As most sentient New Yorkers know, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has appointed a 23-member Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission, reviving a long dormant and presumed extinct institution that is now charged with providing oversight of the artworks displayed in publicly funded museums. Presumably “oversight,” in this case, doesn’t mean forgetfulness; it means finally determining community standards for the least communal city in the world.
The committee is to be chaired by Lawrence Herbert, the chief executive of Pantone Inc. As all you art directors, graphic designers and upscale house painters know, Pantone is the authority on color, so Mr. Herbert is undoubtedly qualified to determine whether art is “off-color” or “blue.” The Vice Chairman is Imam Izak-el Pasha of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, who, depending on his interpretation of the Koran, might consider art representing living things to be heretical. The Commission’s Decency Subcommittee chairman is President Tricky Dick’s former lawyer, Leonard Garment, for whom the garment district is named.
Then, on the left, there’s lawyer-novelist Bartle Bull, the former publisher of that citadel of correctness, The Village Voice , who is also the author of a novel that graphically depicts the sexual escapades of a midget. Another eminent attorney on the panel is Raoul Felder, Esq., the Mayor’s divorce lawyer, whose billing clearly demonstrates a mastery of obscenity. The panel’s other divorce lawyer is Lester Wallman, noted co-author of Cupid, Couples & Contracts: A Guide to Living Together, Prenuptial Agreements and Divorce , who can be contacted through www.Split-Up.com. Then we have Giuliani campaign contributors Bud Konheim, the chief executive of Nicole Miller, who has said, “Ninety percent of women prefer comfort over fashion,” and Mary Ann Mattone, the wife of lawyer Joseph Mattone, a man who took special courses on condemnation, appraisals and valuation at Columbia, and who is a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem as well as the Knights of Malta, Eastern Lieutenancy. The most spectacularly bearded member of the committee is Rabbi Shea Hecht, “the Jewish cult buster,” who once presented Don King with a humanitarian award. On the Christian side, there’s full-gospel honcho Bishop Roderick Caesar, pastor of the Bethel Gospel Tabernacle and member of the “United States Prayer Force.”
Also on board is Herbert London of the Hudson Institute think tank, author of the upbeat tomes From the Empire State to the Vampire State: New York in a Downward Transition and Why Are They Lying to Our Children ? Then there’s Curtis Sliwa, New York City’s favorite paramilitary. He cleaned up Times Square; now he’s keen to clean up our museums. There are also several actual artists on the panel, including Diana Kan, “the first lady of Chinese art,” Constance Del Vecchio-Maltese, an illustrator married to a Republican state senator, and John Howard Sanden, who paints costly and realistic portraits of chief executives and V.I.P.’s on commission. Mr. Sanden’s distinguished models have included the Reverend Billy Graham, Senator Robert C. Byrd of Virginia (who was only kidding when he made those racial remarks), His Majesty the Alafin of Oyo from Nigeria, His Excellency the Oni of Ife, and Virgil C. Dechant, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus.
Oddly, no art critics or art historians have been nominated to the panel. I doubt if it’s because they couldn’t find any art writers who have been less than enthusiastic about Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ , Chris Ofili’s pachyderm-poop Madonna or the manner in which Bob Mapplethorpe carried his bullwhip. If I were a mayor concerned about publicly funded blasphemy, I’d have surely nominated some of our more independent-minded critics, such as Robert Hughes or Hilton Kramer. I might have even nominated myself, since I’m more into abstract painting than conceptual sacrilege.
Most observers think that the Mayor’s Decency Commission has as much of a chance for success as his marriage. Even Cultural Affairs Commissioner Schuyler Chapin believes that the First Amendment protects museums from the meddling of inspired moralists. But still, couldn’t the Mayor have made better appointments? I would never appoint a decency panel in New York without including Jackie Mason, a man who can really hold his own with elephant excretions. What about Don Imus? If, as Rudy alleges, the art emperor is naked, shouldn’t we have more naked-emperor spotters and fewer campaign contributors on the panel?
Of course, if the Mayor is willing to back off a bit on the “oversight” concept, the committee might yet prove useful to the art world in a consulting capacity. Here’s how I see it working: Instead of holding embarrassing public meetings at which members vent their outrage at examples of what Hitler termed “degenerate art,” the committee could work within the art community to help artists meet standards of seemliness on a one-to-one basis. This might take the form of the time-honored studio visit. Each panel member could call on a number of decency-challenged artists for counseling, allowing artist and moralist to exchange ideas. Just as non-artist Clement Greenberg was instrumental in the refinement of Jackson Pollock’s work, so today’s contempo artists might genuinely benefit from this panel’s undeniably broad experience. If our artists were directly assisted, they might be more inclined to play ball with Yankee Fan No. 1.
I could certainly see Jeff Koons gaining from the advice of Raoul Felder and Lester Wallman, the prenup king. If the decency panel had existed 10 years ago, they might have nipped the whole sordid Ciccolina business in the bud. And I’m guessing that if a developer like Alan Friedberg got a look at one of Mr. Koons’ blooming puppies, it could change the whole landscape of the city.
The talented young artist Tom Sachs has run afoul of the law, as when the city decided that the homemade firearms in his last show at the Mary Boone Gallery were illegal (maybe they didn’t have trigger locks or serial numbers). It got so bad that Mary Boone went to jail. I figure the savvy Rabbi Shea Hecht might be able to shake some sense into Mr. Sachs’ head. This “cult buster” might be able to get Mr. Sachs out of the habit of making cult objects like the Hermès Value Meal or the Prada Death Camp. Who knows: Don King was once accused of murder; maybe Mr. Sachs could wind up with a humanitarian award, too.
What are we gonna do about Renée Cox depicting Christ at the Last Supper as a naked black woman? Well, I say let’s send Bishop Roderick Caesar over to Renée’s studio with a bathrobe! Send in the “Prayer Force” to drop a bomb on her soul.
And what about Bud Konheim? Let’s face it: When he got involved with Nicole Miller, she was nothing more than a mid-level necktie designer. But by learning to think big the Bud way, she is now a top head-to-toe designer. What do you suppose Mr. Konheim could do with an artist like Karen Finley, who’s obviously talented but stuck in the smut rut? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Ms. Finley could be having a career on the Kathie Lee level. And when I start imagining the “happenings” an artist like Vanessa Beecroft-known for her assemblages of armies of naked babes-could do with a little help from a streetwise organizer like Curtis Sliwa, I get chills.