Revolutionary Worker #1103, May 20, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
Of course Giuliani had not exactly invited all these artists to supper. But I think it's safe to say that the folks leaning over big bowls of Vietnamese soup in a downtown Manhattan restaurant had done some serious bonding thanks to attacks on them by the New York City mayor and his assorted art police brigades.
The dinner followed a wild and wooly debate between Renée Cox and Raoul Felder. Renée is the photographer whose "Yo Mama's Last Supper" provoked Giuliani to set up a "decency commission" back in February to censor art exhibited in city-funded institutions. Felder is Giuliani's divorce lawyer as well as his point man for the decency commission.
"Yo Mama's Last Supper" was shown in "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers," at the Brooklyn Museum from February to April, 2001. The mayor labeled Renée's work indecent (well, to be precise, "disgusting" and "anti-Catholic") because she portrayed Jesus as a nude Black woman (herself). The piece is both reverent and playful as it protests and sends up the traditions of the Catholic Church--though, to my atheistic eye, it is a reinterpretation of and not a complete rejection of religious myth. Renée: "I was raised in Catholic schools, and was taught that 'we were all made in God's image.' So I made my own interpretation of 'Last Supper' with a strong Black woman at the head of the table of Black apostles.... I don't produce work that necessarily looks good over somebody's couch."
Next to Renée sat Brad McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, artists who were also in the news a few weeks ago because Giuliani decided he couldn't tolerate their "Witness: Perspectives on Police Violence," an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of Art which examines and exposes the epidemic of police brutality. ("A cop-bashing enterprise, not art," declared Rudy and the Police Benevolent Association.) The work features photos and voice recordings of victims of police brutality and their families emanating from old-time police emergency call boxes. The first home for "Witness" was the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and since then the artists have taken the boxes all over the city to sites where police murders have occurred, inviting citizen interaction.
On my right was Hulbert Waldroup, the painter who was recently in the national spotlight for his mural, "The American Dream," honoring Amadou Diallo, which appeared in late April on a store wall a few doors down the street from where Diallo was shot 41 times by cops. The 20x35 foot mural features four cops in Klan hoods, a skeletal Statue of Liberty waving a revolver with a pile of skulls at its feet, a burning U.S. flag, and a monumental and very beautiful portrait of Amadou. Within minutes of its unveiling, cop cars swarmed and a sergeant announced to the press: "It's not good. It's going to be taken down." But contrary to the art police, as of this writing, it has not been taken down. (A great story... see below.)
Rounding out this gathering of banned people's artists was an individual whose works have been denounced by President Bush the First, NY State Senator Molinari, and numerous other public and private officials, Dread Scott.
Over the past few months, citizens of New York City have been pelted with a stunning barrage of what I would call police art criticism. The mayor has led the charge, followed by bellowing archbishops, lawyers and gun-toting police. Some of the media has portrayed this censoring rampage as somehow rational, even honorable "child-protection" or "anti-bias" activity and the like. But the dominant response in the New York press has been a chuckling dismissal of these new clampdown efforts as the foolish drama of a lame-duck mayor and nothing for reasonable folks to worry about.
NOT. You better know the people are looking at a major problem when the mayor of the supposed cultural center of the western world declares that, "We are going to set up decency standards, I'm going to look at what penalties are available for this." And then he actually proceeds --- largely unimpeded--to set up a "decency commission" openly designed to ban from the city's publicly-funded institutions any art that offends reactionaries. All this is done in the name of being "sensitive to the feelings" of ethnic and religious groups and the by-now familiar reactionary mantra about the use of taxpayer funds.
This is serious, and it is not limited to, nor fundamentally about, what gets public funding. The police attacks on the Diallo mural make clear that art which dares to criticize official brutality is not safe from the marauding state. And the assault on Renée Cox was hardly limited to the mayor--Cardinal Egan built an entire Sunday mass around his insights on the "blasphemy" of "Yo Mama's Last Supper" which were then plastered across the tabloid front pages.
