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Shock of the Nude: The Artistic License to Offend

Latest showdown prompts formation of decency panel.

by Mark D. Johnson
February 27, 2001

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Shock of the Nude: The Artistic License to Offend_Mark D. Johnson-Latest showdown prompts formation of decency panel. Rudy Giuliani and The Brooklyn Museum of Art are at it again. It was two years ago when the bad boy of New York museums held the infamous Sensation exhibit featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. This time the offending art is a photograph called "Yo Mama's Last Supper," a take-off of Da Vinci's famous Last Supper scene with a nude woman, the photographer herself, Renee Cox, standing in place of Jesus Christ. Once again, The Mayor is outraged, calling the work "anti-Catholic," and proposing the creation of a decency panel that would review works at publicly-funded institutions such as the BMA.

This war has been going on since the whole Mapplethorpe controversy got people on edge a little over a decade ago, and each time a new battle takes place, there is little more to be added to the debate since the previous flare-up. The stereotypes are now familiar: on one side we have the conservative pro-religious family values types who think these shock artists are second-rate wannabes who threaten to wipe out decency in our civilization, while on the other side are liberal free speech fanatics who think conservatives are just tiny-brained sexually-repressed idiots who can't understand art. Neither camp ever seems willing to acknowledge valid arguments made by their political enemies. So how will this war ever end?

Free Speech and Hate Speech

For defenders of shock art, the First Amendment is the golden rule. Many of these same people, however, find themselves in a hypocritical position when they denounce gay-bashing or anything racist in nature. After all, hate speech, technically speaking, is free speech too. The irony for conservatives like Giuliani is that by raising such a ruckus over this art, it only draws more attention to it, and artists like Renee Cox gain instant fame regardless of their work's artistic merit.

I was actually surprised when various musical artists came to rapper Eminem's defense during last week's Grammy Award controversy, saying that Eminem as an artist is free to speak his mind (though of course they don't agree with what he says). I give them credit for being consistent for once, but there is a fine line between supporting free speech and condoning unacceptable and possibly damaging behavior. I suspect many of these artists have their limits too, despite what they say. I wonder how Renee Cox, an African-American, would react if a blatantly racist painting were placed next to "Yo Mama's Last Supper." She would have to accept that, right? She would have to defend white-supremacist art. Under the Almighty First Amendment, there is no taboo content in the art world. Everything and everyone can be freely exalted or attacked.

Defining Obscenity

"What is art?" This question has been around since the Modern Era was ushered in by the likes of Picasso, and we're no closer to a definitive answer today. But with the formation of decency commissions the question becomes "What is offensive art?"

Defining obscenity isn't always an easy task, and artist concern over decency panels is valid. I can see how many religious people would be offended by "Yo Mama's Last Supper." The naked woman as the Christ figure adds a sexual element to the scene that can easily be taken as blasphemous. Incidentally, Cox has explained that she is making a statement in the painting about the Catholic Church's standing on women's issues (though I haven't heard what the painting's nudity has to do with her theme). On the very same day that exhibition opened, another exhibition opened in suburban Chicago that includes a painting titled "The Last Pancake Breakfast," in which various breakfast icons like Toucan Sam, Cap'n Crunch, and Snap, Crackle, and Pop sit at the Da Vinci Last Supper table with Mrs. Butterworth in the center. I thought it was funny, but there have been many complaints. The artist, Chicagoan Dick Detzner, often mixes familiar corporate images with religious images in his works in attempt to point out the power of advertising. Another of his paintings shows Jesus Christ on the cover of a Wheaties box with the slogan "The Breakfast of Saviors." Again, this makes me laugh, though I very much appreciate the seriousness of religious art. I don't know if Detzner is really poking fun at Christianity, as some believe, but these two examples strike me foremost as amusing parody.

"The Last Supper," by Da Vinci, is one of the most famous paintings in art history, and as such, is vulnerable to parody like that you see with the "Mona Lisa" and "American Gothic." In light of this, it becomes questionable to set a standard that says that any parody of "The Last Supper" can not be displayed in a publicly-funded museum.

The main problem here is that the public is footing the bill for some of these offensive-to-some displays. It will be interesting to see if Giuliani's decency panel can help put an end to the ongoing debate. Early indicators suggest that it will likely just stir up more argument.

Memo to the Parties Involved

Until this whole public funding of art issue is resolved, I leave you with some things to consider the next time offensive art stops the presses.

To Museum Curators:
If you are accepting public money, think twice before displaying art that will obviously offend a large segment of society. I know some of you eagerly seek out such material - it's done wonders for the Brooklyn Museum of Art's attendance figures - but placing notoriety above artistic integrity abandons the high principles upon which museums were first built and disrespects the tax-paying citizens. Seek loftier goals.

To Mayor Giuliani:
Instead of an angry public condemnation of the latest controversial piece of art to hit one of your city's museums, first try a polite private meeting with museum officials and see if they are willing to entertain your point of view. Why give shock artists the publicity that they crave?

To Artists:
It is your right to take religious symbols and pervert them in various unthinkable ways. However, you are not entitled to have taxpayers pay for your blasphemy. I know that religious bigotry is largely accepted in American society today, but use your imaginative brains to come up with something different. Otherwise, your shock art will and should be viewed as nothing but an attempt to get your name in the newspaper.

To Offended Christians:
One clergyman said in response to the "Last Pancake Breakfast" painting, "My devotion and faith are bigger than any single piece of art." While grave concern about our culture is warranted, and in my opinion should stir you to speak up for decency, try also to keep things in perspective. Jesus said that his followers should expect persecution. So… What Would Jesus Do?

Comments (1)

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Everett from Wisconsin writes:
February 28, 2001
It sounds as though the Jesus I know would laugh at the Wheaties Box and the Pancake Breakfast, unless they are offensive in ways not described. He might even laugh at DaVinci's version, which is hardly an historical photograph, particular when it comes to the halo.

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