Sensation: one of the most controversial art shows of all time

It was the exhibition that prompted protests, vandalism and a media furore, even provoking New York's Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to try to evict the Brooklyn Museum from its building. Lauded as 'epochal' and derided as a mere publicity stunt, it is one of the most infamous and controversial exhibitions of recent times. Museum Bookstore looks back at Sensation.

Sensation was an exhibition of the collection of contemporary art owned by British art collector, Charles Saatchi. The exhibition included 110 works by 42 different artists such as Damien Hirst's shark in formaldehyde, Tracey Emin's tent and Marc Quinn's Self - a frozen perspex cast of his head filled with his own blood. It first took place 1997 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and later toured to Berlin and New York. 

Sensation - Museum Bookstore blog

The show generated controversy from the get-go as the media focused on the show's more controversial images. The BBC summed up the show as a collection of 'gory images of dismembered limbs and explicit pornography'. 

Rocks, eggs and resignations

However, it was the image of murderer, Myra Hindley, created from children's handprints by Marcus Harvey that caused particular outrage. The Mothers Against Murder and Aggression protest group, accompanied by Winnie Johnson, the mother of one of Hindley's victims, picketed the show asking for the portrait to be removed. Despite all the protest, the painting remained hanging. A rock was hurled through a window in Piccadilly next to the Royal Academy banner advertising the show. (The window belonged to the Geological Society, whose members are normally devotees of rocks, but were probably not so keen on this one.) Two demonstrators hurled ink and eggs at the picture. There was strong opposition from within the Royal Academy too; three Academicians – Michael Sandle, Craigie Aitchison and Gillian Ayres – resigned in protest.

Sensation - Museum Bookstore blog

Two years later, Sensation toured to the Brooklyn Museum and once again its opening was met with vociferous protest. This time the controversy centred on a work by Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary. This painting showed a Madonna decorated with resin-covered elephant dung and surrounded by small collaged images of female genitalia from pornographic magazines. Boisterous anti-Sensation crowds condemned the show in daily demonstrations near the museum entrance.

Sensation - Museum Bookstore blog

Legal battles, letters and vandalism

New York Mayor, Giuliani joined in the protest, calling Ofili's work, 'sick stuff'. He went on to withhold the city's monthly subsidy payment and began proceedings to evict the museum.

Artists campaigned for the Brooklyn Museum's right to show the works. 100 artists and writers, including Susan Sarandon and Arthur Miller signed a letter supporting the museum. Even Hillary Clinton entered into the debate albeit tentatively. Running for the Senate at the time, Clinton said it was 'not appropriate to punish' the Brooklyn Museum, but also commented that parts of the exhibition were 'deeply offensive' and that she did not intend to see the show. 

The case went to court and a federal judge ruled against the Mayor and the City of New York, stating that they had no right to inflict any retaliation, including withholding funds, against the museum. However, the painting still caused a sensation.  A month or so after the exhibition opened, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher from Manhattan vandalised the painting. Slipping behind a protective Plexiglas shield, he smeared white paint across the work of art’s surface.

Sensation - Museum Bookstore blog

Record crowds and divided opinions

Despite the controversy or perhaps because of the controversy, the exhibition in both London and New York attracted record numbers of visitors and launched the careers of many of the artists that it exhibited. However, not all visitors were clear what all the fuss was about. Rock star, Ian Drury said: 'I don't know why it's called Sensation, because Sensation for me is about sex and pleasure.' 

Sensation - Museum Bookstore blog

Even today, the show divides opinion. Many critics view the exhibition as one of the most significant exhibitions of contemporary art in the 20th Century - an exhibition, which challenged the boundaries of what was acceptable to represent in art, and the manner in which these ideas could be presented. Others just see it as a clever marketing trick by an exceptional ad man and proof of the adage that all publicity is good publicity. What is irrefutable is that it is a part of art history - one of the most controversial and infamous museum shows of recent years. 


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