The Value of Being Disturbed
On October 9th of this past year, I listened to a debate staged on the Jim Lehrer Show between the
lawyers for the Brooklyn Museum of Art and those representing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York
on the recent controversy over the provocative artwork currently on exhibit at the museum. As you no
doubt know, an artist named Chris Ofili made a work of art portraying the Virgin Mary or, at least,
called the Virgin Mary, which is spattered with elephant dung and small vaginal icons. The controversy
became most heated when New York Mayor Giuliani decided to withhold the seven million dollars that
the city regularly provides the Brooklyn Museum to cover its basic overhead on the grounds that the
museum had violated the terms of the lease it had made with the city.
The lease stipulates that the
Museum will set up exhibitions that will be appropriate for school children or, at least, it stipulates that
that is one of the services, although not the exclusive one, that the museum shall provide. This more
narrow argument about the lease stipulation, however, was preceded by a broader call of outrage by the
Mayor. He claimed first that the exhibition was offensive and that, in particular, it offended people with
certain religious beliefs. The Mayor argued that the sensibilities of religious Christians, mainly
Catholics it seems, are offended by this artwork, that such Christians are taxpayers, and that they should
not be paying taxes to support art that fundamentally offends or, indeed, violates their religious beliefs.
His exact words on October 3rd were these:
The issue before us is whether hard-earned taxpayer dollars should go toward actively
supporting an exhibit that is patently offensive to many of the taxpayers themselves. That many
taxpayers feel is really just a display of hatred toward a particular religious group or extremely
offensive in the way in which it deals with sexuality and other areas.
Later in the same public address, the Mayor asked, ".
..should City government be obligated to
condone, finance, and support the printing and distribution of hate literature, any more than hate exhibits
or similar kinds of exhibits?" He answered "no" and then went on to claim that taxpayer money should
not be used for the "desecration of national or religious symbols, or spent on hate literature or hate
The structure of this last argument is particularly interesting, since it suggests that the art exhibit
operates on the model of hate speech. Hate speech is generally considered to be a form of speech that
acts in a discriminatory way, and its discriminates against a group that is understood to deserve special
protection under the law. In other words, the assumption behind the doctrine of hate speech, as
articulated by Mari Matsuda, Richard Delgado, Catharine MacKinnon, and others, is that it is speech
that is used by a person or group who occupies a dominant position in society against those who occupy