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A Right Turn at the Intersection of Art and Politics 

In which a bunch of cheeky Brits reap lots of free publicity and a monumental success

Let's face it: Serious Art (with a capital A) can be pretty boring.

Haughty, expensive galleries, hushed museums with gloomy old paintings of long-dead people and/or incomprehensible biblical stuff; it's not nearly as much fun as a Stones concert.

And politics can be just as boring.

Mock-pious Republicans droning interminably about family values, dweeby Democrats trying to get more money for government programs that will employ other dweeby Democrats; it's even less fun than Lawrence Welk re-runs.

But put 'em together, and it's time for some serious fun. And that's why I was more than delighted to find myself in New York City last week, visiting the current show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection.

For those of you who have been living in a cave for the last couple of months, here's the story. Charles Saatchi, an eccentric British centimillionaire who buys contemporary art by the carload lot, cooperated in the creation of this traveling show, which originally opened in London two years ago. Thanks to funding from private donors (many of whom turn out to have a financial stake in the artists whose work is on display), Sensation appeared in Brooklyn on Oct. 2.

What happened then was beyond the fondest fantasy of any of the show's promoters. Seizing upon the reportedly objectionable nature of a particular painting in the show, Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary," a large painting of the Madonna accented with clumps of elephant dung, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani sued the museum in an attempt to evict it from its city-owned building. Of course, the mayor knew perfectly well that the suit was frivolous (predictably, a judge dismissed it a few days ago). But never mind the legalities; politically, the suit played to Catholic voters, whose support the mayor needs in next year's Senate race against Hillary Clinton.

Arriving at the museum on a perfect Saturday afternoon, accompanied by my 20-something son and daughter, we saw: about 20 bored cops, a dozen or so demonstrators chanting Hail Marys and reviling the museum, and a long line of folks waiting to get in.

Sensation is beautifully displayed in spacious, light-filled galleries.

First impression: This art is BIG, and this crowd is YOUNG. This is not your grandmother's Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Ofili's "Holy Virgin," displayed behind a Plexiglas shield and further protected by an armed guard, is the exhibition's crux. Since Ofili (of Nigerian origin) uses lumps of elephant dung and cutouts from porn magazines in the piece, every Catholic in New York has been led to believe that it's a vicious, sacrilegious and artistically bankrupt attack upon the Virgin and her church.

I can only tell you what I saw: a radiantly beautiful, serene and entirely respectful portrait of an African Madonna. The elephant dung, which just looks like clods of varnished dirt, in no way defaces the image, but rather links it to African reality. The porn cutouts, fleshy abstract forms that swarm around the still center of the painting, seem to represent the noisy sensuality of the material world.

Ofili has other paintings in the show, none of them dung-free. They're all glittery, swirling, lighthearted and fun.

In contrast, Marcus Harvey's enormous portrait of Myra Hindley is anything but fun. Hindley is Britain's Charles Manson, serving life in prison for brutally torturing and murdering a dozen pre-adolescent children. The enormous image (12 feet by 9 feet) is entirely constructed of children's handprints. It's disquieting and powerful -- contemporary art at its best.

Damien Hirst is represented by his famous (or infamous) pickled animals. There's a shark suspended in formaldehyde, a sheep ditto and a series of tanks containing a neatly sectioned cow. Now you can throw all the artspeak you want at this stuff, but it is not art. It's a concept (wouldn't it be cool if? Wouldn't it piss people off??!! Wouldn't it MAKE ME FAMOUS??!!!). And, of course, it did, but that doesn't mean that it's art. Hirst and Rudy Giuliani are kindred souls, performance artists having fun playing with the emotions of rubes who take them seriously. (One vignette: My son eyeing a beautiful young woman who was gravely contemplating a pickled cow's butt. Is there an appropriate pick-up line here?)

Cerith Wyn Evans has an inventively curved mirrored ball, "Inverse Reverse Perverse," the best and weirdest funhouse mirror you can imagine. Viewers see themselves spun, inverted, elongated and made to disappear.

Like Hirst, Rachel Whiteread is famous for a single concept. Rather than animals, Whiteread pickles spaces, by making resin casts of negative space, e.g., the spaces under chairs, or the interior of a room. Sounds sort of cool and interesting, and it is, at least for five minutes. But apart from the concept, there's no there there, just big, boring slabs of frozen snot.

Conclusions? It's a big show: over 50 artists and over 200 individual works. Biggest influence? California pornographers; fully half of the works employ, either directly or referentially, the clichd imagery developed in the L.A. porn industry in the late '60s. There are some ferociously talented artists at work here: Ofili, Glenn Brown, Harvey, Gary Hume and Fiona Rae. I loved Fiona Rae's untitled blue and purple triptych, but you sure have to wade through a lot of drek to find the good stuff.

Yet that's OK; it's exhilarating to see so much new stuff and to get a sense of the new British art scene. It's cheeky, irreverent, inventive and often nasty.

And if you don't like it, Brooklyn is one of the world's great museums, whose walls are lined with iconic masterpieces. It's beyond belief that Guiliani would put this institution at risk to play politics, but that's what happens when you mix Republicans with contemporary art. Kind of like dropping a kilo of metallic sodium into a gallon of water.

Don't try it.

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