If a critic’s clout can be measured by the ability to make an artist’s name, the most important art critic in America today is clearly Rudolph Giuliani. Just over a year ago he excoriated the Brooklyn Museum of Art for including in its “Sensation” show Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary–the elephant-dung-decorated painting of an African BVM, which the mayor found “anti-Catholic,” blasphemous and disgusting–and turned Ofili himself into a sensation overnight: One collector, I heard, complained that the media attention had driven Ofili’s prices so high he couldn’t afford him anymore. If I were Jake & Dinos Chapman, represented by a perverse sculpture of deformed and weirdly sexualized children, I would have been seriously peeved, and if I had been Richard Patterson, whose Blue Minotaur, a profound meditation on postmodernity and the heroic tradition, got no attention at all, I would have wept.
You’d think the mayor would have learned to stay his theocritical thunderbolts, but once again he has gone after the Brooklyn Museum for including an “anti-Catholic” work–Renee Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper–in the new show of contemporary black photographers, “Committed to the Image.” He’s even suggested that what New York needs is a “decency commission,” which got big laughs all around, since the mayor, a married man, is openly carrying on with his mistress, upon whom he has bestowed police protection worth some $200,000 annually at taxpayers’ expense. As the whole world now knows, Yo Mama is a five-panel picture in which Cox appears naked, as Jesus, surrounded by male disciples–ten black, one white–at the Last Supper. As an artwork it’s negligible, glossily produced but awkwardly composed and, to my eye, rather silly. Cox is thin and beautiful; the men, in robes and caftans, are handsome and buff–apparently the first Christians spent a lot of time in the gym and at the hair salon, getting elaborate dreadlocked coiffures. Unlike the figures in Leonardo’s Last Supper, which are highly individualized and dramatically connected, the figures here are generic and stiff. My eye kept going to the limited food on offer: bowls of wax-looking fruit (did they have bananas in Old Jerusalem?), rolls, pita bread. Was the Last Supper a diet Seder?
If you want to see visually haunting work at “Committed to the Image,” there’s Gordon Parks, Albert Chong, Imari, Nathaniel Burkins and many others. LeRoy W. Henderson’s black ballet student, dressed in white and standing in front of a damaged classical frieze, interrogates the Western tradition much more deeply than Yo Mama does. Mfon’s self-portraits of her mastectomized torso, a meditation on beauty, heroism and tragedy expressed through the female body, lay bare the high-fashion hokiness of Cox’s costume drama. For fan and foe alike, the interest of Yo Mama appears to be political. Cox describes her art in ideological terms (“my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics”), and she has been quite pungent in defending it. As with The Holy Virgin Mary, the mayor hasn’t actually seen it, nor had the numerous people who sent me frothing e-mails after I defended government support for the arts on The O’Reilly Factor.
Even the New York Observer‘s famously conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, who usually delights in withering descriptions of pictures he hates, apparently felt that depicting Christ as a naked black woman was so obviously, outrageously anti-Catholic he need say no more about the photo before embarking on his usual rampage. It would be interesting to know where the offense lies: Is it that Cox as Christ is naked, black or female? All three? Two out of three? If one thinks of Catholics, the people, there’s nothing bigoted about any of this. (Like Ofili, Cox is Catholic–as are most perpetrators of “anti-Catholic” works.) There is no ethnic stereotyping of the sort on view, for instance, on St. Patrick’s Day, when the proverbial drunkenness of the Irish is the butt of endless rude humor, especially from the Irish themselves. While we’re on the subject of ethnic stereotyping, it’s worth noting that in a great deal of Christian art, Jesus and the disciples are portrayed as Northern Europeans, while Judas is given the hooked nose and scraggly features of a cartoon Jew.
But if what is meant by anti-Catholic is anti-Catholic Church, why can’t an artist protest its doctrines and policies? The Church is not a monastery in a wilderness, it’s a powerful earthly institution that uses all the tools of modern politics to make social policy conform to its theology–and not just for Catholics, for everyone. It has to expect to take its knocks in the public arena. A church that has a 2,000-year tradition of disdain for women’s bodies–documented most recently by Garry Wills (a Catholic) in his splendid polemic Papal Sin–and that still bars women from the priesthood because Jesus was a man can’t really be surprised if a twenty-first-century woman wonders what would be different if Jesus had been female, and flaunts that female body. And a church with a long history of racism–no worse than other mainstream American religions but certainly no better–can’t expect the topic to be banned from discussion forever.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Yo Mama’s Last Supper is in a separate room with its own security guard. On Sunday afternoon, it attracted blacks, whites, Asians, parents with small children, older women in groups, dating couples, students taking notes–le tout Brooklyn, which is turning out in large numbers for the show. I asked one black woman, who described herself as a Christian, what the picture meant to her. “It shows Life as a woman,” she said. “It’s beautiful.” Her friend, who said he was a Muslim, liked the picture too.
If only I could get the Mayor to review my book!
Show George W. Bush you support RU-486. Make a donation in W.’s name to the Concord Feminist Health Center (38 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301) and help it buy the ultrasound machine this method requires. The center will send the President a card to let him know you were thinking of him when you wrote your check.