Dr. Kennedy & Sensation

More-than-cursory research yields actual facts.

Brian Kennedy, the new Hood Director, did cancel the “Sensation” exhibit, which featured a dung-covered Madonna, but not due to an aesthetic judgment. It was, apparently, all about ethics. He says:

I was the person who went after Sensation. And I was the person who cancelled it. So, it can’t have been cancelled because I didn’t like what was in it. I actually wanted to put it on. The Freud is a tough and uncompromising work of art and it’s not a work that one is attracted to as a beautiful object. It’s one that you’re attracted to as an engaging object and a narrative work. It’s the texture and the way that it’s actually crafted which is predominantly important for me, in that particular work.

All these things come together as contradictions and I wouldn’t for a minute shy away from a work of art which just happened to be unpalatable to somebody – in bad taste or even obscene – if I could see the beauty in it. That was the great tragedy of having to cancel Sensation, which was about issues of commercial and ethical difficulty in America, which have since become huge issues in the museum world. These issues caused the Board of our Gallery to cancel it. I really wanted, for example, to have an artist like Chris Ofili seen in Australia. [link.]

He expounds on the particular ethical dilemma posed by the owner of the work in the exhibition, Charles Saatchi.

The Sensation exhibition contravened accepted practice because the Brooklyn Museum went, in Michael Kimmelman’s words: ‘way too far this time by turning in an unseemly way to collectors, dealers and an auction house who will profit by its exhibition. But the blame isn’t entirely Brooklyn’s ? In an idea[l] world, museums should have firmer rules about donations and private collection shows, with public perceptions more squarely in mind.’

Dr. Kennedy continues:

The New York Times has taken some criticism for appearing to have run a campaign against the Brooklyn Museum. But it is hard to disagree with their journalist David Barstow’s comment that Sensation: “blurred the line between art and commerce to a highly unusual degree.’ He noted that several current and former Brooklyn museum officials had told him that they could not cite another exhibition that so directly linked the art on display with the financial interests of the exhibition’s major underwriters. [link.]

Many, of course, branded this as censorship, instead of what it was: making sure that the publicly funded art exhibit served public interests. What did Dr. Kennedy take away from this?

I mean, if the critics are going to pan you for cancelling something that you actually went after yourself, it actually makes you nervous about going after something similar in future. And I wouldn’t like to feel that.

So, what I query, is whether I was wise to go for it in the first place, not whether I was wise to cancel it. If people want things and if the critics want to encourage people to take the brave decisions, well they must not drive them into the ground. I think that time will show that it was a lot more interesting and ethical story than was given credit at the time. [from first article.]

Admittedly, I would not have gone after the project in the first place. It included, in addition to the fecal Mary, a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde; an artist’s bust of himself made from nine pints of his own frozen blood; and a cow’s head combined with sugar, water, flies and maggots. My take on this is similar to Joe Rago’s. [link.]

But this episode shows backbone on Dr. Kennedy’s part– a commitment to his role of public service over the vociferous protestations of those who would suspend the rules when they don’t serve their aesthetic interests. That’s a very, very good thing.