Part II: Indecency and the free market
Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the Establishment, which abuses the term by applying it not to expressions of its own morality, but to those of another. — Herbert Marcuse
Given the recent private actions that have become public, criticism of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s attacks on “indecent” art and behavior perhaps would be like digging a hole in new topsoil—it’s easy unless you go deeper. But Giuliani’s marital woes—and the definitions of “decency” implicit in them—conceal more serious issues: Who defines “decency,” and what is the real political and economic effect of attacks on “indecent” or “obscene” behavior and expression in New York City?
In part one of “Against the Giuliani Legacy,” I questioned the triumphalism of the Giuliani administration’s “quality of life” campaign and argued that real quality of life should be measured in terms of the alleviation of poverty and increased equality for all New York City. While the world looked to Giuliani’s New York as a model of urban reform, poverty rates during the economic boom of the last seven years actually increased in many areas. Still, the meaning of “quality of life” was defined entirely by the Giuliani administration and doted upon by media, tourists, and many New Yorkers.
Politics is a battle over definitions: is “quality of life” an “out of sight, out of mind” cosmetic term for some neighborhoods, or does it reflect the objective of ending poverty and creating opportunity? So is it really “indecent” and “obscene” to exhibit art that comments on or redefines religious iconography? Indecency, from another perspective, is the erection of concerted barriers that make it extremely difficult to get food stamps while billions of dollars are practically given to large corporations that “threaten” to move out of N.Y.C.
What are the concepts of “decency” and “obscenity,” as envisioned by Rudy Giuliani? There’s no need for yet another dissection of Giuliani’s character, especially since he’s had to evaluate public criticisms of his personal behavior, which, many would argue, has been less than “decent.” But the personalization of politics and policies is a slippery slope. Regardless of his individual hypocrisy, it is the war that the Giuliani administration has waged against First Amendment rights, sex shops, and, most importantly, public funding of expression, that has had a social/political effect on the fabric of this city. And this effect is tangible, censorious, and counter-intuitive to the diversity and freedom that New York City represents across the nation and the world.
No doubt, a bizarre character
It is amazing to see someone in the political arena who is so unaware of his own vulnerabilities and of how people see him. Indeed, Giuliani’s inability to take criticism nicely makes him appear to have an almost pathological aversion to modesty. Though I am not wholly interested in his personal history or how bizarre his character is—for an exhaustive biography of Giuliani, pick up Wayne Barrett’s Rudy! And Investigative Biography—the basic outline of Giuliani’s life helps clarify his point of view.
Giuliani recited the catechism every morning in Catholic schools and at Manhattan College until he reached N.Y.U. Law where, unlike many others in the 1960s, he opted for operatic arias rather than the Beatles or the Stones. In many ways, he seemed to have missed his youth and not participated in the defining protests of his generation, such as the anti-war and civil rights movements. These experiences helped form his worldview, and his strict Manichean outlook probably accounts for some righteousness and impulse to spew out definitions of “decency” in a way so hubristic that it has probably neutered his elected political future.
Nevertheless, Giuliani’s constant drumbeat of conservative morality, sincere or not, reinforces the economically and politically conservative ideology that has crept into New York City from its roots in American Christian Coalition fundamentalism. And this, in a city so racially, culturally, religiously, and philosophically diverse, should be met with great suspicion.
The veneer of liberalism
While Giuliani knew that he wouldn’t get elected in New York City without ostensibly supporting gay rights, gun control, and a woman’s right to choose, by merely hedging on these issues he is seen as a liberal by the Ashcroft crowd. In one sense, then, he is a true embodiment of the separation of social conservative and economic/political conservative; in an urban environment, Giuliani must conceal his economic conservatism with a vaguely liberal patina.
Giuliani and his backers learned from the early 1990s takeover of the G.O.P. by fundamentalist right-wingers that in order to take conservatism to the big cities—where cultural bon-vivants, various subcultures, and the poor form the majority—one must create a different profile. This new face allows for people to have some personal freedom, yet, in the realm of political discourse, as well as economics and social programs, it is the same old tenuous free market mantra that moves all processes of society into the private sector and away from public accountability.
There is a tradition, maybe a necessity, in New York City of promoting social liberalism, and for more than a century there has been a brand of populism characterized by helping those in need, remaining suspicious of concentrated power, and creating opportunities and a support network for the poor. While what we have seen in the “new” New York City is a Reaganesque economic regime, including the repeated failure of the “trickle down” theory, there is also a wannabe Reaganesque regime on the social-cultural side that relies on amorphous concepts of “personal responsibility.” Much of what Giuliani does, from punishing “quality of life” offenses to restricting welfare, is permeated with a sense of behavior modification and social control, something “non-regulating” conservatives like to impose on errant individuals but not on private collective power as manifested in corporate wealth.
Art wars and the Helmsian beachhead
In the fall of 1999, with the Brooklyn Museum show featuring an African artist, Chris Ofili, Giuliani had an opportunity to prove his lagging Reaganite colors on the cultural front. And while the Mayor perhaps thought at the time that his outbreak would garner the needed support of upstate Catholics for his Senate bid, at the same time he intentionally pushed the conservative beachhead further into New York City’s core.
