Published: February 20, 2001
O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts! – John Keats
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – There is an amusing story surrounding the first US exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s art at the Metropolitan in 1935, in which artist Hugh Troy, a well-known practical joker, set out to prove a point using a velvet case and a piece of chipped beef. His reproduction of van Gogh’s ear, displayed on a gallery table with the description “This was the ear that Vincent van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, 24 December 1888,” became one of the show’s main attractions.
Nearly two years after the media sensation created by The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s 1999 “Sensation” exhibit, it appears Troy has nothing on New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Giuliani and the museum are butting heads once again after a February 15 press conference at City Hall, where the mayor blasted the BMA’s current “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers,” specifically a 15-foot, five-panel work entitled “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” one of 186 images by 94 artists in the show.
“Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” by Renee Cox, features the artist, naked, predictably grouped with 12 apostles. Cox told the Associated Press she wished to convey her criticisms of the Catholic Church in the image, including its refusal to ordain women as priests. The work was exhibited at the Aldrich Museum of Art, Ridgefield, Conn., in 1996, with absolutely no public outcry.
“Get over it! Why can’t a woman be Christ?” Cox asked AP.
“I think what they did is disgusting…outrageous,” Giuliani informed gathered members of the press. Such anti-Catholic sentiment, he continued, “is accepted in our city and in our society.” The mayor threatened to appoint a commission to create “decency standards” for museums receiving public money. He had yet to see the exhibit himself.
“This is the kind of issue that he can get very passionately involved in,” Peter F. Vallone, City Council speaker, told The New York Times. “[Giuliani] feels he’s on God’s side.”
It is interesting that the mayor sees no conflict between his position as the city’s defender of the Roman Catholic faith and his very messy – and very public – personal life. (Shortly after announcing his separation from wife, Donna Hanover, in May 2000, he was accused by Hanover in the press of having an affair with a former aide.)
Humor and incongruity also joined hands as a shocked William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civi Rights – Sancho Panza to Giuliani’s Quixote in this tale – informed the Times of the organization’s reaction to news of the exhibit: “We immediately went out and purchased a copy of the [exhibit catalogue].” Perhaps $24.95 of lasting shelf life for offensive material is worth more than the $6 price of admission and a verbal report.
Among museum responses to the commission proposal, Metropolitan Museum of Art’s director, Philippe de Montebello, gave the Times the murkiest of the lot. “We think it would be most regrettable if the actions of the Brooklyn Museum of Art led the City of New York to create a decency panel that would impact responsible museums citywide and measurably erode the reputation of New York City as a global capital of culture.”
While the mayor claimed the BMA’s actions were “on purpose…to get more attention,” in the Times BMA officials retorted that Giuliani “was the one seeking attention,” with only 10 months left in his term.
“The mayor ensured…Ms. Cox and the museum got the attention they seemed to desire by firing back,” offered Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. “And a work of art that should never have been news to begin with escalated into another debacle.
“Art thrives on provocation,” he continued. “That is frequently its purpose and value.”
The BMA’s official statement carried a different emphasis. Director Arnold L. Lehman described “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers” as “an important exhibition which brings to public attention, for the first time, the accomplished work of 94 artists. The Brooklyn Museum of Art, one of the earliest advocates of photography as a museum-worthy medium of expression, is proud to present the rich and diverse points of view which characterize the contemporary nature of this exhibition.
“The experience, perception, and creativity of each of these Black artists helps all of us to more sensitively and intelligently understand the world around them and us. While many of these works are beautiful and easy to enjoy, others may be controversial and difficult for us as viewers. Throughout history, the artist’s responsibility has been to make us think. The work they create – which generously share their feelings and thoughts with us – is the reason museums exist, to act as dedicated mediums for this passionate expression. The best artists walk blindfolded on a high wire every time they go to work. We owe them no less than our unwavering commitment.”
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