It has been said that anti-Catholicism in this country is the anti-Semitism of intellectuals. Whether, and to what extent, this claim has any validity as a general proposition, it is certainly true that in certain quarters of our cultural and intellectual life, expressions of virulent anti-Catholic sentiment are regarded as a permissible prejudice. One of those quarters can be found nowadays on the fringes of the professional art world in New York.
This is one of the facts of cultural life that has to be kept in mind in assessing Mayor Giuliani’s indignant response to the photograph currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum called Yo Mama’s Last Supper , in which Christ is depicted as a naked black woman. Another fact, alas, is that legal challenges to the public expression of such permissible prejudice are destined to fail if the work in question makes claim to the status of art. Neither the courts nor the liberal media will support such challenges.
Does this mean that Mayor Giuliani was wrong to attempt to challenge the Brooklyn Museum for exhibiting this anti-Catholic photograph? I don’t think so. Some battles are worth fighting, even if they are likely to be lost. And who but the Mayor of New York is in a position to protest this blatant expression of religious prejudice in what is, after all, a municipal institution?
In New York, the liberal media have a lock on what passes for public opinion, and much of our liberal media are not themselves entirely devoid of anti-Catholic sentiment on certain issues-abortion and same-sex marriage, among others. It therefore causes them no pain to see Catholicism mocked in a public institution. Who but the Mayor is in a position to give voice to the sense of outrage that many New Yorkers must feel on being confronted, once again, with the spectacle of a city museum making use of its facilities to propagate religious prejudice?
Let’s face it: If the outrage in question had taken the form of an anti-black, anti-Moslem or anti-Semitic exhibition, there would now be a firestorm of protest that would shut down the museum, if only to maintain civil order, and the liberal media would be in the vanguard of that protest.
The Mayor has mounted his latest campaign against the Brooklyn Museum in the name of public “decency.” He wants to establish decency standards for public institutions. (What people do in private, even in the semi-privacy of galleries and publishing houses, is not at issue here.) In principle, I think the Mayor is right to raise the decency issue. It is, undeniably, a quality-of-life issue. But this too, alas, is another lost cause as far as legal remedies are concerned.
Decency has now become a concept all but impossible to define in legal terms, and socially the need to give it a legal definition has to be seen as a sign that the idea itself has already been lost to our society as a widely observed voluntary moral imperative. The whole tenor of contemporary American society-its tastes, its fashions and its entertainments-denies the authority of decency, and the single largest and most influential offender-the pop-culture business-enjoys a commercial market that effectively places it beyond moral censure. Senator Lieberman found that out in the last election campaign, when he was obliged to forfeit his reputation as a moral crusader overnight in order to secure the support of the immoralists in the entertainment industry.
In assessing the Mayor’s call for decency standards, however, it is worth observing that even lost causes are not always entirely lost. They have been known to leave in their wake a significant moral residue that lives on to haunt the very institutions that appear to have succeeded in surviving the censure mounted against them.
Consider the hapless case of the National Endowment for the Arts. After successfully surviving the censure and public uproar caused by its ill-judged support of Robert Mapplethorpe’s sex photographs, the Piss Christ escapade, Karen Finley’s chocolate performance art and sundry other scandals, the N.E.A. exists today as an enfeebled federal bureaucracy that very few people in or out of the arts give a damn about. It commands neither respect nor even much in the way of public visibility on the national arts scene. I doubt if many readers of this column could even name its current chairman. In the eyes of Congress and the public, its authority was effectively destroyed by its own hubris.
Something similar can be said about the Brooklyn Museum. Mayor Giuliani may have lost his lawsuit over the Sensation exhibition, but the museum lost the war, so to speak. Its authority, too-I mean as a serious art institution-has suffered irreparable damage, and its legal victory in the courts over the Last Supper photograph, if it should come to that, won’t do anything to save it. And this time around, it is doubtful that even Mayor Giuliani’s attack will do much for the museum’s box-office coffers. The kind of people who respond to such scandals by storming the Brooklyn Museum’s box office have already been there and done that.
Those who do venture to the museum will find that Yo Mama’s Last Supper has been given a shrine-like installation in the last room of the exhibition, called Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers , and that the same photographer-Renée Cox-also does a number on the Statue of Liberty. These unlovely pictures are accompanied by a statement from the photographer that reads, in part, as follows: “Calling attention to the constraints of classification imposed by Western patriarchal constructs, my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics.” So now you know.
In the exhibition itself, there are some good photographs, some horribly arty pictures, a good deal of conventional photojournalism and the usual art-school-type “experimental” stuff. I found the straight portraits superior to the rest of the exhibition. But the installation of the show is clearly designed to give Yo Mama’s Last Supper a special status, and the museum has now reaped its reward.
As for the critics of the Mayor’s plan to create a commission to set decency standards for museums that receive city funds, it was to be expected that The New York Times would lead the hue and cry, as indeed it did with its somewhat hysterical editorial of Feb. 16. About the constitutionality of such a commission, The Times is probably right: The courts are unlikely to support it. But the paper’s further claim that the Mayor is “proposing to inflict permanent damage on New York’s international reputation as a cultural center” is the sheerest nonsense. If unfettered permissiveness was all that was required for the existence of a thriving international cultural center, Amsterdam would today be the arts capital of the universe.
Artistic talents of every variety flock to New York today from all over the world because this is where ideas, money, opportunity and creative energy-and yes, critical controversy, too-nowadays exist in greater abundance than anywhere else on earth. The truth is that art institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, which has abandoned rigorous artistic standards for short-term political and commercial advantage, pose a greater threat to New York’s reputation as an arts capital than anything the Mayor of New York can say or do. To pretend otherwise is a sign of either willful ignorance or outright hypocrisy.