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Giuliani's New Crusade
by Giovanni Garcia-Fenech

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is back on the art warpath, once again attacking the Brooklyn Museum of Art over an artwork that makes fun of the Christian religion. At issue is Renée Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper, a five-panel photograph lampooning Leonardo's The Last Supper in which Cox, nude, stands in place of Jesus Christ while the 12 disciples are represented by African-American men in period garb. The work is included in a new exhibition of 188 photos by 94 photographers, "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers," that opens at the museum today, Feb. 16-Apr. 29, 2001.

This time around -- and who could forget the mayor's embarrassing campaign last year to defund the museum over its "Sensation" exhibition -- Giuliani seems determined to play hardball once again. Accusing the museum of a "pattern of anti-Catholicism," he said he would appoint a commission to establish "decency standards" for projects that receive taxpayer funding. He told a City Hall press conference that he would take the case to the Supreme Court -- "the place where I think we could win it."

In a front-page report, the New York Times quotes two local politicians saying that the mayor has gone overboard. "That sounds like Berlin in 1939," said Bronx borough president and New York mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer. "I'm very reluctant about the government coming in and setting standards," said New York Gov. George E. Pataki. Giuliani, who is a Catholic, claimed that if a work like Cox's "were done against another group there would be an outcry in this city that would demand that they take the photograph down, but anti-Catholicism is just accepted prejudice, it is allowed in the city and in our society."

As in the brouhaha surrounding "Sensation," the mayor admits he has only seen the offending work in the Daily News, which ran a shrill spread yesterday with the self-fulfilling prediction that the BMA "could be in the thick of controversy again." Giuliani even used the paper as a standard by which to judge whether the piece should be in the museum, saying "The Daily News censored this photograph -- it covered the woman, who was nude, so the editors of the Daily News had to have said to themselves that this photograph is too indecent to appear in our newspaper the way it's going to appear in the museum. If it's good enough of the Daily News, I would say it's good enough for the city of New York." For its part, the newspaper makes little mention today of its role in the affair, devoting instead an article to the more newsworthy disclosure that Cox comes from a middle-class background.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman released a statement that makes no mention of either the mayor or Cox, saying only that "throughout history, the artist's responsibility has been to make us think. The works they create -- which generously share their feelings and thoughts with us -- is the reason museums exist, to act as dedicated mediums for this passionate expression. The best artists walk blindfolded on a high wire every time they go to work. We owe them no less than our unwavering commitment."

For her part, Cox is undaunted, firing back at the mayor in the Daily News, saying "now that he's been busted with the other woman, I wouldn't be talking about moral issues," a reference to Giuliani's highly-publicized relationship that may have contributed to the separation from his wife.

GIOVANNI GARCIA-FENECH compiles the Artnet News column for Artnet Magazine.