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: one of the most controversial art shows of all time

Two years later, Sensation toured to the Brooklyn Museum and once again was met with vociferous protest. 

Two weeks before it opened, the Daily News ran an article headlined B’Klyn Gallery of Horror. Gruesome Museum Show Stirs Controversy describing the Sensation exhibition as 'R-rated' and brimful with 'animals sliced in half, and graphic paintings and sculptures of corpses and sexually mutilated bodies'.

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. 

Dan Eden explains in his review of the exhibit for Viewzone Magazine : 

'In America, turds are bad. And to affix one to a personage that many believe to be the focus of their devotion is sure to bring an outcry. In our culture we have used gold to gild the halos of our blessed saints. We have even affixed precious stones to religious icons -- but never, until now, dung. It is no surprise then that New York's mayor (running for the State's senate seat) has threatened to evict the museum from Brooklyn for displaying this one small turd. And he is not alone in his critique. I ponder how these same people would view the common and historical use of human urine as a fixative in the pigments of such devotional works as the Last Supper and the ceilings of the Vatican.'

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

Legal battles, letters and vandalism

Things came to a head when Mary Gay Taylor, a CBS reporter, asked Giuliani a question about the show. Giuliani who had only seen the catalogue, replied 'The idea of, in the name of art, having a city-subsidized building have so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick. If somebody wants to do that privately and pay for that privately, well that’s what the First Amendment is all about' he said, adding, 'The city shouldn't have to pay for sick stuff'

The exhibition sparked a battle between New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani and Catholic groups on the one side and the Brooklyn Museum, backed by lawyer Floyd Abrams on the other and centred around whether the City of New York could cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum over the controversial exhibition. 

A fight over freedom of speech

At the core of the debate was the serious question of whether public funding could be withdrawn from a museum because of the works displayed inside were seen as offensive. 

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. One the same day a smaller rally was held nearby on the same day organised by the the critics of the show. In response to the museum’s mock health warnings that 'the contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic' the organisers of this rally handed out 500 vomit bags during the demonstration. Artist Scott LoBaido threw horse manure at the museum to register his protest over the work.

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: one of the most controversial art shows of all time

Record crowds and divided opinions

Despite the controversy or perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the Sensation exhibition 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 Dury said: 'I don't know why it's called Sensation, because Sensation for me is about sex and pleasure.' 


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

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.

Edith Devaney, who worked at the RA during Sensation and is now the institution’s contemporary curator, argues that Sensation led the way to more contemporary art at major museums, as prior to it 'the thinking was that only Old Master and Impressionist exhibitions could deliver good audience numbers'.

Others believe that the whole Sensation exhibition controversy was just 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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