February 20, 2001
volume 12, no. 51

Bishop says Brooklyn Art Exhibit shows 'religious insensitivity'

By Tracy Early , Catholic News Service

    BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CNS) -- Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn said in a statement Feb. 15 that he was ``disturbed by another display of insensitivity toward religion at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.''

    The statement referred to an exhibition, ``Committed to the Image; Contemporary Black Photographers,'' opening Feb. 16 and on view through April 29.

    Controversy arose over a 15-foot, five-panel photographic work by Renee Cox titled ``Yo Mama's Last Supper.'' It includes a picture of herself nude taking the place of Jesus in a depiction of the Last Supper. The apostles she pictures are 12 clothed black men.

    Cox's work is one of 188 by 94 black Americans. News reports said her panel had previously been shown at an Italian church, Oratorio di San Ludovico in Venice, as well as the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., and other places.

    ``The religious photos in the current exhibit, insulting to people of all races, arrived just as Christians are approaching the penitential season of Lent, which prepares us for the Lord's Last Supper and his death on the cross,'' Bishop Daily said.

    New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Catholic from Brooklyn, called ``Yo Mama's Last Supper'' disgusting, outrageous and anti-Catholic.

    He said he would establish a commission to set ``decency standards'' for museums that received city funds.

    The city owns the building used by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and in 1999 Giuliani sought to evict it and cut off city funding for it after it presented ``Sensation,'' an exhibition of works by modern British artists.

    That exhibition included a painting by Chris Ofili, identified as a Catholic born in Nigeria and working in England, which was titled ``The Holy Virgin Mary'' and showed a woman with elephant dung forming one breast and pornographic cutouts surrounding her.

    A federal judge ruled that Giuliani violated the First Amendment in seeking to punish the museum. But in a news conference Feb. 15, the mayor said that he might file another suit and base it on a 1998 Supreme Court decision that allowed Congress to set decency standards for grants to be awarded through the National Endowment for the Arts.

    Arnold L. Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, acknowledged that some of the works in the photography exhibit might be ``controversial and difficult for us as viewers,'' but said that ``throughout history the artist's responsibility has been to make us think.''

    Giuliani said of those exhibiting the controversial works, ``They do it on purpose; they do it to get more attention.

    ``The problem with it is, if you allow people to continue to do it and not react to it, then it's just going to get worse and worse and worse,'' he added.

    Ofili's painting was criticized by the late New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor in a homily, and Bishop Daily issued a statement expressing support for a boycott of the exhibition and for cutting off public funds going to the museum.

    ``I had fervently hoped,'' Bishop Daily said in his statement about the current photography exhibit, ``that the experience gained from the crass `Sensation' episode would have put the museum's foray into religious disrespect behind it.''

    He asked, ``Why is the Brooklyn Museum of Art showing no regard for the religious sensibilities of the community? Why another vulgar display of anti-Christian sentiment? Is publicity more important than respect for religious belief?''

    The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, based in Manhattan, released the text of a letter its president, William A. Donohue, sent Feb. 15 to the curator of the photography exhibit, Barbara Millstein.

    ``To vulgarize Christ in this manner is unconscionable,'' he wrote of the Cox portrayal of the Last Supper. ``That it was chosen for inclusion in this exhibit is morally indefensible.''

    Donohue also wrote that ``Renee Cox is no stranger to Catholic bashing,'' saying she had previously produced a number of works that ``used Catholic imagery in ways that are patently offensive.''

    Cox, identified in press reports as a 43-year-old native of Jamaica who attended a private Catholic school in the New York City borough of Queens, part of the Diocese of Brooklyn, has been quoted as saying she ``grew up Catholic.''

    ``Being a Catholic -- they are about business, money'' she was quoted as saying by The New York Times Feb. 16. ``I don't believe in all the philosophy and how it's set up. Catholics had no interest in the abolition of slavery.''

    In a Feb. 17 letter to Lehman, Michael J. Cummings, spokesman for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, said that by including the Cox work the Brooklyn Museum of Art ``has once again failed in its mission to promote and uplift the human spirit.''

February 20, 2001
volume 12, no. 51
USA News
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