Brooklyn Boro

20 years on, Giuliani’s Brooklyn Museum battle hinted at his Trumpist transformation

Giuliani’s official defeat over an elephant dung Madonna came 20 years ago today.

November 1, 2019 Tim Donnelly
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In 1999, Donald Trump was busy trying to build a NASCAR raceway near New York City and first flirting with the idea of running for president. His future personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — then the two-term mayor of New York City — spent the fall mired in literal and figurative dung.

The mayor was locked in a fight over an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, specifically a piece that depicted the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and cut-outs of pornography. It would become one of the defining cultural moments of his mayoralty, pitting him in a fierce First Amendment battle that helped boost the museum’s profile and harden his conservative image in an ultimately aborted bid for the Senate. But, because nothing in politics is truly new and no battle is ever truly won, it revealed shades of the man he would become in the next two decades, as Giuliani transformed from America’s Mayor into Donald Trump’s personal attack dog and self-incriminating cable news creature.

Giuliani’s official defeat on the issue came exactly 20 years ago today, when Judge Nina Gershon of United States District Court in Brooklyn ruled the mayor violated the museum’s First Amendment rights by withholding $7.2 million in city funding and attempting to evict the museum over the exhibit. 

Though no one in 1999 could have predicted the bizarre turn of events that keeps Giuliani in the headlines 20 years later, a little reflecting on the 1999 incident does foreshadow the man he’d become. Arguments and attack lines, public meltdowns and, of course — of course — a rivalry with Hillary Clinton. 

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It was an early example of a baffling Rudy logic

Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. [10/02/1999 – 01/09/2000]. Installation view: ‘The Holy Virgin Mary,’ Chris Ofili.
The exhibit, called “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection,” had been a hit when it was shown in London. It featured a pig sliced in half and a sculpture of a man made from his own blood. But it was The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili that drew the mayor’s ire; he called it “sick stuff” and a direct attack on Catholicism.

But then Giuliani implied children should be able to see it. Part of his legal argument said the exhibition would violate the terms of the museum’s lease, because it would not allow unaccompanied children under 17 into the exhibit.

“First we are told how vile and degenerate the exhibition is, and now we are being expected to open it up to children?” museum director Arnold L. Lehman said at the time. “The mayor is sending a mixed message that we obviously need to sort out.”

Two decades later, the president’s lawyer has become infamous for his baffling arguments on cable TV — to the point where even people close to the president have beseeched him to “stop talking.”

He called the judge who ruled against him “totally biased,” and “politically correct”

Hizzoner could not accept the court ruling, saying, “If you got before a group of judges that were not part of the politically correct, left-wing ideology of New York City, [they] would look at this very, very differently.” Nevermind that Giuliani was born in that bastion of politically correct, left-wing ideologues and was elected its mayor twice.

The idea that every person in government must be a political hack loyal to one party or another wasn’t new at the time, but it wasn’t quite as prevalent as it is now. 

 “We hope that we can get before a more objective group of judges who do not let their own ideology blind them to the facts, which is what the judge has done here,” Giuliani said.

The attack earned a scolding from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

”It has become a disturbing trend that a few public officials and candidates try to make political points by unfairly attacking the judiciary and the fair administration of justice,” they said. 

The warning didn’t take, as Giuliani now works for a president who regularly attacks judges who don’t agree with him, and loves the phrase “totally biased.” He still loves using political correctness as a bogeyman. Though certainly one could argue that having a dung-covered religious symbol was transgressive, and not politically correct to begin with.

The Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Richard Barnes

Giuliani tried a proto-Soros “follow the money” attack

After Gershon ruled the mayor must restore the monthly subsidies to the museum and stop eviction proceedings, Giuliani vowed to keep fighting. He called the ruling “the usual knee-jerk reaction of some judges.” He then shifted his line of attack from concerns about offending Catholics to concerns about who was pulling the purse strings: private collector Charles Saatchi, who was born in Iraq into a Jewish family. 

“This is all about dollar signs,” Giuliani said. “It isn’t about free speech. It’s actually a desecration of the First Amendment, as much as it is a desecration of religion, to use the First Amendment as a shield in order to take money out of the taxpayers’ pockets in order to put that money into the pockets of multimillionaires.”