But Giuliani’s actions also reflected an irrational know-it-all mentality reasoned on a plane saturated with hyperbole. For example, take that now-infamous work by Chris Ofili of a black Virgin Mary with balls of elephant dung placed on and around it as an African homage to fertility (according to the artist). Giuliani consistently described it as having dung “flung” at it or “smeared” on it and he used the pejorative adjectives that did not in any way reflect the physical facts of the painting. The local and national media, with few exceptions, took this description at face value. A practicing Catholic himself, Offili had already won the coveted UK Turner Prize.
Although it garnered much national press, this lashing out ironically created a negative buzz within the same upper echelons of New York that actually enjoy the “new” New York. Suddenly, cocktail partygoers on the upper sides of Manhattan were talking about how the mayor had gone too far. Undaunted, Giuliani then cut city funding to the Brooklyn Museum, only to see it reinstated by a federal judge who found the mayor’s action to be blatantly unconstitutional.
Most recently, another person of color dared to reinterpret one of the traditional Catholic images. Renee Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” portrayed the artist nude in the place of Jesus at the Last Supper—and once again, the piece was on display at the Brooklyn Museum. This time, Rudy got on the pulpit, calling it “disgusting” and “anti-Catholic” and immediately coming up with the idea of a “decency panel” to represent his worldview. Only his most pliable acolytes agreed to be part of this panel and even Rudy himself could not define the standards it is theoretically supposed to uphold.
Private vs. public censorship
Late in his administration, Giuliani thus filled the air with Helmsian jingoism, and his arguments about how public monies were being put towards “obscene,” “indecent,” or “offensive” material aroused the fiscal ire of some taxpayers. But, in one sense, Giuliani merely reinforced the argument that “offensive” or controversial art can and should be supported only in the “private” world, and that public funds should not be involved in “provocative” art.
Aside from the obvious problem involved with assessing such subjective definitions, this argument is troubling because it is predicated on the idea that the private sector does not censor and that everyone has the same access to the same private resources and can show their art easily. These arguments ignore the root of the philosophy behind a public institution, in which there is ideally more accountability, more protection from market censorship, and, in the realm of expression, more space to criticize and provoke for the good of the public debate.
By further neutering expression in the public sphere, Giuliani helps sustain a larger contemporary American myth: that the private world is where “freedom” thrives and where people’s First Amendment rights are truly protected. While the drafters of the constitution surely had a healthy suspicion of government, times have changed and there is no denying that corporations and their very influence on government are the holders of mammoth power. But the power they hold is not as accountable because they are in the private sector and thus not under the same mandates of disclosure and responsibility. This trend to push the arts into the private, less accountable marketplace is the triumph of the neo-laissez-faire.
As if to try and assuage criticism from the cultural elite at the end of his tenure, almost simultaneously with the “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”debacle, the Giuliani administration dedicated $1.2 billion of public money over the next 10 years to cultural institutions like the Guggenheim, Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These are institutions mostly based in Manhattan and interlocked with corporate interests and patronage in a way that resembles a Mondrian painting. And while such largesse surely helps ameliorate criticism from some sectors of the arts community, the money will come out of future city budgets, not Giuliani’s.
Giuliani’s double-edged approach—of hammering away at decency while filling the coffers of the biggest museums—also fits a broader pattern. Larger “acceptable” institutions of expression—be they media companies or museums—get richer, while those more willing to take risks have less funding to do so. The effect is further restriction on free, potentially more controversial expression. Established institutions get subsidies and are well-protected, while all else is tossed into the “free market” where success is often determined by these same large entities. In the process, public institutions become more and more concerned about competition and “market share.”
Giuliani’s unwavering adherence to the blind-the-public policy of privatization and the free market has led to billions of dollars being given away to corporations in the form of tax breaks, subsidies, and incentives. Besides giving well over $1 billion to financial entities like the New York Stock Exchange (N.Y.S.E.) and NASDAQ in the middle of their flush days, tens upon tens of millions were given to media companies like CBS, Time-Warner, and News America (owner of the New York Post). These billions of dollars should have been public monies, and although these kinds of deals are now the status quo in government they should, nonetheless, be seen as indecent.
We should not be led to think that freedom of expression only perseveres under the auspices of private institutions, an idea that Giuliani seems to believe. To think so is a perversion of what “public” signifies and protects. The idea of “market censorship”—that what’s worthy is only what sells—should be on the lips of all creators, journalists, politicians, and citizens, and used as a constant analytical tool. It must also be kept in mind that what sells is usually what has been chosen to be promoted.
Even so, public funding for the arts—public broadcasting included—has already been nearly vanquished as a result of the social conservative putsches of the Reagan era. Let’s face it, any of your tax money that is spent in these areas is miniscule. It’s simply not pragmatic for most politicians—and for that matter, corporations—to fund art, film, journalism, research, etc. that is both controversial and critical of established power. True public discourse and freedom of expression requires protection from the jingoistic politicians who want to fulfill their own political, and many times personal, needs.
“Decency,” “obscenity,” and all their related adjectives are subjective measures. To institutionalize one of these arbitrary standards in the public realm is to admit that a diverse democracy does not work. Rudy Giuliani, true to his Reaganite background, has tried to foist this idea on New York City. If he succeeds in taking freedom away from the public sphere and moving everything into the unaccountable private world, and this is a legacy the next mayor accepts, it could be the beginning of the end of the city Giuliani has repeatedly called “the capital of the world.”