An angry Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on Wednesday suspended city funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art until it pulls a highly controversial and sexually explicit show of works by British artists that is scheduled to open next month.
Calling the exhibit that features a painting of the Virgin Mary spattered with elephant dung "sick stuff," the mayor insisted that taxpayer dollars should not support a show he deemed "sick and disgusting. . . . You don't have the right to have a government subsidy to desecrate someone else's religion."
"It offends me," the mayor said of the exhibit. "We'll do everything we can to remove funding from the Brooklyn Museum until the director comes to his senses."
Museum officials appeared caught off-guard by the mayor's remarks, which raised First Amendment questions.
The mayor was clearly playing hardball with the museum, which is poised for a major expansion and depends on the city for more than $7 million in capital expenses and millions more in operating money, which comes to the museum in monthly payments.
Deputy Mayor Randy Levine said he told museum officials that the money would not be restored unless the museum cancels "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," an exhibition accompanied by an unusual health warning along with a requirement that children younger than 17 must come with an adult.
But museum director Arnold L. Lehman said he had no plans to pull the exhibit, which features pigs in formaldehyde, a cast of an artist's head filled with nine pints of his own blood, and several mannequins of children featuring outsized genitalia.
Lehman said that he hopes to convince Giuliani of the show's artistic merit and its need to be seen in New York City, the art capital of the world, and that he has the support of his board.
"We are acting with great appropriateness here -- if you don't choose to see this show, you don't have to," he said Wednesday, pointing out that the exhibition includes a warning that the contents "may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety."
The Catholic League was incensed by Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary," a painting of the religious icon spattered with elephant dung. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were upset by the exhibit "This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home," which features a dissected pig floating in formaldehyde.
Sure to anger others was Marcus Harvey's painting "Myra," a 13-foot-high rendering of a notorious British child killer created from children's handprints.
The exhibit prompted resignations from the Royal Academy in London two years ago, along with picketing, protests and a defacing. Nonetheless, the show attracted more than 300,000 visitors in three months and was extended in Berlin recently.
Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the mayor's remarks heavy-handed.
"This is political opportunism," Siegel said. "It's both inappropriate and unconstitutional."
Giuliani offered a different interpretation of the First Amendment.
"If somebody wants to do that privately and pay for it privately, well, that's what the First Amendment is all about," the mayor said. "But to have the government subsidize something like that is outrageous."