The Holy Virgin Mary

03.28.13

Offensive Art: Those Were the Days

Reading this New York Times piece about Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota takes me back to my NYC days and memories of the great Hillary v. Rudy showdown that never materialized. The article fingers Lhota as the man who walked point on Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum over the painting "The Holy Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili, a faux-naif kind of rendering of the blessed mother with elephant dung adding texture and cut-outs of pornographic photographs adding a bit of, ah, color.

Lhota, a deputy mayor for Giuliani at the time, threatened the Brooklyn Museum with its funding. Giuliani himself went on and on about this for days, said that this kind of thing was society's ruination and of course was the fault of sick people like the Clintons. As mayor, Giuliani wasn't always bad. In fact he did a number of good things and took a number of progressive positions. But as a possible Senate candidate in 1999-2000 (until he dropped out), he was a world-class demagogue on all the unfortunate crap he still rails about whenever Fox hauls him out.

Anyway. Lhota, a Catholic, says simultaneously that he has no regrets about his handling of the situation and that he now is the proud owner of a "much clearer understanding" of the First Amendment. No sign that the reporter asked him how both of those can be true. If he has a much clearer understanding of the First Amendment, then by definition he has regrets.

But I'm less interested in Lhota than in thinking back. Oh, what a time. Those first few months of Hillary v. Rudy were just great. She was a terrible candidate, quite frankly, for a number of months. Then at some point she started to get it. That was just before Rudy dropped out. Spring 2000. Then by that fall, she was really good. And of course she became a good senator (not great, but very good) and left New York state with approval ratings in, I think, the low 70s.

The Virgin Mary flap was quite a serious thing, however, for the city's artistic community, as today's article makes clear. The Giuliani/Lhota position was pretty thuggish. It was simply, we don't like this piece of art, so we are going to yank your city funding. It went to court. The administration lost. The museum got its money. Rudy looked like a schmuck, and I'd say Lhota is looking like one today.

This flap also marked the one and only time I ever appeared on The O'Reilly Factor. I remember that he framed his opening question to me in a way that indicated that he had shall we say a deep misapprehension of the issue. I don't recall exactly what it is. I think he thought that it was the liberal position that all obscene art deserved public funding. I'm afraid I didn't do very well because I didn't even really understand what he was talking about. So in this one literal instance we truly did talk right past each other.