There hasn't been a good row about art since Washington went berserk over "The West as America" at the Smithsonian in 1991. That was a fight about history.

The comment books were chock-full of spirited exchanges about art and its truthfulness about America's past. In other words, the uproar had content. It's harder to find much content thus far in the hullabaloo over the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, beyond a glorious couple of weeks of grandstanding by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Politicians are always at their most comical worrying about art, while simultaneously asserting the primacy of private enterprise.

"From what I've read, the exhibit besmirches religion," said George W. Bush, campaigning in the company of Gov. George Pataki. "It denigrates someone's religion. I don't think we ought to be using public monies to denigrate religion." Pataki wagged his head in agreement.

"That's right. When you use public money to denigrate someone's religion, I think it's wrong."

So, the governors apparently agree that privately funded besmirchings -- including an image of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and encircled angels that on closer inspection are erotic images -- are fine. We've come a long way, perhaps not entirely in the right direction. I saw "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" at the Royal Academy in London back in the fall of 1997, and didn't care for it at all. The Saatchi brothers, Charles and Maurice, headed an ad agency that figured largely in Margaret Thatcher's triumph in 1979. They later came a cropper when they tried to take over the Midland Bank.

Charles Saatchi had profitably sold off a large collection of better-established artists, and started buying up the work of young artists. Chris Ofili, painter of the dung-accoutered Holy Virgin Mary, has written that "a lot of artists are producing what is known as Saatchi art. You know it's Saatchi art because it's one-off shockers. ... And these artists are getting cynical. Some of them with works already in his collection produce half-hearted crap, knowing he'll take it off their hands. And he does."

At the time it planned the "Sensation" exhibit, the Royal Academy was over $3 million in debt, and desperate to create profitable controversy, intimating that some of the artists displayed might be put up for membership in the academy. The artists dutifully played their role, denouncing the academy as "fat, stuffy, pompous," in the words of Damien Hirst, who specializes in bisected animal carcasses.

The Saatchi art property most hotly debated at the Royal Academy exhibition was Marcus Harvey's Myra, named for Myra Hindley, convicted in 1966 along with her partner, Ian Brady, for the torture and killing of young children. The Brady-Hindley killings were so nightmarishly depraved that their memory still makes people shiver.

Harvey based his painting on a famous photo of Hindley, and to make a pattern of dots to mime the photo as used in newspapers, he used the cast of a child's hand.

After some apologias for Hindley (supposedly led astray by her guy), Harvey ventured the final foolishness, that Myra is the "Love Goddess, who secretly, secretly, in our heart of hearts, we all want to shag." Ecstatic at the prospective uproar, the academy even invited relatives of Hindley's victims to attend the show.

The row there was not at all like the posturings of Giuliani over the use of public money. One artist, Peter Fisher, rubbed India ink into the painting, causing Myra considerable damage. Another artist, Jacques Role, rushed into Fortnum & Mason, bought half a dozen eggs, and pelted the painting with them until he was brought down by an off-duty cop. The Mirror hailed the two artists as having "struck a blow for every right-thinking person in Britain."

Paul Johnson denounced the culture elite as "perverted, brutal, horribly modish and clever-cunning, degenerate, exhibitionist, high-voiced and limp-wristed, seeking to shock and degrade." Which only goes to show how much Giuliani has to learn in terms of political rhetoric.

The row over Myra was a real one, mostly about the relation of art to a peculiarly horrible reality. The Brooklyn row is a purely formal joust, no doubt helpful to Giuliani in raising funds from the right for his Senate bid, and perhaps to the museum. The latter might look at the commotion over commodity and history reported by Jeffrey St. Clair in our newsletter CounterPunch.

At the Energy Department Museum's gift shop at the Sandia labs in New Mexico, they're selling Fat Man earrings. A Japanese antinuke group has protested. The shop's director is impenitent, saying the earrings commemorate a turning point in history, since Fat Man, along with Little Boy, which killed at least 210,000 Japanese civilians, "ended the war and saved the lives of U.S. soldiers." That's a real row, too. The Brooklyn Museum should import the earrings to its shop, set them alongside the memorabilia from "Sensation," and see what happens.

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist for The Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.