New York's bully in chief meets his match

"Yo Mama" artist Ren

By Amy Reiter

Published February 16, 2001 7:56PM (EST)

The city's bully in chief is at it again. Mayor Rudy Giuliani is taking another shot at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, wrinkling his pointy little nose and spitting out labels like "outrageous," "disgusting" and "anti-Catholic." Again he's accusing the Brooklyn Museum, which a little more than a year ago raised his ire by including Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" accessorized with elephant dung in its "Sensation" exhibit, of being deliberately inflammatory and defaming the Roman Catholic Church in order to increase museum attendance.

The current object of Giuliani's indignation, which, again, he has not yet seen in person, is a series of photographs by artist Renée Cox called "Yo Mama's Last Supper." Cox's depiction of the biblical scene differs from, say, Leonardo da Vinci's in that all the disciples are black. What's more -- and here's what presumably has Giuliani really upset -- Cox herself poses, naked and lovely, with arms outstretched, in Christ's place.

Challenging and unconventional, yes. But Cox, raised and educated a Catholic, commented on Thursday night's news, "There's nothing sexual about it."

Furthermore, the artist said, if "we are all made in God's image," why shouldn't Jesus look like her? "Why can't a woman be Christ? We are the givers of life!"

Why indeed? Giuliani acts as if provoking thought and inciting debate -- even outrage -- through art is a crime.

As it turns out, Giuliani wants to make it a crime or, at least, within the power of government to restrict. In addition to threatening to take up his beef with the Supreme Court, he's vowing to create a "decency" commission to squelch the display of art that "decent people" might find offensive -- or to hold back the funds to arts institutions that dare to display it.

As Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, a mayoral hopeful, told the New York Times, "That sounds like Berlin in 1939."

Unlike the name-calling mayor, I have seen "Yo Mama," as well as Cox's more interesting piece, "Liberty," which depicts a shapely, provocatively dressed black woman in platform boots sitting jauntily on the Statue of Liberty's crown. Cox's work is being shown as part of an exhibition called "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers," which opens Friday at the BMA.

With hordes of other people, most of them black or Latino, I crammed into the overheated exhibit rooms at the show's preview Thursday night. I stood back as many of the photographers were themselves photographed, smiling and proud, in front of their art. I watched them accept flowers from friends and admirers, and sign copies of the museum catalog. I heard no talk about Giuliani -- and that's as it should be. It was a night to celebrate art and artists.

While some of the 94 artists whose works are on display in the show are famous and familiar -- Gordon Parks, for instance -- others, like Cox herself, are not so well known. A big exhibit like this undoubtedly constitutes a real chance for these artists to be seen and appreciated by a large group of people. For the rest of us, it's a chance to look at the world through many different sets of eyes and see beauty, anger, sadness -- you name it.

Giuliani might have been proud of that -- proud to lead a city with cultural institutions that attempt to challenge the public, to expand their minds and provoke thought and discussion.

But instead, he's attempting to muzzle the masses and muffle the very cacophony of voices and opinions that makes New York New York, that makes it the cultural capital of the world. Not only is he attacking the First Amendment, he's beating up his own city.

But Cox is clearly up for the fight, ready to hit back at her holier-than-thou accuser, who dropped his Senate bid when his affair with Judith Nathan was revealed. "There is a commandment," the feisty Cox told the TV cameras. "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

Glass houses, Rudy baby. Glass houses.

Amy Reiter

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Catholicism Religion Rudy Giuliani