LEADING FIGURES in the British art world were last night threatening to boycott a controversial exhibition in New York in protest at the hostile reaction it has provoked there.
Artist Peter Blake and dealer Jay Jopling are among those incensed by the Mayor of New York's threat to withdraw the Brooklyn Museum of Art's pounds 4m funding if its director goes ahead with plans to display the "Sensation" exhibition next month.
"Sensation", featuring work by Damien Hirst and Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili, was a major talking point when it opened at the Royal Academy in 1997. In a three-month run, the exhibition of art owned by the millionaire advertising mogul Charles Saatchi attracted more than 300,000 visitors, which was the highest attendance for a contemporary art show for 50 years. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has threatened to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum because he is offended by some of the works, including a dung-splattered painting of the Virgin Mary by Ofili and a sculpture by Jake and Dinos Chapman of young girls with male genitalia on their heads.
In retaliation, the city's leading gallery owners and artists have held a special fund-raising dinner in support of the museum to ensure that "Sensation" opens as planned. Tickets were sold out within an hour.
Yesterday, British gallery owners and artists were quick to condemn Mr Giuliani's decision.
Jake Chapman said he was planning to boycott the New York opening. "I only think a work of art is dangerous if it falls on top of you and squashes you," he said. "[Mayor Giuliani's] stance is the stance of a drama queen. He's claiming that he's defending Christian moral values, but his idea of Christian redemptive punishment isn't exactly very Christian."
Jay Jopling, the art dealer who represents many of the "Sensation" artists, said Mr Giuliani's reaction would merely create more interest in the show.
"The situation I'm sure will only do good for British art and raise the profile of what is the outstanding generation of contemporary artists practising anywhere in the world over the past 10 years."
Peter Blake, the Royal Academician and pop artist famed for co-designing the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album sleeve, said he had supported the exhibition in London when some RAs strongly objected and he would continue to do so.
"If there is something that might be damaging to a child or anybody in an exhibition then I think there's a reason not to show it," he said. "But I don't think there was anything in "Sensation" that was damaging in that way. It would be a mistake to take it off."
Peter Davies, one of the artists in "Sensation" and who is currently exhibiting at the Saatchi Gallery in north London, branded Mr Giuliani's reaction as "silly". He said: "I have a very strong feeling that it's slightly philistine, but also slightly fascist. It is very intolerant and right-wing. He's making no attempt to understand why that particular art work exists."
Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery, London, said that Chris Ofili was one of Britain's most distinguished young artists.
"It is ironic that a country that has freedom of speech at the heart of its constitution should wish to prohibit an exhibition which is dealing with some of the most important ideas and subjects in society today," she said.
Jonathan Watkins, the new director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, commented: "It's hard to imagine the new mayor of London telling Nicholas Serota [director of the Tate Gallery] that, if he showed Damien Hirst, there would be no public money for the Tate."
In New York, gallery owner Mary Boone said the mayor's decision was "an embarrassment". Ms Boone helped to promote the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rose to prominence from being a graffiti artists before dying of Aids.
"It will cost Giuliani a lot of support because it raises issues of the First Amendment," she added.
"This is the most lowbrow interpretation of what art is. It's along the lines of saying that Jackson Pollock's work isn't art because we can all pour paint onto canvas."
Her anger was shared by Larry Gagosian, a leading art dealer who featured Damien Hirst's work last year. "It's shocking to me in this day and age, in the so-called art capital of the world, that people can view an exhibition in this way," he said. "The people who will rally behind his decision are not the type to go to museums and don't know about art.
"They're the type of people who will believe the newspapers when they write 'this art is a pile of crap' and say 'bravo Giuliani'."
While the New York art community has been angered by Mr Giuliani's threat, the mayor has supporters. John Podhoretz, a New York Post columnist, described the "Sensation" art as a "disgusting pile of crap". "The mayor is right," he wrote. "The Brooklyn Museum of Art should know better. Thus it has a choice. It can have its 'Sensation' or the money of hard-working New Yorkers. But not both."
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