Controversy shrouds a confused exhibit

Giuliani's ranting aside, Brooklyn museum erred badly in its black photography show.

Art

March 04, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In a media-saturated world, there's no such thing as bad publicity. So New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's latest eruption against the Brooklyn Museum of Art, whose current show, "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers," includes a picture of the Last Supper that the mayor calls "offensive," predictably has only caused people to flock to the spectacle.

It's predictable because the uproar over Renee Cox's "Yo Mama's Last Supper," in which the artist depicts herself as a nude Jesus surrounded by 12 black disciples, is virtually a reprise of the furor over the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibit two years ago.

In that episode, Giuliani took umbrage at young British painter Chris Ofili's black Virgin Mary mounted on clumps of elephant dung and tried to cut off the museum's funding. A federal judge had to tell him to back off.

Now Giuliani is threatening to go back to court and also to set up a "decency" commission to screen what city museums show. Neither idea makes much sense, but the man is trying. He reminds you of those gangster types who, just before they whack somebody, explain that it's "just bidness."

In truth, sometimes you wonder whether Giuliani and Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman aren't secretly in cahoots with each other.

Think about it: First, the Brooklyn Museum shows artwork that has been exhibited many times without incident. Next, the mayor jumps in and denounces it as sick, vulgar, blasphemous and lewd.

Suddenly, the newspapers and talk shows pick it up, the right- and left-wing loonies start snarling at each other and the art world circles the wagons in paranoid defensive overdrive.

Next thing you know, the museum has a huge box-office hit, and the mayor has a national political constituency lined up behind him for whatever office he wants to run for next.

The biggest victim of the charade, of course, is the art itself, which gets slapped around like Silly Putty to make it fit everybody's agenda except those of the artists who created it.

Cultural tokenism?

This is a particular shame in the case of "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers," a show of some 200 works by 98 African-American photographers. The exhibition sets out to be a showpiece for a broad cross-section of living black photographers whose work has long been virtually invisible in the American art world, but it ends up mostly a hodgepodge.

"Committed" should have been an opportunity to make this work more widely known. But even if it hadn't been sidetracked by the controversy over "Yo Mama's Last Supper," the curators have put together something so uneven, unfocused and generally lacking in context that one begins to suspect the whole thing of being just another exercise in cultural tokenism.

The show keeps tripping over its own unexamined assumptions. It includes many photographs that are strong individually but whose impact is diminished by the seemingly careless way the show is put together.

Near the beginning of the exhibit, for example, we're told that black photographers bring a unique point of view to questions such as identity, community, leadership and notions of beauty.

Yet that point of view is never described. We're never told how black photographers' ideas might differ from those of other photographers, or how those differences might show up in their pictures.

As a result, there's no theme to unify the great diversity of work here, which ranges from traditional portraiture, documentary and photojournalism to surrealistic collage, advertising and commercial photography, with a few postmodern photographic fictions thrown in for good measure.

I think this approach, if it can be called that, does a real disservice to the photographers, lumping, as it does, artists of wildly varying temperaments, visions and methods all together solely on the basis of shared skin color.

It's patronizing and condescending in the worst way because it suggests that all you need to know, really, about these artists is that they are black, and that their blackness completely explains their art.

For example, if I have to look at one more image of little black boys cavorting in front of a gushing fire hydrant on a hot summer day, or of little black girls jumping rope double-Dutch, I think I'll scream.

Pictures like these have been taken by black photographers, by white photographers and probably by green photographers, too. They are such a cliche, what they are doing here at all seems a mystery.

Or take the images of the Nation of Islam. Gordon Parks did great work on the group in the 1960s, but lo these 40 years later, "Committed" seems stuck in a time warp.

All the guys are still angry militants scowling into the camera while wearing sunglasses and ill-fitting suits; the women are all exotic creatures in billowing robes and flowing headdresses that make them look like refugees from a Turkish harem.

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