Sensation (art exhibition)  

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Sensation was an exhibition of Young British Artists which first took place 18 September28 December 1997 at the Royal Academy of Art in London and later toured to Berlin and New York, but was rejected by Australia. Controversy ensued in London and New York over the show, but for different pieces of work — an image of Myra Hindley in London and one of the Virgin Mary in New York. The show consisted of work from the collection of Charles Saatchi and one of the criticisms was the boost to the value of the work through being shown in institutions and public museums.



The artworks in Sensation were from the collection of Charles Saatchi, a leading collector and publiciser of contemporary art. Norman Rosenthal, the flamboyant Royal Academy of Arts exhibitions secretary, helped to stage the 110 works by 42 different artists.

Many of the pieces had already become famous, or notorious, to the British public (for example Damien Hirst's shark suspended in formaldehyde titled, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and Tracey Emin's tent titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept with 1963-1995. Others had already achieved prominence in other ways, such as a successful advertising campaign using an idea from Gillian Wearing's photographs. Sensation was the first time that a wide audience had had the chance to see these works en masse.

The Royal Academy posted this "disclaimer" to visitors on entry:

There will be works of art on display in the Sensation exhibition which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgement in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18.

Reactions in Britain

The opening of Sensation caused a public furore and a media frenzy, with both broadsheet and tabloid journalists falling over themselves to comment on the show’s controversial images, and unprecedented crowds queuing up to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. Around a quarter of the RA's 80 academicians gave a warning that the exhibition was inflammatory. They and some members of the public complained about several other exhibits, notably the installations by Jake and Dinos Chapman, which were of child mannequins with noses replaced by penises and mouths in the form of an anus.

However, the biggest media controversy was over Myra, an image of the murderer Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey. Winnie Johnson, the mother of one of Hindley's victims, asked for the portrait, made up of hundreds of copies of a child's handprint, to be excluded to protect her feelings. Along with supporters she picketed the show's first day. Even Myra Hindley, herself, sent a letter from jail suggesting her portrait be removed from the exhibition, reasoning that such action was necessary because the work was “a sole disregard not only for the emotional pain and trauma that would inevitably be experienced by the families of the Moors victims but also the families of any child victim.” Despite all the protest the painting remained hanging. Windows at Burlington House, the Academy's home, were smashed and two demonstrators hurled ink and eggs at the picture as a result, requiring it to be removed and restored. It was put back on display behind Perspex and guarded by security men.

The show was extremely popular with the general public, attracting over 300,000 visitors during its run, helped by the media attention which the strong subject matter had received. The BBC described it as "gory images of dismembered limbs and explicit pornography".


Sensation was shown at the Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof museum (30 September 199830 January 1999) and proved so popular that it was extended past its original closing date of 28 December 1998.

New York

The exhibition was shown in New York City at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from 2 October 1999 to 9 January 2000. The New York show was met with instant protest, centring on The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, which had not provoked this reaction in London. It showed a black Madonna smeared with elephant dung, surrounded by small collaged images of female genitalia from pornographic magazines; these seemed from a distance to be the traditional cherubim. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued press statements asking for a boycott of the museum and asking citizens to write to New York City Council asking that the museum have its public funds pulled.

The most powerful voice of protest was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who declared the show to be "insulting to Catholics". He stated that there was "nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects," and that "if you're going to use taxpayers' dollars, you have to be sensitive to the feelings of the public."

There was intense pressure to remove federal funding for the Museum and The House of Representatives even passed a nonbinding resolution to this effect on 3 October 1999. New York City then stopped funding to the Brooklyn Museum. On 1 November, Judge Nina Gershon ordered the City to not only restore the funding that was denied to the Museum, but also to refrain from continuing its ejectment action.

The debate continued to rage, involving the Cardinal of St Patrick's Cathedral, the First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Protesters outside the museum variously said the rosary, handed out vomit bags and threw manure in protest.

As a precautionary measure, the museum placed Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" behind protective glass. On 16 December 1999 a 72-year-old man was arrested for "criminal mischief" after he smeared white paint on this painting. The graffiti was soon removed.


In November 1999, The National Gallery of Australia decided that it would not show the "Sensation" exhibit as planned. They stated that the events in New York had "obscured discussion of the artistic merit of the works of art."


Other artists: Mark Wallinger, Darren Almond (the youngest artist to participate), Simon Callery, Adam Chodzko, Paul Finnegan, Langlands and Bell, Jason Martin, Fiona Rae, Mat Collishaw, Mark Francis, Michael Landy, Alain Miller, Jonathan Parsons, Hadrian Pigott, James Rielly, Jane Simpson, Glenn Brown, Keith Coventry, Cerith Wyn Evans, Alex Hartley, Abigail Lane, Martin Maloney.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Sensation (art exhibition)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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