can experience in life...

The appeal to the taxpayer -- the argument that Catholics or some other groups should not be compelled through public funding to pay for an exhibit of “blasphemous” art, like the one presumably at the Brooklyn Museum -- is only part of a larger set of clichés and rationales for chipping away at the First Amendment. The Christian Coalition and its supporters on capital hill are quite willing to use the power of the state in regulating or banning forms of communication which have little or no taxpayer subsidy -- movies, video games, and television programs. There is no public funding of rap lyrics, but that has not stopped William Bennett, Delores Tucker or even (at the other end of the ideological spectrum) Tipper Gore and friends from trying to censor rap lyrics. No one is compelled to purchase or view these offerings, and there seems to be a thriving market for them where this “public” casts its votes in the form of dollars.

It is revealing that Giuliani told the New York Times: “There is nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects.” By this criteria, the First Amendment is some feather-weight, anemic statute that only defends only that which does not need defending -- that which is not provocative, disruptive, controversial, thoughtful and heretical.

Ideally, the arts community will continue and support the trend of severing its ties to public funding. Difficult as this may be, artists do have to become like the rest of us -- paying our own way as much as possible. The realpolitik of the situation is that purse strings do constitute a form of control and censorship. Only by breaking this dependency can the arts, or anything else, achieve any sort of real independence from the likes of Mayor Giuliani and Cardinal O’Connor. The problem will not end there, of course; church and state will continue to appeal to some other chimera as the rationale for censorship -- “public morality,” whatever is in fashion at the time, is often a favorite.

It wasn’t that long ago when “blasphemy” was a term found mostly in history books, horror movies with Inquisition themes such as burning the witches at Salem, or in the sanctuaries of back-swamp churches. No longer. We may be dangerously close to a time when some political or religious group will actually propose making blasphemy a “hate crime,” as occurred in England when Muslims demanded that the notorious Blasphemy Statutes be enforced against Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses. Back then -- it was only a decade ago -- Cardinal O’Connor pronounced the novel a blasphemous “insult” to Christianity even though he had not read a copy. As Moslems rioted in cities throughout the world, O’Connor joined the ranks of western, mostly Christian clergy declaring that no criticism or insult to religious belief should be tolerated. The silence of Catholic Protestant and even Jewish leaders was deafening when it came to defending the right of Salman Rushdie to express his thoughts, or of the public to evaluate them.

“Sensations” may not be great art. Ofili’s painting may not be my choice for a wall poster, or yours. But do we want Mayor Giuliani, Cardinal O’Connor, or some group of political or religious experts deciding that for us? I say no way, Rudy!

As for the First Amendment, the mayor needs a civics lesson. It is precisely those things which he, or someone else, may find “disgusting” and “blasphemous” that require the protection of that first entry into our Bill of Rights. It protects those opinion and expressions which any of us may find insulting, dangerous, subversive, in poor taste and, yes, even crossing the line into outright blasphemy.

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