The heart of the matter for me is this: what kind of society are we going to live in? Are we going to live in a society where the powers-that-be support the right of the police to murder an unarmed African immigrant in cold blood and set up "decency" committees to attack artists who protest these atrocities? Or are we going to live in a society where the political and cultural institutions support and unleash the efforts of the masses to do away with all this oppression? And what will it take to get there?
Everyone on both sides of this battle understands very well that even an indirect threat of losing funding support can and has had a chilling effect on what gets shown, what gets said, and the whole direction and dialogue in the arts. The rather muted response from the city's museums to the current attacks are a painful case in point. As one administrator of a downtown arts center put it, "I hate the idea of having to look back over my shoulder when deciding on artists and works."
The backdrop for this current round of censorship attacks in New York is the 1999 "Sensation" episode, involving another exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA). In that incident, Giuliani went off like a torpedo in a no-holds-barred campaign to actually shut the museum down because they refused to remove a painting by artist Chris Ofili, depicting a Black Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung (which symbolized the soil of Africa to the artist--a devout Catholic). At a certain point, the people grasped the stakes of that battle. And they mobilized: Artists, museums, galleries and the public took united and firm action in the streets, the courts, and the court of public opinion. More than 1000 demonstrated to support the museum and attendance at the exhibit was huge. The mayor was defeated.
The current attack by Giuliani on the BMA looks to me like his attempt to regroup and get the body politic used to some things people should never accept. It is quite striking that the viewpoint of these would-be art censors sees anything but the most traditional representation of religious images as a threat to the social order. And combined with Giuliani's absurd position that the brutal armed enforcers of the state are an "oppressed group"--the whole agenda has a really fascistic flavor.
In response to the attacks on Renée's work, there have been artists' salons with Renée held by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! and the Beaver Group of visual artists; a panel discussion on the issue at Columbia University; a press conference with the New York Civil Liberties Union; and protest statements from diverse quarters including the Black Radical Congress and NY State Senator Tom Duane. The Brooklyn Museum itself has not been as pro-active about the attack on Renée as they were during the "Sensation" exhibit in 1999, but they have not backed off or removed the piece despite pressure, both public and who-knows-what behind the scenes.
Giuliani has had a rough time finding anyone to serve on his decency commission besides conservative flunkies with their hands out and noxious ideologues like Guardian Angel czar Curtis Sliwa (I think his art critic credentials must date back to 1994 when he actually tried to whitewash a piece by Dread Scott and Joe Wippler at Grand Army Plaza--because the art portrayed police as the enemy of a future people's revolution). Columnist Gail Collins quipped that Giuliani was hampered at the moment since "the nation's supply of moral watchdogs is pretty well picked over right now, what with the demand for appointees to the Bush administration." And one of the three "artists" on the commission, John Howard Sanden, a corporate portraitist, remarked to the New Yorker: "I told my son I'd be on the Mayor's panel and he said, 'What? Dad, that's Nazi panel. You can't do that!' (Dad's doing it anyhow.)
At the Renée Cox/Raoul Felder debate, the double-talking/whining Felder seemed to be the only one in the room who agreed with himself, or Rudy. The debate was sponsored by the Creative Coalition, a group of progressive people in arts and entertainment headed up by actor Billy Baldwin. Renée confidently held her own, with good humor besides, and actor/filmmaker Stanley Tucci drove home the stakes by reading a passage about an earlier art exhibit that had received crude "moral" condemnations which sounded remarkably similar to the mayor's recent proclamations. Tucci then revealed it to be a description of the "Degenerate Art Show" --an exhibition mounted in Hitler Germany with the intent of removing forever from public view all art deemed offensive to the ruling Third Reich. The forbidden works included anti-religious work, revolutionary themes, abstract paintings, work done by Jewish artists, any African art or African-influenced art, African American art and music, and a wide range of modern art which has since become part of the mainstream.
Even Jay Leno, the late-night host, took an uncharacteristic whack at the situation while interviewing the snarling reactionary Judy Sheindlin from the TV show "Judge Judy." Leno: "Now in New York you have this kind of fascist mayor thing going on--Giuliani." He even pursued the point later saying, "Hitler had an art program where any art which was abstract or cubist or any of this was, 'Oh, this was just the worst thing.'" There were demands the next day that Leno apologize but as far as I heard he never did.
