Tales of the New York Art Police:
Revolutionary Worker #1025, October 10, 1999
If somebody had asked me a month ago: "What's the connection between New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a clump of elephant shit?" I could have made an immediate link...but I never would have guessed the scenario that unfolded in New York City.
There in the last days of September 1999, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani opened the latest chapter of the late 20th Century Inquisition to forcibly impose Christian fascist values on all of society.
The Mayor's target was "Sensations," an exhibition of young artists from Great Britain, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. At the center of the storm: "The Holy Virgin Mary," a painting of a black Madonna by Chris Ofili--a London artist of African descent, known for using elephant dung as a symbolic element in his painting.
Raging that Chris Ofili's painting was a disgusting attack on Catholics, Giuliani demanded that the BMA censor the exhibition. The mayor growled: "...if they think that it is necessary to throw feces on important national and religious symbols, then they should pay for it." Some people began to wonder if they had missed something: Had the Virgin Mary magically appeared on the U.S. flag or had the mayor just let the Christian fascist cat out of the bag?
When the Brooklyn Museum refused to censor the art, Giuliani withheld major city funding from the museum and threatened legal action to remove the entire museum board. Not content with totally violating the political rights of the museum directors, Giuliani filed suit to evict the museum from city property.
It suddenly flashed through my mind that the mayor of New York has just opened the door to a new alliance--that millions of middle class art patrons in New York might have a new insight into how Amidou Diallo felt, standing in his doorway, holding his keys, moments before the NYPD fired 41 bullets into him.
My imaginings were interrupted by the rustle of clippings on the "Virgin" controversy piling up on my desk like so many dead leaves. The drama developed subplots. Cathedral Cardinal John O'Connor called Ofili's painting "an attack on religion itself." The U.S. Senate passed a non-binding voice vote to cut federal funding from the museum. And Hillary Clinton added her two cents worth of fear and ignorance--by declaring that, while censorship of the museum was 'not appropriate,' she would not set foot in the museum to see the offensive work.
I hopped on the Internet superhighway to see what I could find out about the latest "anti-Christ".
Chris Ofili is a rising star in a new wave of young artists in Britain--whose irreverent use of organic materials and objects has created a stir in the art world. One revolutionary artist compared this trend to the early punk music scene--"the artists share a 'fuck-stodginess' attitude but their politics ranges from radical to who-knows-what."
Chris grew up in London. His parents, who came from Lagos, Nigeria, worked in biscuit factories. In the early '90s the young painter won a travel scholarship to Zimbabwe--where he was disturbed by the remnants of colonialism and excited by the beauty of the African landscape.
The trip to Africa found expression in Ofili's art. Along with multiple layers of brightly colored dots (inspired by images from ancient caves in Zimbabwe), Ofili began to use elephant dung in his paintings. "There's something incredibly simple but incredibly basic about it," Ofili said, "It attracts a multiple of meanings and interpretations."
In Ofili's art the shiny clumps of elephant dung are both a reference to Africa and a mischievous play on the use of 'found objects' in art. In one painting of a mysterious goddess, a clump of dung is covered with gold--like a jeweled brooch. Many of his paintings rest on clumps of dung, like feet. And titles like "Two doo Voodoo" suggest that the artist is playing with the viewer. In "The Adoration of Captain Shit And The Legend Of The Black Stars" Ofili creates a self-mocking work in which white hands grasp at a black superhero ("Captain Shit"), while the real black "stars" elude the viewer--suggesting that wealthy collectors are trying to get a piece of the artist, but don't really understand his work.
I was really looking forward to a fight to defend an anti-religious art work against the censors. But the irony of the whole controversy at the Brooklyn Museum is that Ofili is a religious man and a practicing Catholic. The sign over the front door of his London studio reads: "This area is constantly watched and patrolled by the Lord"--an attempt by the artist to influence the young crack addicts who hang out in his doorway to "think about what they are doing."
In "The Holy Virgin Mary" Ofili presents a black African Madonna in flowing blue robes, with a shiny clump of painted elephant dung on one breast. In the glowing golden background, human genitalia and tiny bare bottoms (cut from magazines) take the place of naked cherubs found in many religious paintings. Ofili's Black Madonna has attitude, demanding recognition. And his use of cut-out pictures is a comment on what Ofili views as "sexually charged" overtones in historic paintings of Mary. But while Ofili reinvents the myth of the Virgin, in many ways the painting is a deeply Catholic work--contrasting the myth of the virgin with worldly sensuality.
And as I looked through the online catalogue of Ofili's work, I imagined a conversation with the artist about how he sees the whole myth of the virgin in relation to the centuries of oppression of women--and how he sees the role of the Catholic Church and Christian ideology in the enslavement of African people. In the midst of my atheist musings, it also struck me how reactionary the viewpoint of the would-be censors is--how the modern-day Inquisitors see anything but the most traditional representation of religious images as a threat to the social order. A statement by attorney Marvin Garbus caught my eye--comparing Mayor G. to the Nazis who banned any art that did not meet their racist standards. As you may know, Garbus defended the wicked comedian Lenny Bruce--who was persecuted to his death by police harassment. And for a minute I thought I could hear Lenny saying, "Freedom of speech, my ass!".
Notes from comrades in New York pointed out that entering into the cultural and morality wars is somewhat new territory for Mayor G. But he brought with him a reputation for punishment that sent a cold chill through the arts institutions of New York City.
And just as I was thinking how much we really need a powerful movement of resistance--and how much the people need art that is really challenging to the system-- news arrived that over 1,000 people had gathered to protest the Mayor's tyranny--including Susan Sarandon, Leon Golub, Reverend Daughtry, and revolutionary artist Dread Scott. A record number of people attended the opening show at the museum, and the press reported that a clear majority of New Yorkers--even a majority of Catholics--were opposed to the Mayor's censorship.
Like the old tale about people feeling parts of the elephant and thinking it was a snake or a tree or a bird, there are many interpretations of this censorship fight in New York. Some see it as a bid by Giuliani to appeal to upstate conservatives in the Senate race, some see it as a fight for first amendment protection, some see it as a fight for New York's status as a world-class art center, and some see it as a debate over whether taxpayers should pay for controversial art. But the shit is deeper than that.
Mayor G. has been something of a trendsetter among bourgeois politicians--for his willingness to coerce and intimidate the city towards his vision of a white, wealthy, and reactionary "civility." Now Giuliani is announcing himself on the national political stage as a champion of reactionary morality--another indication of how central this moral crusade is to a powerful section of the U.S. ruling class.
Mayor G. is infamous for saying that "freedom is about authority." With the assault on the Brooklyn Museum he is going another step. His reputation is staked on the brutal murderous suppression of Black and Latino youth. He came to power on the heels of a racist police riot aimed at Mayor David Dinkens. And on the very day last week when Giuliani filed counter-suit in state court against the museum, hundreds of his police held a stormtrooper rally in support of the four cops who shot Amadou Diallo.
That same night the NYPD arrested a prominent art dealer, Mary Boone--because an artist (whose work includes handmade guns) was distributing bullets as souvenirs at Boone's gallery. Mary Boone was put through the system--spending over 24 hours in jail. Even the New York Times wrote: "The escalating presence of New York City government officials policing the art world is ominous."
"This is all about control," Chris Ofili commented on the mayor's attempts to censor the museum. "It's like a play and somehow I got mentioned in the script. I think there's some bigger agenda here."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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