Opinion

The Man Who Led 1990s Art Censorship Scandal Is Running for NYC Mayor

Lhota really getting into Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" (1996)
Lhota really getting into Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) (original images via 1, 2)

The name Joseph J. Lhota may not be a household one (yet), but the current Republican mayoral candidate has done a lot in his time in New York City politics. As chairman of the MTA in 2011 and 2012, he initiated the Fastrack maintenance program, worked to restore previously eliminated service — and approved retroactive pay raises and lump-sum payments to four top agency executives while simultaneously planning the fare hikes that went into effect this month!

Lhota also, in his tenure with the Giuliani administration (during which he was variously chief of staff to the deputy mayor for finance and economic development, New York City finance commissioner, director of the office of management and budget, and deputy mayor for operations), played a leading role in the Sensation scandal at the Brooklyn Museum, as the New York Times detailed in an article published on Wednesday.

For those who need a refresher: when the Brooklyn Museum brought the Sensation exhibition, a show of Young British Artists from the Saatchi collection, to New York in 1999, a scandal quickly erupted over Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” an eight-foot-tall portrait of Mary that counts elephant dung and porn cutouts of female genitalia among its materials. The Giuliani administration decided it wanted the piece removed from the show, and as Michael Barbaro writes in the Times, Lhota “became the tip of an unbending Giuliani spear aimed at the museum, seeking to cajole, browbeat and threaten the 190-year-old organization into removing the work of art.” The administration tried to withhold the museum’s funding but, in the end, lost the battle in court.

It turns out, however — and this should really surprise no one — that Lhota never even saw the work. “As a concept,” he told Barbaro, “it was offensive.” The Times writer also nicely points out that Lhota lived in Brooklyn Heights at the time, not far at all from the Prospect Heights museum, but never made the trip. Instead he made his expert judgment based on pictures: “The use of the dung, I thought, was gratuitous.” And this judgement is valid, mind you, because the mayoral hopeful touts himself as having spent “hours at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (and once audited an art history course at Georgetown).” Someone get this man a membership in the AICA.

No, but seriously, while we appreciate his time spent appreciating art, we’re troubled by his comment to the Times that “I don’t regret the tactics — at all,” as well as his insistence that the Giuliani administration wasn’t actually trying to censor the work; it was just a dispute over a lease blown out of proporation, is all! Ohhhh. Sorry. Our bad.

Lhota assures that now, if he was mayor and a museum displayed art that he found offensive, he would simply “Ask them nothing. Probably go see it. Enjoy it. Hope there is a ribbon cutting.” But we’re not entirely convinced.

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