It was a case of double-barreled dij` vu. Not only did Friday’s flap over a new photography exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art seem like a replay of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 1999 tussle with BMA over the “Sensation” show, but the language in play was awfully familiar as well.
“Anti-Catholic” is what the mayor is calling Renie Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” a 15-foot photograph patterned after Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” but with a nude woman (Cox herself) in the position of Jesus Christ. Catholic League president William Donohue, in a letter to Barbara Millstein, curator of BMA, describes the photograph as a typical example of “Catholic bashing,” on the part of both Cox and the museum.
It’s become increasingly common for those who resent criticism of Christianity and the Catholic Church to play the victim, portraying themselves as targets of hate speech and even hate crimes. Donohue recently issued a similar press release accusing Salon of “bigotry” and “slugging Catholics” for running an excerpt from an erotic story about Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
In his letter to Millstein, Donohue goes on say, “I would love to know whether there is any portrayal of any aspect of history that you might personally find so offensive as to be excluded from an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. For starters, would you include a photograph of Jewish slave masters sodomizing their obsequious black slaves?” The statement makes it clear that anyone who dares to proffer a variation on the officially sanctioned imagery of the Christian canon is likely to find herself peppered with such missives from the faithful, which may themselves invoke heinous examples of racial stereotyping and genocidal propaganda. (The notion that Jews were disproportionately involved in the slave trade is a staple of anti-Semitic invective, and it isn’t true.)
But Donohue’s analogy just doesn’t work. First of all, Cox’s photograph isn’t an attack on Catholics, and it doesn’t even remotely resemble the vile, cartoonish scenario Donohue cooks up with such inadvertently revealing brio. There’s nothing in “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” that’s intended to foment nasty attitudes toward or actions against Catholics. It doesn’t depict them as hateful or degenerate or evil or lazy or sexually incontinent. In fact, it doesn’t depict Catholics at all, since the Catholic Church didn’t even exist when the Last Supper is said to have occurred. (And since when do Catholics own the Last Supper, anyway? Last I heard, Episcopalians believe in it, too.)
Giuliani and the Catholic League are using the language we usually hear from rights movements protesting racist caricatures, because they think that sort of complaint is likely to garner public sympathy. (It’s a little bit like the defenders of conservative Attorney General John Ashcroft, who tried to argue that his liberal critics were practicing not political advocacy but religious persecution, because Ashcroft is an evangelical Christian.) Unfortunately for Donahue and Giuliani, Cox isn’t guilty of prejudice (she’s a lapsed Catholic herself, after all). She may well be guilty of blasphemy, according to their definition of it, but blasphemy just isn’t the sort of “crime” that enough people get exercised about in 21st century New York.
Cox has told the media that her photograph represents her take on the Biblical notion that all of us are made in God’s image, so why shouldn’t Jesus be depicted as a woman? It’s a fairly ham-fisted, self-aggrandizing example of religious commentary, but it’s religious commentary nonetheless, and Cox (whose media-readiness, it must be said, makes the whole brouhaha seem like an engineered controversy on the part of BMA) describes the work as a critique of the church leadership’s teachings and values. If disagreeing with the Vatican on matters of doctrine is an outrage worthy of censure, then Giuliani might as well sic his proposed “decency commission” on every Protestant outlet that gets city funding. I hear some of them don’t even consider the pope to be infallible!
The Catholic League and its ilk like to complain that similar “attacks” on other religious and ethnic groups would be condemned by the same right-thinking elites who champion the First Amendment rights of “anti-Catholic” artists. Wrong again. When the government of Iran ordered the death of Salman Rushdie because, in his novel “The Satanic Verses,” he supposedly blasphemed the Islamic prophet Mohammed, the edict was greeted with nearly universal outrage and protest. The international artistic elite backed Rushdie, not the Ayatollah nor the millions of Muslims Rushdie’s book offended. At least the Ayatollah was straightforward about his beef; he didn’t try to pass off his fury at Rushdie’s “sacrilege” as a defense of Muslims’ civil rights.
Cox is quarreling with ideas and beliefs, not slandering the people who espouse them. Fundamentalist Christians of every stripe ought to be able to parse this — aren’t they the ones who go around claiming to hate the sin but love the sinner? Pretending that vulnerable citizens instead of religious ideas are being targeted isn’t quite lying, but somehow I doubt it’s something Jesus would do.