As soon as he assumed power in Germany, Hitler went to great efforts to attack contemporary German art as morally decadent and as a misuse of public tax dollars. He seized art from both public museums and private art galleries, but rather than simply hiding the art he claimed to find so appalling, he went to great lengths to publicly display it, organizing huge art shows of Degenerate Art across Germany.
The entire notoriety of the painting of the Madonna by Chris Olfili [sic: correct spelling is "Chris Ofili"] is similarly due to Mayor Giuliani's efforts. Thanks to the Mayor this otherwise insignificant painting has appeared each day on the covers of newspapers and magazines, on television news shows and is the main topic of discussion on radio talk shows and in opinion columns. In his own way the Mayor has sponsored a "degenerate art show" exactly paralleling Hitler's.
Lurking beneath Mayor Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum's alleged Catholic bashing, misuse of tax dollars and offense to the general public's sense of morality lies a much larger issue. What is an artist's responsibility to society and to his or her government? Is artistic expression an act of unfettered individual freedom or is it like owning a car or a gun, a limited privilege that government has a responsibility to strictly control in the interests of public safety and decency?
Listening to the opinions of Mayor Giuliani and his various religious and secular and defenders on this controversy one is reminded of the exactly similar attack on artistic freedom that took place in Nazi Germany from 1933 until 1945. The expressionist art that was attacked, confiscated and destroyed by Adolf Hitler is in fact the very origin of the artistic sensibilities in the now controversial Brooklyn Museum show. It too was attacked based on the idea that it debased humanity, mocked religion and would, if allowed to continue, destroy public morality.
It might seem bizarre to those who see Mayor Giuliani as being extremely close to certain elements in the conservative and orthodox Jewish community... As many of the anti-museum protesters loudly proclaimed, the Museum director, Arnold Lehman, the president of its board of trustees, Robert S. Rubin, and many of the members of its board of directors are Jewish. Critics of the show, including the Mayor, repeatedly use what they claim to be the parallel analogy of dipping a Star of David in excrement to express their outrage about the desecration of the Virgin Mary. In an article in the 9/25/99 NY Times the Mayor actually called the Madonna a "national symbol", which is something even religious conservatives like Pat Robertson or Cardinal O'Connor would admit crosses the line between the separation of church and state.
...The painting of fig leafs over the genitals of Michelangelo's figures in the Sistine Chapel is characteristic of this conflict between the religious and humanistic view. Artists we now think of as devout Catholics were severely punished by the church hierarchy for expressing views that ran counter to orthodox teachings. Like Chris Ofili who considers himself a devout Catholic, their artistic interpretation of traditional symbols was seen as heretical and as a desecration of the church.
Adolf Hitler, a man few today would consider to be in any way religious, described himself as a Catholic...
For the Mayor, the matter is simple, as he explained yesterday morning during his weekly radio program: "Public taxpayer dollars should not go for aggressive desecration of national or religious symbols of great significance and sensitivity to people." -- NY Times 9/25/99
Giuliani's remarks came a day after he vowed to cut off all city subsidies to the museum if it proceeded with the exhibition, which he described as "sick stuff." "Anything that I can do isn't art," he said. "If I can do it, it's not art, because I'm not much of an artist. And I could figure out how to put this together. You know, if you want to throw dung at something, I could figure out how to do that."