By all accounts, he was an old, well-dressed man. On the afternoon of 16th December 1999, 72-year old Dennis Heiner feigned illness and sat on the floor at the Brooklyn Museum. As the guards looked away, he ducked beneath the rope, run behind the plexiglass protecting a painting, squeezed white latex paint from a plastic lotion bottle he smuggled past the security.
The object of his ire was “The Painting Of The Virgin Mary,” by Chris Ofili, the British-born Nigerian artist who had drawn a black Madonna image with pornographic cut-outs and a clump of elephant dung. His juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane was received lukewarmly in London and Berlin before a high-profile denunciation by New York’s mayor Rudy Giuliani propelled it to notoriety, and led to it being placed behind plexiglass. Calling it “sick stuff” and “disgusting”, the mayor had vowed to defund and evict the museum (he subsequently lost the First Amendment court-case).
Heiner, a retired teacher, devout Catholic, and pro-life activist, had intended to deface it on the very first day of the exhibit, but huge crowds thwarted his mission; he returned two months later around the holiday season when the crowds would be sparser. He was charged for misdemeanors because the damage to the painting was valued at less than $1,500. This prosecution outraged many; Roger Homan, a Christian art historian, decried, “The perceived offence is not what the artist does to the Virgin Mary but what Dennis Heiner did to the physical image: the subject has ceased to be sacred but the artwork is protected by law.”
Eventually, the controversy turned to the one who took such a perfect photo of Heiner’s vandalism: none other than Phillip Jones Griffiths, the great Magnum photographer. Both Magnum and the photographer claimed that he was simply there with his daughter while Heiner attacked the painting, and that he took nine photos with his point-and-shoot. Many were skeptical and believed Mr. Jones Griffiths had been informed ahead. The staff who escorted Mr. Jones Griffiths out of the museum immediately claimed they heard the photographer talking on his mobile, “I got it.” Further fuel was added by the New York Daily Post, which having bought the rights to the photos, was attempting to prolong the controversy. Heiner, however, denied tipping anyone off before his attack and noted that he did not even know he was being photographed.