MAXWELL: Cardinal without authority to judge artist

3/7/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



I do not like second-hand experiences.

I personally want to see, hear, touch, taste and smell things for myself. I do not, for example, automatically accept the word of big shots, such as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Cardinal Egan, who delivered his first sermon Sunday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral since being elevated to the high position recently, when the determination of what is “good” and “bad” art is at issue.

As a child, I learned that the so-called quality of art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. This principle is especially true when African-American art dares to depict traditional Anglo icons and themes. So, when I learned that Hizzoner and Egan had their frocks in bunches over a photograph, Yo Mama’s Last Supper, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that depicts Jesus as a naked black woman, I started planning a trip to see for myself.

Giuliani is so outraged that he has proposed a decency commission to screen art museums funded with tax dollars. Last year, he tried but failed to cut off funding to the same museum because of another exhibit that featured the Virgin Mary dappled with elephant dung. I expect the mayor to utter something ridiculous. But I expected better of the cardinal, the leader of New York’s 2.3-million Catholics.

To me, Yo Mama’s Last Supper, one photograph in an exhibition titled “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers,” is respectfully rendered. Giuliani, Egan and others would do well to listen to art critic Clyde Taylor, who wrote an essay about “Committed to the Image”: ” “Black’ photography stakes out a novel terrain within modernity. From its beginning, photography has made itself the art of surprise, washing our eyes to newly naked perceptions.

“The camera’s eye has surprised us with revelations of poverty, pomposity, shy wistfulness, inhumanity, and sublimity. . . . Black photography as represented in “Committed to the Image’ . . . unsettles the comfort zone of idealized American society. As it confronts us with this challenge, the present exhibition testifies to the liberation of the black gaze.”

Yo Mama’s Last Supper is unsettling to many people, but few public figures have gone as far as Egan in condemning the work and its creator, Renee Cox, who posed as the nude Christ. The cardinal called Cox a “pathetic individual.”

“Sophisticates say this art is fine,” he said. “We stand for what is right and decent. We live the life of Jesus Christ against the tide without applause and only ridicule.”

How does Egan know that Cox is a “pathetic” individual? From what I know, she is a Catholic, a hard-working, dedicated practitioner and a decent person. Egan does not know a thing about this woman, except that she posed as a naked Jesus and had the audacity to go public with it. Egan’s ad hominem attack is typical of church people who think that Christ, along with the figures in the Last Supper, should be portrayed only in images of themselves.

Does a photograph make Cox “pathetic”? Here are my questions for Egan: Has the good cardinal ever used the word “pathetic” to describe the priests who molest little boys? Or has he been part of the vast coverup that protects these despicable men? Their behavior is both a crime and a sin. It often permanently ruins the lives of the children they abuse and the lives of the children’s relatives.

No one has reported that Cox, a mere photographer, has sinned against an innocent child. I may be stretching the analogy, but I must make the point that artful photography does not add up to being a “pathetic individual.” Even more, Egan does not have the ethical authority to judge this artist as a good or bad individual for her photographs. No human has such authority as far as I am concerned. We have the right, yes, but not the ethical authority.

When Cox made the image, consisting of five frames, in 1996, she knew it would be controversial. Controversy, of course, is often the essence of art. I take Cox at her word as she describes her motivation for creating Yo Mama’s Last Supper and similar images:

“My work addresses issues of race and gender, and particularly of power and sublimation. 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. Through my photography, I also strive to unleash the bisexual duality of the human psyche.”

I do not like all of Cox’s work, but I like Yo Mama’s Last Supper. It challenges most notions I have been taught about Christ and the Last Supper. For that, I am grateful.