Art crisis???

Last month, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani brought out his well-worn anti-art diatribes again, when he heard that the Brooklyn Museum, his favorite target, was displaying a large, five-panel photographic work, titled Yo Mama's Last Supper, in which a naked black woman appears in the central position traditionally occupied by Christ among his disciples. "Disgusting," objected Giuliani at a press conference. He later weighed in with "outrageous" and "anti-Catholic."

The woman is Renee Cox, an artist who often undresses before her own camera in narrative photographic tableaux. The Brooklyn Museum has included her in "Committed to the image," a major survey of 94 black photographers that runs through Apr. 29.

Following the Mayor's adverse comment on Cox's work, it was immediately pointed out to City Hall that a British woman artist, Sam Taylor-Wood, who is white, had also appeared, unclad, as Jesus in her own photographic rendition of the Last Supper, seen at the Brooklyn Museum in the fall of 1999 in the exhibition titled "Sensation." While the show was the subject of last season's high-profile art scandal, Taylor-Wood's work passed without comment. The furor revolved around another religious work, The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting by British, Nigerian-born artist Chris Ofili. As almost everyone will remember, Ofili's large, colorful, carefully crafted black Madonna was also characterized as "anti-Catholic," because it incorporates three resin-encased clumps of elephant dung.

Certainly Giuliani's latest Brooklyn attack did not generate anything like the high level of political and media trauma wrought last year, when the offended Mayor temporarily held up the musem's monthly subsidy check, then threatened to fire the board of trustees, evict the museum from its building and disperse the collection. Eventually, the Mayor lost in court, restored the museum's subsidy, and the affair blew over [see "Front Page," Nov., Dec. '99, and "Artworld," May '00].

But now, apparently undeterred by last year's debacle, Giuliani has called for a "decency panel," staffed with "decent people" to countermand "tainted" curatorial decisions by any museum using public money. Though he hasn't the slightest legal, constitutional or political chance of creating such a panel (even Governor Pataki, himself a Catholic, has come out against it), he seems determined to proceed. It's been noted in the press that few prominent people seem likely to partake of this unpromising scheme, though certain conservative politicians and clerics have expressed guarded interest.

Essentially, however, Brooklyn II has fizzled--and the latest series of responses from political leaders and the media do offer grounds for a degree of high-culture optimism. Most press accounts took a tone of scorn spiced with wit. Meanwhile, audiences of course flocked to the show, reassuring reporters, when asked, that they were hardly scandalized.

Nevertheless, the Mayor's renewed attack prompts a strategic reassessment of a phenomenon so recurrent and predictable it deserves its own acronym: C.A.C., for "Contemporary Art Crisis." The C.A.C. can now be considered almost an art-world genre in its own right--a subcategory of performance art, the roles by now almost ritualistic and certainly well-rehearsed: The C.A.C. has battered us over and over since the now-legendary congressional assaults on the touring Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, as well as the histrionic fuss over Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Ron Athey's Minneapolis performance rumored to have dripped HIV-positive blood upon members of the audience (not true), and others.

These attacks have multiplied for a complex series of historical, demographic and political reasons. But the central point is obvious: they parallel the growing importance of contemporary art in today's culture. A large public now follows contemporary as well as traditional art. Considerable public funds go toward keeping our museums and centers of contemporary art alive and well. In this context, politicians understandably claim a right to speak out against what they regard as the misuse of these funds. But they do not, in general, grasp the broader principle: that certain sectors of contemporary art are valuable and deserve support precisely because they do not reflect the attitudes of mass culture, but rather prod us, provoke us, even shock us--and cause us to think. Instead, if any single work gives offense to them or to their constituents, they speak up loudly, purportedly on behalf of the voters and clearly with an eye to their own re-election.

If the prosecution in C.A.C. cases quickly takes on a predictable shape and strategy, so does the defense. Indignation, defensiveness and fear are the automatic responses on the part of our cultural institutions, trustees and pro-art politicians. The reluctance to speak out forcefully in public or on the floor of Congress contrasts markedly with the extremist rhetoric on the other side.

For weeks after he launched Brooklyn I, Giuliani heard barely a whimper from his opposition, save one or two mild protests from the City Council and a few low-key editorials. Finally, the city's 33-member Cultural Institutions Group, driven by its temporary chairman, physicist Alan K. Friedman of the New York Hall of Science, issued a joint declaration against the Mayor's move, calling it a "dangerous precedent." Friedman linked Giuliani to a series of moves that have impinged on First Amendment rights in the last decade. Both sides sued each other. In the end, the Brooklyn Museum prevailed on precisely these grounds, forcing the restoration of its funding.

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