Oops, She Did It Again

A year and a half after the headline-making Sensation exhibit, the Brooklyn Museum of Art has sparked yet another controversy involving art, religion, freedom of expression, the role of the museum, and, not least of all, the nature of art criticism--which the philosopher Arthur Danto not long ago characterized as "a form of zealous howling." In the case of both Brooklyn shows, one of the most zealous howlers has been New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. When Sensation opened, he threatened to cut off public funding for the museum, an initiative soon extinguished by the courts. His response to the museum's current show, Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers, has been to call for a "decency panel," an idea that New Yorkers have tended to slough off with comments like "What's he know about decency? He's been cheating on his wife for years."

But the award for loudest howling by an art critic would have to go to Camille Paglia, who should get special mention for making big noises about both shows without bothering to attend either one in person--extraordinary behavior from someone who calls herself an "arts educator."

The first Brooklyn Museum dispute focused on Chris Ofili's painting of a Madonna in which dried elephant dung was used both as a base for the frame and within the canvas itself. Ofili, a winner of England's Turner Prize--the art equivalent of the literary Booker Prize--happens to be going though an elephant dung phase, as Picasso went through blue and Warhol went through Polaroid. Ofili intends elephant dung to connote or perhaps even to confer power, as it does, symbolically, in Nigeria, where he was born. In any case, his Madonna was the only work in the large show to make any reference to religion. The possibly ambiguous use of dung aside, it portrayed the Virgin as black and lovely. Nevertheless, Paglia exploded.

Her review of Sensation in the online publication Salon debuted under the header "Why are a Jewish collector and a Jewish museum director promoting anti-Catholic art?" For reasons of their own, the editors of Salon shortly withdrew this rubric that was perfectly true to Paglia's point. "I'm just as sick of åCatholic-bashing' as Giuliani himself," she wrote, charging "a Jewish collector" (Charles Saatchi) and "a Jewish museum director" (Arnold Lehman) with "either stupidity or malice" for displaying a "parodic image of the Madonna."

Paglia's current attack on the Brooklyn Museum centers on another Madonna, or possibly a Christ-Madonna hybrid. The piece in question is Renée Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper, a photographic rendition in which Christ's place at the center of the table has been taken by a naked black woman, Cox herself, with her arms extended in a manner some might find beseeching. Paglia's review of this represents an improvement over her Sensation piece in that she's actually bothered to look at the offending work, if only online. And this time, she adroitly steps aside and lets talk radio do what amounts to hate mongering for her. "Within 24 hours of the opening of the present show," she writes, "local radio talk shows in New York and Philadelphia were seething with allegations about the Jewish presence on the Brooklyn Museum's board." Paglia is issuing fair warning to the Jews: They're bringing it on themselves.

She adds that though she's an atheist, she recognizes "the spiritual richness and grandeur of the Roman Catholicism" in which she was raised, and despises "anyone who insults [its] sustaining values and symbol system." Well, fury, it seems, will beget fury. I don't know what radio talk shows Paglia listens to, but the one I heard had someone named Arik going on about how the Catholic tradition has, unfortunately, not been entirely innocent of Jew-hatred, what with the Crusades, the Inquisition, and all. He said that the more self-conscious Catholics have acknowledged as much and moved on. He did not count Camille Paglia among the more self-conscious Catholics but instead suggested that someone donate a copy of James Carroll's book Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews to her or maybe even send her pertinent recent statements by the pope. Arik insinuated that maybe a little purely symbolic Catholic-bashing by a couple of Jews would be understandable, given the history. I thought that was a disgusting idea, an appeal to our worst instincts, a throwback to religious war, so I immediately switched to NPR.

But what's at stake in the two Brooklyn shows isn't bashing at all: It's media. Both Ofili and Cox were raised as Catholics and have disavowed any desire to insult the religion--although it's hard to see why a Catholic should be deterred from expressing even the harshest or most errant thought about his or her tradition, trials for heresy having been discontinued long ago. Anyway, all that Ofili and Cox have done is avail themselves of Catholicism's elaborate iconography. This iconography constitutes no small part of the religion's grandeur and permits whatever dialogue Catholic artists choose to have with their tradition to take iconic form.

The same cannot be said, for example, of Judaism, for two reasons. First, Judaism is wedded to text. The drama depicted as Revelation on Sinai involves a decision about media as much as anything else. It portrays the Hebrews choosing the written word and abjuring imagery--a choice that, the veracity of the Bible story aside, has largely been sustained over time. The second reason comes from without: The Nazis have made it very difficult to offer a pictorial critique of Judaism without conjuring up the thought of genocide. What could it mean to see a burning Hebrew prayer book, a torn Torah, or a synagogue defaced with swastikas? One effect of Nazism has been to further deplete Judaism's already small store of imagery. It takes someone like Art Spiegelman (author of Maus, a memoir in comic-book form about his father's life) to negotiate the narrow minefield that is left. At the same time, to claim that Jews lack the inspiration for self-parody is to admit that one has never understood the likes of Franz Kafka or Philip Roth.

Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, might have used the Brooklyn shows to mull over such media matters. That she did not, and opted instead to express unthinking rage, is a complete betrayal of her self-proclaimed role as an intellectual.

It's very instructive to compare Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper with Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Leonardo portrays a single drama. The disciples discuss, dispute, expatiate--the scene is alive with conversation--but it all relates to Christ, seated in the middle, the painting's vanishing point directly behind him as he, too, makes a point. The disciples partake freely of the food scattered on the table, one meal for all. In Cox's photo, there is no single drama at all in evidence. The disciples are divided along the table into four groups of three. Each group has its own neat, largely uneaten portion of food. Only one disciple even deigns to notice the black woman in the middle who, by standing, separates herself further from the ensemble.

Leonardo's painting strives to re-create the event. The setting is a large Roman room, not necessarily out of place in first-century Palestine. And Leonardo does not intrude upon the scene with any of the Christian symbols that evolved later, such as the Cross. Cox, however, is several steps removed from the event. Crucifixes are sewn on draperies in the background. One of the disciples is dressed in a nun's habit. It's as if Cox is defining, through insignia, an incident that lacks the power to speak for itself. All the disciples, except Judas, are black, so it's possible to see the work as a tendentious gesture of affirmative action, retroactively applied. That view, though, does nothing to explain this Last Supper's other peculiarities. For me, there is a sadness about the piece, as if the reapportionment it effects has come far too late to matter much. The figure in the middle--Christ or Madonna--is black and female, but not even the disciples care. And she, in turn, communicates only to the camera.

Paglia glanced at an online version of Yo Mama's Last Supper only long enough to rush to her dire conclusions. It was not "original enough to sustain a major culture war," she wrote before launching into one. In fact, the piece is strong enough to sustain a variety of interpretations, a quality Paglia herself might have valued about it once upon a time. In a remarkable defense published 10 years ago in Tikkun, she embraced Robert Mapplethorpe's most challenging images and enthusiastically associated them with Catholicism's "tortured saints in transports of martyrdom." She further valued Mapplethorpe for restoring to a lethargic avant-garde its ability to disturb.

Something awful has happened to Paglia since she wrote that piece. She now denounces museums for "mount[ing] material offensive to Catholics." She has revoked the avant-garde's license and declared that the mission of art institutions "must be to evangelize for art, to demonstrate art's higher meanings." It's hard to believe that the woman who wrote these words would still praise Mapplethorpe; and it's impossible to think she'd do so if the curator happened to be Jewish. Paglia was once a critic worth listening to. Something, perhaps her celebrity, has poisoned her. At the rate she's going, she'll be remembered primarily for howling.

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