If you know where to look, you can spot Hulbert Waldroup's Diallo mural from three stories up as you slide into the elevated Elder Street subway station in the Bronx.
There's a small crowd milling about on this warm Sunday afternoon as we walk over. I notice an older Black man kind of standing at attention in front of a big board propped up beside the mural. It's covered with photos and diagrams of the Diallo murder scene. The man, Bertrand Simmons, aka Socrates aka No-Love, explains that when the not-guilty verdicts came down for the four cops, the people protesting were told by the authorities to shut up because they didn't have the "facts." So Bertrand created this display, complete with his own architectural blueprint, which makes the argument through pictures that this was a close-range execution.
The initial unveiling of Hulbert Waldroup's mural happened to coincide with the NYPD announcement a day earlier that no department punishment, not even a slight reprimand, would be meted out to the cops who shot down Amadou Diallo. This outrage also helped bring the story of the mural to national attention, and it was a trip to see the opinions of the people about the mural actually make it into the press. From the NY Daily News: "This is fair," said Daniel Martinez, a retired merchant seaman, looking at cops as Klansmen in the mural. "The police would never go into a white neighborhood and do what they did here."
Hulbert recently described to the RW what happened immediately after the unveiling of the mural: "First one police car came, then another, then another. The cops were going back and forth, calling their commanding officer. Then they told me I'd be arrested if I didn't paint over the mural. But I knew they wouldn't do that cuz they would have had a riot. By that time over 250 people had gathered. So the police didn't really frighten me because the people were supporting me. Then later there was an emergency town hall meeting and people voted to keep the mural. No one backed down, everyone stood together in solidarity. That was a beautiful thing."
"Socrates" introduces me to a young Latino man from the block who had been up all night on volunteer guard duty to protect the mural from vandals. A few nights earlier, someone had painted over the cops in Klan hoods. By morning, Hulbert was out there to repair his creation. As an encouraging neighbor yelled, "Let people know what those cops did!" the artist got out the spraycans and added drawn pistols to the cops' hands.
Reporters at one point had made a big deal about how the owner of the store (a neighborhood botanica which sells religious items) had invited Hulbert to do the mural on his side wall but then had flipped out over the images of the cops in hoods. It was fairly transparent that the store owner, Jay Borrero, was put under heavy pressure by the cops (who do after all kill individuals in that part of town for a lot less). It was not clear how this would shake out until Amadou's father, Saikou Diallo, visited Borrero who shortly afterwards announced that the mural would stay up, as-is. As Borrero watched over Waldroup repairing the vandal's damage, he told the media, "He's fixing it up. The community will be happy again." I thought, what a cool example of how strong moves by the people can make others strong.
Back at our dinner we chat about what exactly Giuliani is up to with his relentless art censorship forays. This year is his last as mayor and he dropped out of a Senate race last year against Hillary citing prostate cancer. But his recent antics look to me like those of a man still planning to carve out a political future on the national stage. And these days that stage is dominated by the Republican right, including no small number of Christian fascists who have become very influential in high places. (I will only note by way of example that a politician-preacher like Pat Robertson, who seriously believes that most American cities are ruled by Satan, once had fringe-status but is now given equal time on "Meet the Press" and the like.) In this atmosphere, being the mayor of New York City brings with it a certain stigma of Sodom that Rudy is likely dying to shed.
Not being privy to the inner workings of the mayor, these ruminations are only a theory. But whatever his personal ambitions, Giuliani's political crusade against art that challenges traditional morality, white supremacy, patriarchal Christian/ Catholic doctrine, police brutality and coercion by the state, clearly echoes the program being promoted by powerful forces in the ruling class at this time.
At one point in the past few weeks, Giuliani was asked how his decency commission might rule on a work like the "Witness" exhibit that exposes police brutality. Giuliani remarked, "It's an interesting issue because it does play into something that I've described as a form of prejudice like racial prejudice or anti-Semitism, which is the prejudice against the police."
One can only say thank you mister mayor--for connecting the dots. His censorship campaign is a sobering indication of the dangerous and far-reaching political program afoot in this country. Not something the people can afford to discount as silly theatrics--or to tolerate.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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