Attacking the shadowy money forces behind something he disagrees with is a song Rudy would grow to sing well by 2019. He hasn’t gotten less suspicious of dubious claims of mysterious forces behind the scenes either.

He inspired real-world vandalism

In December of that year, as the museum had ostensibly won the legal battle, 72-year-old Dennis Heiner of Manhattan bought a $9.75 ticket to the exhibit. He then faked a sickness in the museum, ducked behind a plexiglass shield and squeezed white paint across the body of the Holy Virgin. He called it “blasphemous,” but no real damage was done to the art.

Twenty years later, Brooklyn now has even more disturbing vandalism inspired by the people with whom the former mayor associates.  

It somehow still involved a fight with Hillary Clinton

The then-first lady spoke out against Giuliani’s actions, calling him what, in the brain-warped Twitter language of 2019, could be abridged to “snowflake.”

“Our feelings of being offended should not lead to the penalizing and shutting down of an entire museum,” she said at the time. “And I think that is the position that everyone who thinks about this issue should now be taking.”

Still, Clinton said she was not a fan, and would not go see the art. 

“Well, then she agrees with using public funds to attack and bash the Catholic religion,” Giuliani responded. “There is no way out of this. These public funds are being used to aggressively bash the religious views of a significant number of people in this city and state and country. And the question is, can taxpayer dollars be used for this kind of disgusting, anti-religious — in some ways really aggressively anti-religious — kind of demonstration?”

The whole debate was seen as a proxy war for the potential Clinton-Giuliani matchup in the 2000 Senate race. By May 2000, Giuliani had dropped out of the race after announcing he was getting a divorce — something also frowned on by the Catholic church. Don’t worry, he eventually racked up enough divorces to make a holy trinity. 

Then-Congressman Charlie Rangel was blunter in his criticism: “I just don’t believe my mayor has lived that type of a spiritual life to direct what should happen in our museums.”

He saw his own future

The mayor, in denigrating the “artistic” quality of the work, gave us a glimpse of the defense strategy he may be using to defend the president on TV these days: 

“You know, if you want to throw dung at something,” he said, “I could figure out how to do that.”

It ended up being sound and fury over nothing anyway

The exhibit went up at the museum in October 1999 and ran through January 2000, still drawing thousands on its final day. 

The painter, Ofili, who is black, described himself at the time as a “church-going Catholic.” The dung was not “splattered” or “smeared” on the canvases, as some reports said, it was arranged carefully, hanging in a jeweled brooch, shellacked and formed into a right breast on the famous Madonna painting. 

It returned to New York in 2014 for an exhibit at the New Museum, but didn’t make a splash in a year people were instead panicked about Ebola and shocked at the death of Eric Garner. 

It wouldn’t be the last time Giuliani tried to make a big deal out of something that turned out to be nothing

And on top of it all: Rudy never saw the painting for himself, and Trump’s NASCAR track never got built, either. 

Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and former editor of Brokelyn, whose work has also appeared in the New York Post, Village Voice and Lifehacker. Find him on Twitter. 

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  1. Andrew Porter

    The show included a portrait of notorious child-murderer Myra Handley, assembled into a collage from numerous small photographs. Giuliani apparently didn’t realize the significance of the name. Also, she wasn’t a Catholic, so possibly he didn’t care. Much more detail on the Wikipedia page about the case, here:

    Most importantly, the legal case highlighted the fact that the building was owned by the city—but not the actual art housed inside it. Seattle made an offer for the entire contents of the Brooklyn Museum. Had the trustees accepted the offer, all the collections, all the art, could have moved to Seattle, with NYC left holding an empty building.

    Way to go, Mr. Mayor!

  2. While it’s true that Judge Gershon’s decision on November 1 reduced the immediate danger to the Brooklyn Museum, the fight with Giuliani wore on for several more months–beyond the early January closing of the exhibition. Giuliani and his henchmen appealed Gershon’s decision and only ended their efforts when it became clear that Giuliani would be deposed as part of the appeal. On February 8, 2000, the museum, the city and Giuliani personally came to an agreement that prohibited various kinds of retaliation against the museum in future.

    Giuliani (and anyone else) can see Ofili’s picture at the Museum of Modern Art, which now owns it.