“WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?” the New York Daily News asked its readers on September 24, 1999. The image in question—Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), which features a Black Madonna with almond-shaped eyes—may have been one of the few artworks ever to grace the cover of a tabloid. Surrounding the Madonna are butterfly-like forms which, upon closer inspection, reveal themselves to be collaged pictures of women’s buttocks that Ofili cut from pornographic magazines. In place of this Virgin Mary’s bared nipple is a mound of elephant dung. (Two more misshapen balls of feces are used to prop up the painting, though these were cropped out for the Daily News cover.)
What was wrong with this picture? Not a whole lot, it must be said. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired the painting in 2018, curator Ann Temkin called it a “singularly important work by an artist whose paintings are among the best of his generation.” But back in 1999, when the work was on view at the Brooklyn Museum in a show called “Sensation,” conservative politicians and Catholic groups unleashed a series of bilious attacks on Ofili, one of the few Black artists in the show, and the painting’s exhibiting institution. Rudy Giuliani, then the mayor of New York, famously called The Holy Virgin Mary “sick stuff.” Cardinal John O’Connor labeled it an “attack on religion itself.” William Donohue, a spokesperson for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said the painting went “beyond the vulgar.”
Pretty soon, Giuliani was trying to defund the Brooklyn Museum, and a national debate over freedom of expression ensued. The Brooklyn Museum sued Giuliani and later won. More than 20 years on, Arnold Lehman, who at the time was overseeing the Brooklyn Museum, is aiming to set the record straight. He’s written a new memoir, Sensation: The Madonna, the Mayor, the Media, and the First Amendment (Merrell), with the hope of letting contemporary readers in on the chaos the surrounded that show.
“Sensation” had already been mounted twice in Europe before its run in New York, and neither presentation drummed up quite as much furor. The exhibition debuted in 1997 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, a city which at the time was being taken by storm by the Young British Artists, whose work made prominent use of shock tactics. Damien Hirst was placing animals in formaldehyde and calling it art. Tracey Emin was chronicling moments of sexual intimacy as part of a larger feminist odyssey. Marc Quinn was creating self-portraits composed of his own frozen blood.
Many of their works were on view in “Sensation,” which featured works owned by collector Charles Saatchi. Within London, the work that drew the most controversy was Marcus Harvey’s painting of Myra Hindley, who killed five children during the ’60s. Generally, however, the Royal Academy exhibition wasn’t the subject of that much ire; the show traveled to the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, where there was even less scandal. In his memoir, Lehman describes having “seen and marveled at the crowds line up to see SENSATION as they spilled onto Piccadilly when I was in London in mid-September 1997”—but he never actually saw the show. Instead, he was seduced by the catalogue.
Lehman had every reason to imagine that “Sensation” would be a headache. Its works involved live animals that needed to be cared for, fried eggs that had to be replenished, and human blood that required mechanical cooling, and it would take the public some convincing that this was all art worth knowing about. Those hardships “never made it to the front page of the New York Times or to the inside pages of Newsday,” Lehman writes. What did make it to the covers of publications of all kinds—from the New Yorker to the New York Post—was the culture war that ensued.
Much of Lehman’s book is devoted to assiduously recounting who was on his side and who wasn’t. In Lehman’s corner: his wife Pam, former Brooklyn Museum board chair Robert S. Rubin, artist Chuck Close, actress Susan Sarandon, some (though not all) prominent members of industry groups like the Association of Art Museum Directors. Not in Lehman’s corner: Giuliani, Catholic advocacy groups, former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello, the press.
It’s the media that Lehman saves his greatest scorn for, and sometimes with good reason. Early on in the “Sensation” mess, tabloids promoted falsehoods about the Ofili painting, including the suggestion that it was “smeared” with dung—an error that was even later reiterated by the New York Times’s Metro reporters. That inaccuracy eventually metastasized, and at a point even became something like a truth, when, during the show’s run, a Catholic protestor even slathered white paint over the Ofili picture to reverse its fictional fecal splatter. (The painting was saved by a crack team of conservators at the Brooklyn Museum, though according to Lehman, little specks of white can still be spotted.)
But for the most part, Lehman’s obsession with the media gets the better of him, turning this memoir into a misguided slog. A large portion of the book is dedicated to fiercely rebutting reporting by the Times’s David Barstow, whose name is invoked by Lehman nearly 200 times in the span of less than 250 pages. Barstow published several reports that put the funding of “Sensation” under the microscope. Why, he wondered, did the museum list Saatchi’s $160,000 contribution to the show as an “anonymous” gift? And what was an auction house, Christie’s, doing funding this show? Irate with Barstow, Lehman even got the Times’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., involved, and gave him and his wife a tour of “Sensation” in a bid to educate those in control of the publication. “However,” Lehman writes, “the tour didn’t translate into newspaper policy!”
Sentences like this one often culminate in exclamations points, and Lehman’s book at times even reads a bit like the salacious gossip columns it attempts to refute. To Lehman’s credit, he does broach some interesting ideas along the way, even as he’s pointlessly working to discredit Barstow, who has won multiple Pulitzer Prizes. Barstow’s reporting became a political football for conservatives, who used it to suggest that the show illustrated the corruption at the Brooklyn Museum. Those in the art world knew better. Maxwell L. Anderson, the former director of the Whitney Museum, penned a letter to the Times’s editors in which decried their “cynical view of museum stewardship, especially when museum financing is under attack from all quarters.” As for Lehman, here’s what he has to say about it all: “My own position is that while the educational mission and purpose of the vast majority of museums and other arts institutions have remained true to their original charters, the interconnected worlds of philanthropy and culture have changed.”
Corporate sponsorship is still normal for U.S. blockbusters—the Whitney’s current Jasper Johns retrospective was in part underwritten by Ralph Lauren and Delta Air Lines, for example. And big exhibitions of works from a private collection are not uncommon, both in noncontroversial scenarios, such as when the collection has been made a gift to the museum, and in more controversial ones, such as the New Museum’s 2009 show of the collection of a trustee, Dakis Joannou (the New Museum was not a collecting institution). Yet the funding of “Sensation” was uncomfortable in that its connections to the art market were so plain for all to see. And while Lehman insists that “important” works shown in “Sensation” “were never sold” in a short period after the exhibition’s run ended, the facts indicate otherwise. Hirst’s famed shark sculpture, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), was bought by Saatchi in the early ’90s for $84,000. According to a 2009 report by Forbes, Saatchi sold it in 2005 to collector Steven A. Cohen for $13 million.
What we have here is a classic merger of public and private interests that’s become fairly expected in U.S. museums. Industry groups have standards that supposedly forbid that sort of thing, but as artist Andrea Fraser once wisely pointed out in a 2001 essay about “Sensation,” “exceptions quickly pile up.” “Despite all the discussion of rules and codes of ethics, what becomes clear is that such standards hardly exist,” Fraser contended.
Reading Lehman’s memoir, it’s hard to disagree with her. If Lehman, who now serves as a senior adviser to the Phillips auction house, once saw a difference between public and private affairs, his book does not evince it. What is clear: the art that was actually on view was barely at stake. Just as conservatives refused to properly contend with the intricacies of the YBAs’ work, Lehman seems unwilling to explain the exhibition’s contents. (You would not know that less shocking—and quite art historically significant—works by Mona Hatoum, Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, and others were also being shown.) With a half-hearted apology, Lehman directs his readers to the “many reviews, articles, and books, both general and monographic, on these Young British Artists.” But let’s go back to the Ofili. What was wrong with that picture? Nothing at all—just the context in which it was exhibited.