New York mayor appoints "decency" panel
And New Mexico moves to oust Our Lady of Guadalupe in a bikini

By David D'Arcy

NEW YORK. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York has made good on his threat to create a "decency commission" empowered to shield New Yorkers from potentially offensive works in museums that receive money from the city of New York. The 23-person body will first have to agree on which kind of art might require fig leaves or banishment, although courts are likely to reject any effort by new Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission to impose "community standards" on galleries that the city funds.

The panel of political cronies and clergymen has its origins in the mayor's fury at a work depicting a nude woman as Christ at the Last Supper that was part of an exhibition of Black photographers at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Fuming at the "anti-Catholic" and "sacrilegious" nature of "Yo Mama's Last Supper," by Renee Cox, the mayor vowed that he would appoint "decent people" to ensure that the $115 million that the city spends annually on culture would not support work that his constituents might consider immoral. New York City also owns the buildings of such museums as the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The mayor's ire had no effect on the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution which had already survived Giuliani's attempt to strip its city funding after it presented "Sensation", which included another "sacrilegious" work, Chris Ofili's "Blessed Virgin Mary" with its patches of elephant dung.

Arnold Lehman, Brooklyn's director, declined to comment on the creation of the commission.

It is unclear what powers the commission will hold, other than to act as a rubber stamp for Giuliani's manoeuvres to shift funds away from institutions that fail to toe the line on irreverent subject matter.

The panel reflects the odd mix that forms the mayor's political constituency—the same constituency that has attacked works of contemporary art for being blasphemous or sexually explicit. Its chairman is a president of a corporation in New Jersey, who contributed to Giuliani's political campaigns and is not even a citizen of the city whose culture he might regulate.

Another member is Raoul Felder, the glib lawyer who represents Giuliani in the mayor's current divorce proceedings. The mayor's wife, a television presenter and actress, has performed recently in "The Vagina Monologues", a scatological feminist play that first played in theatres that were renovated thanks to favourable city tax laws.

Also on the panel is Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels civilian anti-crime patrol and a militant supporter of the death penalty, and Leonard Garment, a prominent lawyer who advised former president Richard Nixon.

Giuliani had hoped to appoint the painter LeRoy Nieman, the chronicler of boxers and showgirls whose works had appeared regularly in Playboy magazine, but Nieman declined to serve. Peter Max, the once-famous designer of consumer psychedelia, had been another candidate. Giuliani leaves office at the end of this year after the legal limit of two four-year terms, and is likely to be succeeded by a Democratic mayor with a different constituency and a more tolerant cultural policy.

Under constitutional law, his "fig leaf" panel would probably be judged illegal, but American politicians understand the "Mapplethorpe factor." They know that elected officials do not lose votes by denouncing contemporary art. Public opposition to contemporary art won't hurt Giuliani's fundraising efforts among right-wing Republicans throughout the country, should he seek election to another office.

Another dispute has already gathered steam in New Mexico, where the state-funded Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe is under pressure to take down a photograph that depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe, an apparition of the Virgin central to the iconography of Mexican Catholicism, in a bikini composed of roses. A bare-breasted angel is also in the digital print. "Our Lady" is the work of Alma Lopez, a Los Angeles artist and Catholic who claims to revere the image of the Virgin Mary. It is shown as part of the exhibition "Cyber Arte; where tradition meets technology".

The bishop of Santa Fe has called for the removal of the work. So has a local rabbi, who cited the picture's lack of "educational value." As this report goes to press (6 April) a public meeting to discuss the picture is scheduled for the city's convention centre, in order to accommodate the sheer number of enraged Catholics. The State regents, a panel of political appointees, will meet next week to decide whether to recommend removing the work from view. The museum has already displayed a warning panel to alert visitors who might be disturbed by the image.

Santa Fe, a city in which the cultures of traditional Hispanic Catholics and English speaking liberals already chafe with each other, has been the site of another recent battle. A museum was forced to take down a picture of a gorilla nailed to a crucifix, an image intended to draw attention to endangered species. Critics considered it disrespectful. "It's very funny—if you don't live here", said Ellen Berkovitch, a local art critic.