Today, most of them aren’t shocking at all. I remember reading an art critic, but not which one, saying that The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst (often referred to as the $12M shark!) looks as frightening as a grandma sporting her best denture.

This book brings us to the heart of a legal battle between the Brooklyn Art Museum and a famous New York Mayor – Mayor Guiliani. Although they are the main protagonist, the media plays a significant role in a pre-social media era. Warning: While this book is about an exhibition, it isn’t about art. If you think you will learn more about the YBA’s, Charles Saatchi, the collector who assembled the collection, which is the starting point of SENSATION or even more about the pieces in that show – this might feel very flat. (side note, if this is what you are after, I recommend Artrage!: The Inside Story of the BritArt Revolution by Elizabeth Fullerton) But if you want to do a deep dive about the downfall of media (and media misinformation) once again, I repeated a time where Facebook didn’t bombard us with fake news and conspiracy theories, to understand how the first amendment works – especially concerning art ( you might also want to take a peek at Dread Scott interview – someone else who “enjoyed” legal battle regarding the first amendment and whom I interviewed last summer). The timing of this book couldn’t have been better. In my opinion, it all started with a Madonna, Chris Ofili The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Then unravel a story that will attack many more artworks, fundings the constitutional right to freedom of expression and misinformation, personal attack including death threats against the author the then museum director of BAM, Arnold Lehman. 

Chris Ofili The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on canvas – New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019

If you are reading this book or simply this article, let’s think about the following:

  • What does it mean to have a constitutional right to freedom of expression, especially related to art matters?
  • What is the role of media in misinformation/information, and how many words are written within informed, thorough and in-depth research?

As always, we want to hear from you. What are your thoughts about this book? What do you think about a Major trying museum for putting challenging art on display? Get the conversation going on social media, and let’s talk about rights, freedom and art!

Our giveaway is easy to enter! Comment and like our Instagram post to enter it. We also invite you to follow us on Instagram @artdomains as well as the publisher @merrellpublishers for an additional chance to win! Finally, get a copy of your book at your local bookstore or in your favourite place to order books!

And if you have a suggestion for us regarding the book club or even a book to suggest – email

Review of the book by evlyne Laurin

SENSATION – I remember the first time I heard about this exhibition, and while being born in North America, and being a teenager at the time of this story being front and centre in the media – I didn’t hear about it then. Years later, I would first become acquainted with SENSATION on the other side of the pond in a classroom of a Georgian architecture building. By then, I was already familiar with many of the artists included in the show, Hirst, Ofili, the Chapman Brothers, Shonibare, Mueck, Quinn, Lucas & Emin, to name only a few. I had seen pieces by them. I had studied them – I had read Lucky Kunst by Gregory Muir to understand how the area in which I was living at the time in a former Council flat was part of the Right to Buy by Thatcher. I was trying to understand an era that wasn’t so far in time but so far from my present-day reality in Hoxton. I remember being told through the years about the many tales regarding some of the artworks in that show, about the dung on the Madonna, the shark embalmed, the fresh blood, the many sexual organs replicate, duplicate, triplicated, the child handprint forming the portrait of a serial killer. I remember the art being at the centre of a heated debate. But I don’t recall anybody telling me about how a museum spent seven months fighting its rights in court, fighting for its reputation but also fighting for its funding to remain. I grew frustrated to read about how funds were used for legal defence instead of art. Still, it also warmed my heart to read how many people queued each day to see this exhibition, how teenagers just like I would have been then skipped school to see it (I would probably have followed if that could have been a possibility and I didn’t need to cross a border to get there…)

This book might not be about art, but it teaches us a tremendous lesson, and more than one actually – about the power of art, the power of the media – how it is worth fighting for our rights and what we believe. I appreciate reading about it, following the tale, and most importantly, how Lehman doesn’t shy away from owning the very few mistakes he made from a pretty adventurous advertisement for SENSATION to how a good team, as well as a good partner, is essential especially when facing this sort of threats. While discussing court, law, funding & philanthropic issues, exhibition creation challenges and the press, this book never feels dry, showcase noteworthy puns and is filled with the humans behind the stories. All of them; the good, the bad, the ugly ones. Nobody lacks colour or can be accused of dullness – it is perhaps sharper than the shark’s teeth.

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About the author 

A bold and progressive museum director for more than 40 years, Arnold Lehman has always advocated for freedom of expression, diversity, social justice and accessibility. Under his guidance as Director, over 500 exhibitions were presented at the Brooklyn Museum and, earlier, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He served in major cultural leadership roles nationally and in New York City throughout his distinguished career. Lehman (MA, Johns Hopkins University; MPhil and PhD, Yale University; DHL (Hon.) Pratt Institute) was a Ford Foundation Fellow and currently serves on numerous not-for-profit boards focused on culture, education and social justice. He chaired the board of Legg Mason Funds, where he served as a director for 40 years; and is presently a trustee of funds in the Franklin Templeton complex. He has been a Senior Advisor at Phillips auction house since 2015.