Dirt cheap sensation

Oct 13, 1999 at 12:00 am

In my driveway, there’s a pile of dirt. Not a large pile of dirt, really. Just big enough that I’d need to trade up to a midsized suburban assault vehicle to be able to park on it.

But when I decide to move the dirt, I’m stopped short by the Lizard of Fun throwing itself on the pile.

"No-no-no-no-no!" it shouts, threatening me with a gel pen and a pack of bubble gum. "Can’t you see? This is a work of art!"

I look around the anguished form of the Lizard, trying to see if it’s got a painting or a sculpture hidden under the dirt. But nothing.

"OK, enough Tequizas for you," I say. "You’ve clearly become delusional."

The Lizard pouts as I begin shoveling the dirt into a wheelbarrow. "But one of Charles Saatchi’s representatives might call me at any moment," it says. "He’s that huge British art collector who collects all the work from the newest, soon-to-be hottest young artists! I’m on the verge of starting a new career, Freak Girl – get ready to say you knew me when!"

"What makes this art?" I ask, poking at a Chee-tos bag that’s half-buried in the dirt.

"What keeps it from being art?" counters the Lizard. "I’ll betcha Rudy Giuliani would be offended by this, too."

"I’d be offended if anyone paid you money for it," I add.

And yet the controversy over "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," which opened Oct. 2 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, has been more about which celebrities (Steve Martin, Susan Sarandon, Arthur Miller, to name a few) are quickest to jump on the First Amendment bandwagon, and which political figures (Giuliani, to name the obvious) are quickest to jump to conclusions about what is and isn’t art.

Hint: Free speech demands that someone point out that while this may indeed be art, it’s hardly good art.

But that’s the point. It’s bad art. Baaaad, badass, bad dog art. And so New York Mayor Giuliani threatened to pull $7 million in public funds from the museum. Hillary Clinton countered by saying that wasn’t a nice thing to do, even if the art in question wouldn’t be her first choice to go over the mantle in her official senator’s residence. At least one artist (not part of the exhibit) got arrested, and a number of cops were seen in the vicinity.

"To paraphrase Dorothy Parker," says the Lizard, "those weren’t cops, they were art critics in disguise."

The exhibition’s name seems premanufactured to draw crowds and outrage but the real scandal is that it hardly delivers the gross-out goods. Even though people know it’s got pickled pig parts and a bust made from frozen blood, they’re still paying $9.75 a ticket. On opening day, 9,200 people attended. "And the museum is suing the mayor because it’s worried about losing public funds?" asks the Lizard. "They’re gonna be rolling in it. Or something."

As Abigail Lane, an artist whose work (a white chair staring at a blue print on the wall) is in the exhibit, says in her statement, "For me it’s much more powerful to leave things unsaid, or quiet, or empty, than to really go in and try and make something shocking or spooky."

"Or to try and make art at all," says the Lizard.

For those of us who are (willfully, of course) boycotting a New York vacation until the mayor grabs some sense, David Bowie (yes, that David Bowie) has had the grace to put the entire show on his own personal Web site. There, you can see for yourself that there’s really nothing very shocking about, for example, Chris Ofili’s "The Holy Virgin Mary," which has ol’ Rudy and a few others freaking because it’s got a bit of elephant dung on it.

"Say, that’s gotta bring the price up," says the Lizard. "I mean, elephant poop doesn’t come cheap in these parts."

I confess that I breezed right past the section of the New York Times Magazine that featured a selection of pieces from the show. Not because it offended me, but because it was less interesting than, say, the classifieds.

"Big deal," I thought. "People got all rancid when some freaky artist put a dress made of raw meat on display at the National Gallery of Canada, and when some other artist put a crucifix in a tank of his own piss. This is amateur stuff in comparison."

"Yes," says the Lizard. "It’s not like these Brits have impaled a Teletubby or anything – now that would be scandalous."

Ultimately, what’s really sensational – besides all the fuss over an exhibit that’s less-than – is the thought that Saatchi would actually pay to collect these pieces.

"Don’t say that!" says the Lizard, shushing me. "I’m hoping he might want to buy this pile of dirt –"

It stops, then puts on its best British accent. "I mean, this artist’s rendition of elephant droppings. I’ve just got to figure out how to frame it."