Yo Mama’s Orthodoxy

Detail of Renee Cox, in The Pieta, by Renee Cox

Detail of Renee Cox, in The Pieta, by Renee Cox

Missing from the recent furor over Renee Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” — a series of photographs currently on display, and under political attack, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art — was the fact that far from being incendiary, Cox’s gender-bending Jesus (she poses as a naked Christ) is old news among critics of and even within the Catholic Church. Feminist and postmodern theologians have long theorized Christ as a woman, or as neither male nor female. As for a black Jesus, well, it doesn’t take an archaeologist to figure out that Christ wasn’t exactly rosy-cheeked.

None of these thinkers have thus far managed to topple the Catholic Church. So let’s assume that it’s safe for now, and turn to the real questions of faith raised by Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s latest foray into art criticism.

Giuliani’s position is less like a platform than a revival tent for a whole gang of uglies: racists who worry that if this picture stands (or hangs, as it were) they’ll soon be praying to a black Jesus themselves; Grand Inquisitors like the Catholic League’s William Donohue, who can’t abide the notion of a Church that encompasses mild heresy; prudes offended by photographic nudity; and traditionalists so ashamed to admit that they don’t “get it” that they’d rather the guv’mint just clear the walls.

In other words, the kind of audience that makes an artist’s career. In “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” Cox may be naked, but compared to her enemies, she looks so brave and wise that she might as well be wearing the robes of an angel.

Which, after all, is the right outfit for someone who’s claiming to be a Defender of the One True Faith. It’s Cox and her free speech allies who are the real crusaders in this picture. The faith they insist upon is the belief that art is by virtue of being art the path to salvation. Artists, not popstars with consciences, are the world.

Falling back on free speech to defend one’s art from political attack is tantamount to saying that art transcends politics. A lovely sentiment, but not very likely: Even the highest of art is an earthly endeavor, a truth attested to by the ever-heftier price tags attached to it the closer to the heavens it gets. The only thing high art transcends is the debate the rest of us who express ideas accept as part of public discussion.

It’s probably not fair to say that artists shy away from debate. Rather, it’s their allegedly liberal defenders at the helms of museums and editorial boards who bristle at the suggestion that art be subjected to something so banal as, say, democracy, in which any old rube can cast a vote. That attitude explains the fact that many art museum visitors feel like they’ve just had some kind of official experience in which they’ve been not participants in a dialogue, but witnesses to the work of their betters.

That’s the orthodoxy of the church of high art, and it’s one on which both defenders of Da Vinci and partisans of “Piss Christ” can agree. Art is divine, they say, and requires a priesthood to protect it. The real difference between Giuliani and Cox is that he calls his guardians a “Decency Commission,” and she calls hers curators and collectors.

In response to the Giuliani’s charge that her work is anti-Catholic and thus shouldn’t be supported by government money, Cox recently pointed out that she’s Catholic herself. “I feel that as a Catholic and having been put through that, I have the right to critique it,” she told Salon. But then she undercut herself by adding that her work “has nothing to do with being anti-anything. All my art is very personal — it comes from a personal place.”

Although Cox grew up in Scarsdale, the “place” she speaks of is apparently somewhere in Washington, D.C. She’s a fierce proponent of a government role in the manufacture of art, via agencies such as the N.E.A. “I consider myself a cultural worker,” she explains. Sounds like a great job, but does she really mean to say she’s working for The Man? Or does she believe that an artist’s vision is its own reality, immune to influence from its financial backers? Diego Rivera, whose 1933 mural for the Rockefeller Building was destroyed by some of Rockefeller’s other “cultural workers” because it included a likeness of Lenin, might have argued otherwise.

So long as merchants of high art dominate institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum, the Met, and MoMA, and do so with the help of government funding, art museums will serve much the same function as that of monuments: as tributes to the both the beneficence of the state and the boundaries centralized power imposes on real democracy. Artists who merely pose as critics of power, much less as messianic saviors, look a lot less holy when you realize they’re hanging out in houses built by robber barons and that their angelic robes are government-issue.

Art, like religion, exists in this world, even if it dreams of another. “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” loses what little power it has when its creator shies away from the implications of her own work: the possibility that Christians so little understand Jesus that they can’t even say whether Christ was a man or a woman; the eros of religious desire; the simultaneity of the world and the divine. Instead, Cox takes the easy way out, dismissing Giuliani as a Philistine who ought to keep quiet, and keep forking over funds.

Imagine if the Christ Cox depicts had done the same thing, disclaiming his controversial ideas by writing them off as personal expression. Alone with the disciples, he could have boasted about being subversive; confronted by hicks, he could have sniffed that they just don’t understand what’s good for them; and before Pontius Pilate, he — or she — could have said, “It’s Art. Now may I have another grant?”