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Social Text 19.2 (2001) 127-156
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A "Sensation" Chronicle
The controversy began on 22 September 1999, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York attacked the Brooklyn Museum of Art for its plan to present "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," calling work in the show "sick stuff" that "desecrates religion." Giuliani's attacks were widely seen as politically motivated by his nascent U.S. Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton. When the Brooklyn Museum proceeded to present the exhibition as planned, Giuliani withheld the city funding that makes up almost one-third of the museum's budget. During the weeks that followed, the mayor's threats escalated to include evicting the museum from its city-owned building and taking over its board of trustees; at the same time, his attacks expanded to include charges that the museum violated its charter by presenting an exhibition that was more commercial than educational and betrayed the public trust by securing funding from sources with financial interests in the show. The Brooklyn Museum responded to these attacks by filing a suit against the city for violating First Amendment protections for free expression. On 1 November, less than six weeks later, a federal judge of the United States District Court in Brooklyn ruled that the mayor had indeed violated the First Amendment and ordered the city to restore its funding to the Brooklyn Museum.
Unlike the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) crisis of 1989, the "Sensation" controversy was not exclusively about the border between art and the state, the freedom of art from political interference. The two other borders by which the art world has long defined itself were also at stake: the border between art and economic interests and the border between so-called high and low, elite and popular culture. This conjunction of struggles at the three fundamental boundaries around the field of art makes the "Sensation" controversy enormously instructive. It allows for a mapping of a broad range of positions within the artistic field as well as between fields and, through a comparison to the NEA crisis, of the directions these positions have taken over a decade of rapid transformation in the cultural world.
If the boundaries between art, political influence, economic interests, and popular culture make up the terrain of the "Sensation" controversy, the principles according to which these borders are defended define its [End Page 127] dynamics. These principles, or logics of defense, can also be described as three dimensions of the autonomy traditionally claimed by the field of art. These are the artistic autonomy elaborated in aesthetic philosophy and institutionalized in public and nonprofit art museums as disinterestedness and distancing from specific functions--whether simple utility, communicative effect, emotional or sensual satisfaction, or the production of profit; the social autonomy of art as a specialized, professional field; and the political autonomy represented by constitutional guarantees of free expression.
These three dimensions of autonomy have historically been considered thoroughly interrelated, but the "Sensation" controversy reveals the fault lines of contradiction between them: fault lines that deepen along the borders between art and political influence, art and economic interests, and art and popular culture. This essay will argue that the crises called "the culture wars" may be products of a process of fragmentation underlying these fractures: a splitting of the social, aesthetic, and political autonomy according to which artistic freedoms have long been defined and defended. If this is the case, the "Sensation" controversy may be no more than a phantom limb phenomenon, felt only in the systemic memory of a field whose freedom is already lost to the logic of its autonomy.
Between Art and Political Influence:
Aesthetic Autonomy and the First Amendment
As a First Amendment case, the "Sensation" controversy was open and shut. While the Supreme Court's 1998 ruling in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley was ambiguous with regard to decisions to award funding, it was clearer in finding that the NEA's "Decency Clause," if used to punish disfavored viewpoints, would violate the First Amendment. The prevalent interpretation of this, affirmed by Judge Gershon's 1...