The initial outpouring is in part due to the attention drawn to one of the photos by New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani who called it "disgusting," "outrageous," and "anti-Catholic."
The photo under fire from Giuliani is a five-panel display by Renée Cox entitled "Yo Mama's Last Supper." Using a setting similar to Leonardo di Vinci's "Last Supper" painting, the photographer uses a nude photo of herself as the figure of Christ. The "apostles" depicted are Blacks with the exception of Judas.
In Giuliani's weekly radio address on WABC, he said Cox's work, "is an expression of prejudice, it's an expression of bigotry, and it's an expression of hatred." On February 15, Giuliani declared there was a "pattern of anti-Catholicism at the Brooklyn Museum" and said he would form a "task force or a commission" to "set decency standards for those institutions that are using your money, the taxpayers' money."
Giuliani also said he is "going to look at what kind of penalties are available for this." If the city "had had decency standards," the mayor said, "I'd submit that this photograph would never be exhibited in a building funded by the taxpayers." Standards applied by the panel could include "showing decency and respect for religion, for ethnicity, for race," he continued. Giuliani said that "decent people" would serve on the commission.
Some other administration politicians criticized the mayor's proposal, notably Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, a candidate in this year's mayoral race. Ferrer cast the mayor's response as that of a fascist, saying it "sounds like Berlin in 1939." City Council speaker Peter Vallone, another mayoral candidate, stated, "It's not the role of government to play culture cop," but made clear he was also offended by the photo.
Mayor threatens lawsuit
Giuliani, who has not seen the current exhibit, said he is considering filing a suit against the museum, basing his argument on the 1998 Supreme Court ruling NEA v. Finley. In this ruling, the court did not overturn "decency standards" that were applied by Congress in 1990 to the dispersal of funds by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). These standards were established after complaints that so-called controversial artists like Robert Mapplethorpe had received funds from the NEA.
The court's ruling upheld the Congressional act stating that the NEA must "take into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American people" when awarding grants. But it also stated in the 8-1 decision that the government may not "leverage its power to award subsidies...into a penalty on disfavored viewpoints" under the First Amendment.
At the museum, however, the response by visitors well aware of the swirling controversy is overwhelming in favor of supporting the new exhibit and democratic rights. "How people respond is a personal thing," said Neal Mitchell, a 31-year-old worker from Brooklyn. "It would be arrogant of me to decide what other people witness or observe. Giuliani and others want to use their own criteria to take away the power of choice," he continued.
At the door of the exhibit is a guest book where one woman from Brooklyn signed, "I'm so glad the mayor told us all about this extraordinary exhibit."
As people file by the Cox photo, many express their opinions aloud. "There's so much more to the picture," said one woman. "Well, he [Giuliani] is a politician. He knows nothing." Colyn, a food service worker from Harlem, wondered whether there would be the same controversy if the artist were not a woman. He also said, "I am Catholic, but I do not view this as anti-Catholic. It is an expression of art. My idea of a 'Last Supper' is not by portraying Jesus as a white man with blond hair, either."
Craig McQueen, a 13-year-old student from the Bronx, said, "Artists should be able to express what they feel and have the freedom to show what they believe in." His mother, Norma McQueen, from Puerto Rico, said she had brought Craig to the exhibit "so he could see for himself some of our culture and not be influenced by stereotypes, but to have an open mind."
But not everyone agrees. Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn said, "Why another vulgar display of anti-Christian sentiment? Is publicity more important than respect for religious belief?" The New York Post quotes Angela Balzano, a worker from Brooklyn, on the photo, "It shouldn't be in a museum, it should be in the garbage. It's a slap in the face to all Christians."
While the exhibit has not formerly been announced as part of Black History Month, some visitors noted that connection. The photos include Martin Luther King, Jr. being confronted by police at Medgar Evers's funeral; the 1968 sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, Tennessee; Fidel Castro speaking in Harlem in 1995; and musicians such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.
Cox, 43 years old, has a masters degree in fine arts from the New York School of Visual Arts and received a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. In response to the mayor's remarks, the artist is quoted in the New York Times as saying, "Get over it. I don't produce work that necessarily looks good over somebody's couch."
Unfortunately, Cox has taken the low road of criticizing Giuliani's personal life as immoral. And Cox, who was once Catholic, was reported in the New York Daily News as saying, "Catholics had no interest in the abolition of slavery" and claimed that 40 percent of American slave owners were Catholic, a statement which Giuliani, who is Catholic, jumped to dispute.
In presenting the display, museum director Arnold Lehman wrote, "The photographs in this exhibition represent varied subject matter, with images ranging from explorations of identity and personal philosophy to documents of the Civil Rights struggle to reflections of African American daily life, culture and cultural heroes."
Lehman and the museum were also assailed in 1999 when the Giuliani administration attempted to eliminate public funding for the institution for hosting an exhibition containing the painting "Holy Virgin Mary" by Nigerian-born British artist Chris Ofili. It depicted a Black Madonna and used the medium of elephant dung to highlight various aspects of the work.
Giuliani went on a virulent attack against the painting and Ofili, denouncing the work as "sick," antireligious, and an example of "Catholic bashing."
Due to backing the museum and the artists received from defenders of democratic rights, the city government was defeated in its campaign against the museum. A U.S. District Judge later ordered the city to restore funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
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