Arts Extra: The 'Censorship Drill Again? Yo Mama!'

Almost all of the critical and press attention for "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers" (at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through April 29) has been focused on one work: Renee Cox's "Yo Mama's Last Supper." We'll get to that in a bit. But any major museum exhibition with almost 200 works in it is obviously about more than the scandalousness of a single piece of art. If nothing else, it's about causing viewers to think about a few things.

Here's what "Committed to the Image" prompted in me:

1. What's right about the show "Committed to the Image" features two works apiece by 94 photographers ranging in age from 25 to 88, who work in everything from straight black-and-white reportage to large-format color pictures to digitally manipulated images. It gives a whole passel of very deserving photographers long-overdue exposure on an art-world center stage. It provides the BMA with a way to connect more closely with the African-Americans in its audience (Brooklyn is 41 percent black). The show also allows the public-blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, everybody-a photographic look at aspects of, and variations within, black culture and recent black history. All this makes the show, on balance, a good one. Of course, it could have been a great one.

2. Good work in the show Among many examples, there's Gary Jackson Kirksey's: head-on, no-frills portraits of couples, such as "The Terrells: Andrew and Veeta" (1996), who've been together for some time. Kirksey is unsentimental in getting crisp compositions that hold together no matter how long you look at them. But he's far from immune to the humanity and nobility of everyday folk. Ron Tarver, on the other hand, is one of the few artists at the BMA who doesn't photograph people; rather, he turns his attention to simple, anonymous (to the point of dreamlike) and desolate urban landscapes. Tarver uses a few lens-manipulation and darkroom tricks to evoke antique photography, but he does so adroitly and with restraint. The results are both beautiful and poignant.

3. What's wrong with the show Given the big, sweeping survey "Committed to the Image" intends to be, it's a little skimpy; 188 works simply aren't enough. It also feels underresearched and hurried, yet another example of a curator (Barbara Millstein in this case) overdelegating to a selection committee. The exhibition is divided into the kind of abstract, uplifting themes ("Beauty," "Fantasy," "The Continent") you might associate with the Tournament of Roses. Finally, the labels are awful. You get the title, date and photographer but, in a large area that could have been put to use as an expanded caption, there's a mawkish, onward-and-upward artist's statement ("All of my art is at one and is a reflection of my life"). Read two or three and you've read them all.

4. "Yo Mama's Last Supper" by Renee Cox This five-panel, full-color reenactment of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece is a bad work of art. Though technically impressive, it's still formulaic photography (think of publicity stills from 1950s Bible-epic movies), coupled with allusions to 19th century pompier painting, and a satirical wit that's strictly undergraduate. Cox, who appears frontally nude as Christ (that's what the flap with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is all about) is fantastically good-looking. But outside of technique, that's about all she brings to the photographic table. Worse, "Yo Mama's ..." is Cox's better piece in the show. For truly narcissistic and lame, try the superhero riff called "Chillin' with Liberty."

5. Leonardo's "The Last Supper" The famous Renaissance mural in the monastery of Santa Maria della Grazia in Milan is likely one of the most revered, homaged, and imitated works of art on the planet. It's also one of the most exploited and lampooned-right up there with Leonardo's own "Mona Lisa," Grant Wood's "American Gothic" and Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy." Sure, "The Last Supper" is a Catholic work of art (as was almost every work of art made in Italy 500 years ago), but lots of artists have made fun of it for nonreligious reasons. Its one-point "railroad track" perspective and melodramatic bisymmetry are difficult for modern artists not to laugh at. My own favorite take is the English comic Eddie Izzard in one of his improvisational routines, morphing momentarily into Jesus and saying to the disciples, "We can't all do the big arms [pose]; we'll look like a squadron of Spitfires!" Although Cox has admitted her intent to criticize the Church's record on slavery in America, that debate doesn't render "The Last Supper" sacrosanct.

6. Censorship and free speech Lawyers have a saying that "interesting cases make bad law." A corollary would be that "interesting free-speech cases usually involve bad art." The last truly great work of art outrightly censored in this country was James Joyce's novel "Ulysses" in 1934. Most of our recent cases--Dred Scott's trampled American flag, Karen Finley's smeared-chocolate performance, Chris Ofili's elephant-dung'd "Madonna" etc.--have involved pretty good art at best, mediocre art in the main. A sense of dreary deja vu comes over me-and many other critics I know, although most of them won't confess to it in print-every time we're summoned to the barricades to defend a "controversial" work of art that wouldn't get much attention otherwise. So, for the record: Renee Cox and the BMA are right; Mayor Giuliani and his proposed "decency committee" aimed at weeding Cox's sort of art out of taxpayer-funded museums are wrong, both legally and philosophically. Legally, because the First Amendment guarantees it, philosophically because there is as yet no 28th Amendment guaranteeing anybody freedom from being offended.

7. The Brooklyn Museum of Art I suspect, in the same innards that suspect that Hillary Rodham Clinton did know about her brother hitting up Bill for pardons (that is, I don't have audiotapes on my desk proving it, but to think otherwise defies everything I know about wives and brother-in-laws), that the BMA saw this controversy coming, and even welcomed it. The "Sensation" exhibition and the Chris Ofili controversy caused attendance to skyrocket-how could it not? And the separate alcove the museum has devoted to "Yo Mama's ..." at the culmination of the exhibition is pretty close to a smoking gun. For the BMA to compel the public and the press to go through the "censorship!" drill yet again over a particularly vacuous work of art is a real drag. And the controversy's overshadowing items #1 and #2, above, is a small tragedy.

8. An afterthought on "Contemporary Black Photographers" A long time ago, when I was working on a review of a Helen Frankenthaler show, a female colleague at NEWSWEEK pointed out to me that it was patronizing to write-as I was about to-that Frankenthaler was one of the "best women abstract painters" in the country. Why not, she asked, just "one of the best painters" (or whatever rank I might assign Frankenthalter), period? The admonition sticks. Years later, when I see a show subtitled "Contemporary Black Photographers," I wonder what a black colleague would say if I referred to one of the artists in the show as "one of the best black photographers in America?" I don't think I'm the only one who's asked himself that question: the wall text introduction at the BMA notes that several photographers who were invited to participate in the exhibition declined.