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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 1999/21 Tishrei, 5760

Tony Snow

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Holy drek!? -- NEW YORK MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI has earned the scorn of his city's aesthetes by slamming an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show features the work of young Britons, including Chris Ofili, creator of a work titled, "The Holy Virgin Mary."

The painting depicts the Holy Mother in unusual straits. A lacquered clump of elephant dung decorates her left breast and a veritable snowfall of pornography -- mostly, pictures of women's private parts -- fills the air around her.

Giuliani thinks the thing an outrage and sacrilege, and wants the museum to close the show or risk losing public funding. But Ofili says New Yorkers have misconstrued his veneration for the scat of wandering beasts. The elephant piles, he explains, hearken back to his ancestral continent of Africa..

It is difficult not to detect in this explanation the scent of a con job.

The enterprising fellow has found a way to have fun and accrue profit by mocking vain plutocrats. Imagine the temptation to double over in laughter every time he sees well-dressed prey cooing about the soul-stirring properties of painted sewage!

He seems to have conjured up a new mythology -- of bush men who worship the bowel movements of wild animals -- and sold it to a bunch of urbanites who need a new race to pity. Ironically, the most common defense of Ofili's creation -- that we must respect the primordial practice of feces worship -- incorporates a race libel worse than anything David Duke could concoct.

After all, the claim insinuates that some Africans have a dog-like affinity for waste products and express their yearning for divinity by celebrating the e. coli bacterium.

But this solicitude is purely for show. If the sponsors believed that the rectum were really heaven's portal, they would be queuing up outside the artist's studio in London, commissioning ordure-flecked portraits of themselves and their loved ones.

Typical: American elites seem extraordinarily sensitive about the cultural sensibilities of everyone but their countrymen. More to the point, it has become tres chic to mock Western religion. The G-d of Moses and life of Jesus are fair game for today's illuminati, and when Christians complain, they stand accused of lacking humor.

Yet, nobody would dare show a Mohammed crafted of entrails or the Koran in a jar of urine. If someone were to replace the Virgin Mother in the painting with Martin Luther King Jr., Janet Reno would be drawing up a hate-crimes indictment.

In a society where nothing is sacred, neither is anything profane. As Ofili's champions snicker into their Mimosas, they overlook the fact that their iconoclasm could justify glib assaults on anything anybody holds dear. The defense of the exhibit boils down to a three-part argument: Art is good. The government therefore should sponsor it. And experts should ensure wise expenditure by singling out the work most conducive to social edification.

The first part of the syllogism -- that art is good -- is indisputably true. G.K. Chesterton once noted that "art is the signature of man." Ironically, he made the point as a way of demonstrating why humans are divinely distinct from all other creatures.

The observation is irrelevant. The mere worthiness of a thing does not confer a claim on people's taxes. Uncle Sam has a clear right to take people's earnings in only one the case of "public goods" -- things that provide an indivisible benefit to the populace and that government alone can supply. Two examples are the court system and national defense.

As for the rest: While artists should be free to create, janitors in the Bronx shouldn't have to underwrite stuff interesting primarily to penthouse-dwellers in Manhattan.

Government-sponsored art necessarily tends toward mediocrity because majority will prevails in a democracy. Giuliani was right to slam the barn door on the exhibit of heavenly offal because it assailed something most people consider indispensable -- their faith.

There's a simple remedy to this whole mess. If the Brooklyn Museum of Art wants to show manure-spattered Madonnas, it should make patrons shoulder the full cost. If it wishes to continue whipping up controversy, it ought to refuse public funding entirely. That way, contributors will have claim to proper glory or ignominy when visitors walk up and ask, "Am I missing something, or is this painting, like, really stupid?"

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©1999, Creators Syndicate