Catholic League president calls controversial Christ photo ‘morally objectionable’

Wednesday, February 21, 2001
Photographer Renee Cox, artist of ‘Yo Mama’s Last Supper,’ slaps hands with William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, after sharp exchanges over free expression on ‘Speaking Freely’ panel moderated by Ken Paulson, First Amendment Center executive director.

NEW YORK — A color photograph of a nude black woman as Jesus Christ at the Last Supper is Catholic-bashing “propaganda” and “morally objectionable,” the head of the Catholic League for Legal and Civil Rights told a First Amendment Center audience yesterday.

In his first face-to-face meeting with the artist who created the image, League president William A. Donohue said the work should not be supported by taxpayer money.

“I don’t think there should be public funding for the arts, period,” he said.

Artist Renee Cox, however, called the current controversy over her work “ludicrous.”

Cox said her job as an artist is to create work that reflects her personal experience and provokes thought.

“I grew up as a Roman Catholic, and I consider my role as an artist to be able to critique what I lived through,” she said. “In terms of the First Amendment, everybody has the right to do what they want to do. It’s for me as an educated person to decide whether or not I want to deal with it, and whether or not I want to see it.”

Cox’s photograph, titled “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” is one of 188 works by 94 artists in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art commemorating Black History Month. The show also includes a second photograph by Cox — one of a series of herself as a superhero she calls Rajé — in which, among other things, she rescues Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their boxes.

This is not the first time there has been a controversy involving free expression, art and the Brooklyn Museum. In 1999, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, also a Catholic, tried to shut down the museum over an exhibit called “Sensation,” which included a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung. That exhibit drew large protests and prompted a series of legal battles between the mayor and the museum.

Giuliani has reacted angrily to “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” calling it “disgusting” and “outrageous,” and saying that “anti-Catholicism is allowed to flourish without people getting outraged about it.” The mayor has promised to create a “decency panel” to monitor publicly funded artwork in the city.

Photographer Renee Cox listens to Catholic League’s William Donohue.

Donohue’s organization, the Catholic League, describes itself as America’s largest Catholic civil rights organization “motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment … to safeguard the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened.”

Donohue did acknowledge yesterday that Cox has the legal and constitutional right to create and display her work. But, he said, neither she nor the Brooklyn Museum should receive public money to do so.

“The fact of the matter is, over and over again, there is a certain degree of arrogance in the artistic community that somehow they can be the only people in American society who have a right to the taxpayers’ money who don’t want any public accountability,” he said.

One of the most pointed exchanges came as Cox explained, “I am an artist. I am not a politician. I am merely giving you my interpretation of how I see something. Somehow I feel that as an African American woman, maybe that is perhaps the biggest affront to people, that I should have the nerve and audacity to depict —”

Donohue interrupted her by saying, “If you had managed to keep your clothes on…”

“Wait a second, wait a second!” she replied. “I read that little passage in the Bible that says we’re all created in the likeness of God, and to present myself like that is the reason I am nude. I have nothing to hide.”

During the debate, Donohue also said that, despite his objections to certain works of art, he disagrees with the mayor’s “decency panel” idea.

“It does have an odor to it in terms of First Amendment freedoms,” he said, “which I don’t like.”

Addressing Cox directly, Donohue said, “I just want Renee to see if she can understand where I’m coming from.”

Then he asked, “This is Black History Month. If we had at a publicly funded museum, a picture of a white man urinating into the mouth of Martin Luther King, would you find that offensive?”

“I never thought of that, urinating in Martin Luther King’s mouth,” a visibly surprised Cox responded.

Moderator Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, asked Cox whether there was any art, no matter how objectionable, that she would refuse to exhibit publicly.

“No,” she responded firmly. “As an artist, my first concern is integrity. To do what I believe in and what I feel, and that’s it.”

“I think the whole thing is ludicrous,” she added. “Artists have always done topics that have been provocative, that have been thought-provoking. All of my work is very personal.”

Cox, who is no longer a practicing Catholic, said she found it “uplifting” to replace the traditional depiction of Jesus with a nude image of herself, “a person of color … just as Leonardo da Vinci found it uplifting for him to represent the Last Supper with people who looked like him.”

She also said she believes there should be more public money devoted to supporting the arts, and to teaching arts education in public schools.

Yesterday’s debate between Donohue and Cox will be broadcast on “Speaking Freely,” a weekly television show about the First Amendment, the arts and American culture, sponsored by the First Amendment Center and hosted by Paulson.

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