A few years ago, the cultural community of New York worked itself into a frenzy when the city’s mayor denounced a piece of art he deemed to be anti-Catholic. The piece in question was a representation of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung and decorated with offensive images, designed no doubt to shock and outrage middle-class Catholics (like, for example, the mayor).
Rudy Giuliani’s venture in art criticism was the talk of New York in those innocent months before Sept. 11, 2001. His critics quickly pounced on a notable flaw in the mayor’s critiquehe hadn’t actually seen the piece in question. (He saw a reproduction of it in a museum catalog.) How could he decide that it was anti-Catholic if he hadn’t seen it? There were some not-very-subtle suggestions that this was just the sort of thing one might expect from, well, from a man who was proud of his déclassé Roman Catholic education. And besideswasn’t Joseph McCarthy Catholic? Case closed.
Mr. Giuliani not only refused to back down, but actually threatened to withdraw city financial support from the institution that exhibited the piece, the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The museum received $7 million a year in taxpayer money. This may have been an overreaction, although it certainly raised an interesting point: Since when did the courts decide that museums are entitled to public subsidies? And if they are not so entitled, how is it a violation of their First Amendment rights to cut off such subsidies?
In any case, there is no question that Mr. Giuliani would have been able to make a better case had he waited to see the piece before issuing his critique. Of course, some might argue the following: You have an image of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung and pornographic pictures. You have to see this art before deciding that it’s offensive? A fair point, but still, in matters of criticism, it is always better to have seen than not to have seen (or heard).
Mr. Giuliani’s actions earned him the condemnation of many famous artists and writers, who signed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times attacking the mayor’s position. They and others noted that art is intended to provoke as well as inspire, to probe as well as reflect.
Three years later, another work of art is provoking bitter and often hostile criticism. This time critics are charging that the artMel Gibson’s movie The Passionis anti-Semitic.
The critics, however, have not seen the movie, just as Mayor Giuliani did not see the Brooklyn Museum piece. They are basing their charges on second-hand descriptions of a stolen and outdated script. One of Gibson’s accusers complained that he had not been allowed to attend a screening, and made it sound as though this was not just a slight but a violation of his free-speech rights. (Congress shall make no law abridging the rights of anyone wishing to attend invitation-only Hollywood previews.) The intellectual and cultural community that rallied to oppose Mayor Giuliani has not risen to defend Mel Gibson. There are no full-page advertisements featuring the names of the nation’s most famous writers and artists. When a New York politician urged studios to boycott the film and thus prevent its release, nobody uttered the word McCarthyism.
This silence was curious, to say the least. Granted, Mel Gibson has been his own worst enemy at times, which makes him hard to defend. But hard cases separate the true advocates of free speech from those who are interested only in their side’s right to free expression. Author Jack Newfield, in a piece critical of Giuliani’s stand on the Brooklyn Museum, wrote that he sympathized with Catholics who were offended, and then tried to imagine a piece of art that mocked the gas chambers of Auschwitz. I would like to think I would still oppose censorship and defend free expression, he wrote. That’s the voice of a true friend of free speech.
Gibson’s critics also have suggested that the unseen film may inspire anti-Semitic outrages in America and Europe. This is a particularly interesting assertion, for it echoes the criticisms of cultural conservatives (and even a few liberals, like Joe Lieberman, Tipper Gore and Hillary Clinton). These critics have demanded that the entertainment industry take responsibility for the images they create and messages they send, especially to the young. Senator Clinton, when she was first lady, blamed Hollywood for re-glamorizing smokingand I believe she was absolutely right. Mrs. Gore condemned the coarsening effects of violent rap music.
Defenders of the entertainment industry rejected these criticisms, saying that if, for example, movies were so powerful, every dispute would be settled with a car chase. Fine. But if popular entertainment is just that, entertainment, then why assert, suddenly, that a mere movie might inspire a spike in anti-Semitism?
I happen to believe that popular entertainment does, in fact, influence personal behavior and choices. Otherwise the advertising industry would collapse. I believe that the spike in smoking I have seen among the under-35 set is a direct result of increased smoking on screen. So I have no problem with those who worry that Mel Gibson’s unseen movie might give pretext to thugs.
Then again, I also believe that vulgar hip-hop music encourages misogyny and that violent computer games inspire antisocial behavior. But we don’t hear much about these kinds of concerns. Instead, we’re supposed to worry about a movie nobody has seen yet.