First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday came to the defense of an art museum planning an exhibition that includes a depiction of a dung-splattered Virgin Mary, making the controversy an issue in her expected U.S. Senate race against New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
The work, "The Holy Virgin Mary," by British artist Chris Ofili, is one of several provocative art works in the exhibition, scheduled to open Saturday in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Giuliani repeatedly has denounced the piece as "an outrage" and vowed to withhold the city's $7 million annual subsidy for the museum if it proceeds with the show.
"There is nothing in the Constitution that says that the First Amendment requires that the taxpayers fund aggressive, vicious, disgusting attacks on religion," he said.
During a tour of a Harlem school, Mrs. Clinton said she opposed Giuliani's attempt at censorship through a funding cut-off. She argued that personal reactions "should not lead to the penalization and shutting down of an entire museum. . . . I think that is the position that everyone who thinks about this issue should be taking."
But she was quick to add, "There are parts of this exhibit that would be deeply offensive. . . . I would not go to see this exhibit."
Giuliani accused the first lady of supporting using public money "to attack and bash the Catholic religion."
The mayor said today that a Brooklyn museum official had proposed removing the Virgin Mary painting from the show but backed away after other museum officials balked.
"Apparently members of the board got real upset about that," Giuliani said.
Corporation Counsel Michael Hess, the city's top lawyer, said he had met Monday with Robert Rubin, chairman of the museum's board of director, who offered a package of proposals. They included removing the painting, segregating the half-dozen objectionable works from the rest of the show and forgoing 20 percent of the museum's city funding while the exhibit is open, since the display occupies 20 percent of the museum floor space.
Rubin told the New York Times he was not offering the three steps as a package but had mentioned them as separate possibilities. "Whatever I discussed is now off the table," he told the Times.
Arnold Lehman, museum director, said he remained opposed to removing any work from the exhibit.
The museum issued a statement Monday night denying that it conceded anything.
"A number of possible resolutions were looked at, but there was and is no agreement of any kind," the statement said. "The museum is planning to open 'Sensation' on Saturday as scheduled and as planned. The (museum) remains committed to resolving the dispute, but the ideals of the institution are not on the bargaining table."
The exhibition also includes a preserved pig carcass cut in two lengthwise, a topless woman as the centerpiece of a "Last Supper" depiction and a sculpture made with human blood.
The show's catalog describes the media used in "The Holy Virgin Mary" as "paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins (and) elephant dung on linen." Its artist, Chris Ofili, is noted for using elephant dung in his works.
"I don't feel as though I have to defend it," Ofili, 31, told the Times. "The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine. You never know what's going to offend people."
Ofili, who said he is a churchgoing Catholic and former altar boy, was born in England to Nigerian parents. He said the elephant dung is a cultural reference to his African heritage.
On Sunday, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York condemned the work and the exhibition as "an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church."
The head of New York Civil Liberties Union has said Giuliani's threat to cut the museum's funding violates the First Amendment.