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Saturday, October 2, 1999 Published at 17:52 GMT

Bad omens in the Big Apple

Mayor Giuliani is trying to browbeat Brooklyn Museum of Art into withdrawing the controversial Sensation exhibition

By Brian Barron in New York

These are strange days in New York.

I haven't had time to check whatever version of old Moore's Almanack is issued on this side of the pond but we residents of the Big Apple are under siege from bad omens.

There are dead crows falling from the sky, succumbing to a virus never before seen in the Western hemisphere, blamed on mosquitoes which are also fatally infecting humans.

On Fifth Avenue one of America's most respected contemporary art dealers, Mary Boone, is arrested by the police and spends a night in custody for staging an exhibition in which clients are encouraged to take home bullets from a vase filled with live ammunition.

Sick and blasphemous

Our own abrasive mayor, Rudy Giuliani, has conjured up a firestorm of protest and litigation by trying to browbeat the Brooklyn Art Museum curators into withdrawing controversial exhibits from the Sensation show.

Hizzoner denounced a dung-smeared painting of the Virgin Mary by the British artist, Chris Ofili, as sick and blasphemous - sentiments endorsed by New York's Roman Catholic primate.

Sharing the same space as the controversial Madonna is one of Damien Hirst's split porkers, cut in half from nose to tail, the two halves sliding backwards and forwards past each other like some demented bacon slicer.

The sound and the fury

[ image: Damien Hirst: exhibited in Manhattan]
Damien Hirst: exhibited in Manhattan
Amid the sound and fury one point is rarely mentioned - many of the artists whose work is included in the Sensation show are well known in New York.

Indeed about 18 months ago a blue chip gallery in Manhattan's Soho district was showing several of Damien Hirst's carved up creatures, all mounted in formaldehyde.

That exhibition was given serious reviews and there wasn't a whimper from City Hall - but then it was a commercial undertaking and unlike the Brooklyn Art Museum was not dependant in part on subsidies.

Whatever prayers for publicity were offered up by the Brooklyn art grandees have been answered in spades.

Mock health warning

But they may have made a tactical mistake by producing a flyer before the show opened, along the lines of a mock health warning, in which the public were warned - the contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure or palpitations, you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition.

This initial promotion certainly gave Mayor Giuliani palpitations and soon his officials were threatening not only to cut all financial aid but to evict the art museum from the building, which is owned by the city.

This being almost an election year, and the mayor being the likely Republican candidate for the vacant senate seat in New York State, his decision to jump in with both feet has a political dimension.

The toast of Wall Street

Mr Giuliani is credited with the dramatic improvement in security and the quality of life in New York but in the city itself registered Democrats outnumber Republicans about five to one.

The mayor is the toast of Wall Street and the moneyed set but to many others, especially black and Latino Americans, he's seen as an authoritarian figure who has not been tough enough with lawless elements in his own police force.

So if the mayor is to become senator - for his term limit in City Hall runs out next year - he'll have to attract the more conservative voters in suburbs like Westchester and Rockland County and also woo upstate New Yorkers, many of whom always regard the Big Apple with misgivings.

In that sort of electorate the Mayor's impassioned stance against a sick British art show may well have resonance even as residents of New York City itself wonder what all the fuss is about.

Clintonian ambivalence

[ image: Hillary Clinton: will boycott the show]
Hillary Clinton: will boycott the show
Mayor Giuliani's likely opponent in the senate race is, of course, Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. Within a few days she too joined the Sensation row, declaring with classic Clintonian ambivalence that she'd personally boycott the show but the Mayor was wrong to have threatened the art museum's survival.

For the hot dog vendors of Brooklyn the next few weeks around the exhibition should be lucrative.

The mayor likes to boast of New York as the capital of the world but his vendetta against an art exhibition sits uneasily with the city's status as the global centre for all art, ancient and modern.

Mr Giuliani has provoked a legal battle he seems unlikely to win given the American belief in freedom of speech and expression.

Politically, too, this could go either way - and the fact is it's 131 years since a Mayor of New York went onto greater things.

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