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With neither side willing to compromise, the controversy over the British art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art shows no signs of easing.

There's something about Mary that Rudolph Giuliani doesn't like.

Hates, in fact.

Specifically, the mayor of New York City is enraged over a portrait of the Madonna, depicted as an African-American woman wearing a shellacked clump of elephant dung in place of one breast. Around her are dozens of cutouts of female genitalia, apparently clipped from porno magazines.

British artist Chris Ofili painted it. And the venerable Brooklyn Museum of Art plans to display it along with other works from the United Kingdom starting Saturday.

And if it does, Giuliani -- a Roman Catholic who has pronounced the painting and exhibit as "vicious" and "disgusting" -- vows to freeze the museum's $7 million in city funding and possibly end its lease with the city. "There is nothing in the Constitution that says the First Amendment requires that the taxpayers fund aggressive, vicious, disgusting attacks on religion," Giuliani was quoted as saying last week.

As the controversy swirled in Brooklyn, however, reactions this week in Buffalo ranged from sadness to amusement to anger to sheer boredom over the flap.


Consider what actually comprises the 43-artist compilation called "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection": Among other things, a series of mannequins with sex organs in place of noses and mouths; a tiger shark and sheep suspended in formaldehyde; and a sliced-up pig and cow parts also in preservation tanks; and an updated version of The Last
Supper with a topless woman standing in for Jesus.

But one former Albright-Knox Art Gallery official urged the public to not judge the exhibit unless they see it in person.

According to Charlotta Kotik, a curator at the Albright from 1970 to 1983 and now curator of painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum, the painting of the Virgin Mary was meant to honor her.

"In Zimbabwe, where (Ofili) is from, in his culture this (dung) is regarded as a source of nutritional importance to the earth," said Kotik during a phone interview Monday, noting that Ofili himself is Catholic and known for using elephant dung in virtually all his artwork.

"This to him represented both nourishment of the soil and nourishment from Mary. He wanted to connect them."

But is it art?

You can ask the question, but not everyone wants to answer.

Albright-Knox Executive Director Doug Schultz did not return phone calls seeking comment, though his predecessor, Robert Buck, said he found the situation somewhat sad.

"I'm sorry to see it happening," said Buck, who left the Albright-Knox in 1983 and was widely credited with having turned the Brooklyn Museum into a thriving and accessible New York institution during his tenure as director until 1996.

Now the director at the influential Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan, Buck said the controversy over the show reeked to him of politics -- and potential trouble.

"I don't know what will happen. But it could be very damaging in terms of support."

Ed Cardoni, executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, already knows about that.

In 1997, two years after Congress moved to drastically cut the National Endowment for the Arts budget, Hallwalls had a $35,000 NEA grant for an artists-in-residence program rescinded.

One of its work samples, a Canadian video short titled "We're Talking Vulva," had caught the attention of the grant panel, and it rethought its grant.

That governments can hold the purse strings of cultural institutions should make all citizens at least a little uneasy, Cardoni said.

"Next is (Giuliani) going after experimental theaters who aren't necessarily producing 'family fare'? Is this what New York City is going to be turned into? A Disney theme park?"

By contrast, Bruce Jackson, the Samuel Capen Professor of American Culture at the University at Buffalo, struck a somewhat whimsical, if cynical, note on Tuesday.

"I don't think this has ever been about obscenity or blasphemy. This is about Rudy going after Hillary," Jackson observed, referring to the mayor's likely face-off with Hillary Rodham Clinton in the New York senatorial race.

"It's just politics. It'd be nice if people could be fined for subjecting us to this, though, wouldn't it? Say, $7 per violation, for each time they pull something like this?"

Lisa Fischman, associate curator at the UB Art Gallery, found Giuliani's actions not so much amusing as insulting.

"Sensitivity to an imagined audience's value system is a mistake, not a virtue, even though it's being displayed as such," Fischman said.

"This is an institutional form of condescension. To make decisions for people based on what one person finds 'sinful' or ugly seems like just another way of saying audiences are too stupid to judge for themselves and they need protection from art."

For many in the arts community, this is merely the latest chapter in a book that began filling rapidly last decade, when art controversies erupted every few years.

Performance artist Karen Finley inserting yams into her body. Jean-Luc Godard's 1986 film "Hail Mary," depicting the Virgin Mother as a pregnant gas station attendant. Martin Scorsese's controversial 1988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ." Artist Andreas Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photo of a crucifix in urine.

And, of course, in 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe's grim photos of a sadomasochistic underworld, an exhibit so raw it was closed by police in Cincinnati.

"These are like brush fires," observed Buck. "They just keep flaring up again and again."

CEPA Photographic Galleries curator Lawrence Brose, also nodding to the past controversies with Serrano and Mapplethorpe, said he's grown weary of art coming under the political microscope during election season.

"This whole thing is just so tired," he sighed. However, he added, this type of threat to the arts community cannot be ignored.

"This is the kind of thing that just killed the NEA a few years ago and eroded individual artist fellowships. This is all about finding new ways to police art."

Policing may be a particularly apt word in this case.

Giuliani's hard-line clean-up-New-York tactics in the past, coupled with his current protest, have led some in the Big Apple to hurl epithets like "Adolf" in his face, as one did last weekend during an outdoor news conference, according to the Chicago Tribune.

But some political observers say many mainstream voters will support Giuliani.

"He's touched a chord here. He's tapped into some sort of anger among voters," reflected local Democratic consultant Joe Slade White. "He is tapping into middle-class voters saying, 'Isn't someone gonna draw the line here? I want someone to take a stance on something.' "

But, vowing to yank the 100-year-old museum's funding and lease? Even some Republicans weren't sure why Giuliani was going beyond condemnation to threats.

"That's all crazy," said former county GOP chairman Victor Farley. "I don't see it as hurting him in the long run. But it is a little weird."

Nonetheless, by Tuesday, rumors were flying that a deal had been struck during late-night negotiations with the city: The museum would remove the Virgin Mary painting and display six other works elsewhere in the museum in exchange for losing only one-fifth of its funding.

By day's end, the rumors were firmly squelched by the museum, which was quoted in the New York Times as saying there would be no withdrawing of any works in the exhibition.

So, for now, it runs. And for four months, it's certain that the curious -- including, possibly, Catholics -- will see it.

Is that a sin?

Monsignor David Lee, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, walked the line between condemning the exhibit and supporting the artist's views.

"We live in a world where people worship God in many ways, and we need to be sensitive to those signs and symbols," Lee said.

"When we fail to have that sensitivity, it provides for feelings of rejection, prejudice and isolation."

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