You can tell it's the beginning of the political season when the Republicans start trotting out the obscenity of the other side's viewing habits. It's a trick that's played well from Hitler to Helms. All the senator (or senator-in-waiting) has to do is to bait the trap with, say, a photo of a crucifix dangled in a piss vitrine, and Bingo! The liberals walk in and slip on the elephant dung.
The recent kerfuffle over the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum is no exception. Except that this time the liberals have nowhere to hide. Where were they when Giuliani took out the sidewalk artists? Where were they when he closed down all the porn shops? They were, like Janeane Garofalo on Politically Incorrect, muttering that they were glad that somebody finally cleaned up that rat's nest so they could feel safe to walk the streets at night. Well, now Rudy's come for you, and good luck.
The shocking thing about the whole business is how the cross-dressing mayor makes New York look like a hick. (I mean, Brooklyn is more sophisticated? Geez!) Sensation is a show that drew fire two years ago at London's Royal Academy, mostly for Marcus Harvey's Myra. This portrait of leading British serial child killer, Myra Hindley, was a version of her mug shot rendered pixel-style in handprints from the under-fives. Predictably, one of the victims' parents swung by and slashed it.
Otherwise, the show survived to make absolutely no one bat an eyelid in Berlin earlier this year. It was about that time that I ran into the Chapman Brothers -- they're the ones who do all the mutant mannequins with the big dick-noses -- at the gallery for their own work that they'd set up in a butcher's shop. The first thing they wanted to tell me was that Sensation was over and they were quietly trying to put the whole thing behind them.
A quiet and small version of Sensation is being utterly ignored at the Haines Gallery in San Francisco even as I write, which is a sure sign that a movement is over. There's as much point in making a to-do about this show as there would be in trying to ban the Sex Pistols' reunion tour -- where's the outrage?
All over the canvas of a Chris Ofili painting, that's where. Which is a bit of a puzzle, because in Europe, Ofili's about as controversial as Mr. Rogers. In fact, they all though he was a bit boring at first -- his paintings were too artsy-crafty and "decorative." That was before he got fed up with one painting that wasn't going right and smeared a handful of elephant shit over it. Deciding that it looked all right now, he covered it in resin and became famous.
Picture with Shit on it was a big hit, and now the papers run cheerful little stories telling the kiddywinkies how to get their art materials from the London Zoo. Since then, Ofili had a sole exhibition at the prestigious Serpentine Gallery last year, and went on to win the even more prestigious Turner Prize, which puts him in the running with Damien Hirst (sending art to Mars) and Gary Hume (representing England at the Venice Biennale) as Britain's top artist.
So what's the problem? Is it because his painting is called The Holy Virgin Mary? Is it because it's stood up on a couple of elephant turds? Is it because he cut out a hundred pictures of naked bottoms from cheap pornography and stuck them to the canvas? Or is it, perhaps, because Mr. Ofili is black?
Maybe that's a cheap shot at Mr. "Whitebread" Giuliani. Religion + shit = a huge political mess any day of the week, but that analysis just scratches the surface. Whenever the blinds of censorship roll down, it's not the straight white males who get the treatment, it's the easy targets, targets like the AIDS-riddled street hustlers David Wojnarowicz and Robert Mapplethorpe, the three-quarters gay and lesbian NEA Four, the eminently Latin Andres Serrano.
This ongoing campaign of marginalization connects knee-jerk numbskulls like Dan Quayle to any shithead with a swastika. It doesn't really need to be mentioned, but Hitler had clear ideas about what kind of art ought to express Nazi society, and took fairly extreme measures to eliminate the competition. Not that I'd be calling Giuliani anything as obvious as a fascist, but he's finding it all too easy to make political hay out of a traditionally (and literally) easy target in New York, the Black Male. And Ofili is so very male and so very, very black.
His phosphorescing backgrounds are blobs of bright and delightful paint arranged in patterns that are straight out of African folk art. The foreground images are pop art cartoons that wouldn't look out of place on a Miles Davis album or in the pages of Badazz Mofo. Sexuality is repped by full-breasted, lusty Afro queens and the porno cut-outs (and yes, there's miscegenation), while humanity is repped by celebrity cut-outs, Samuel Jackson, OJ, Muhammad Ali, all torn from the pages of People magazine.
Even the shit is black. The legendary dung (African elephant, of course) is found not only on the canvas, usually decorated batik-style with colorful map pins, but also supporting the canvases. It's a joke, and an old and pointed joke at that -- most painters stand their canvases on paintpots while they work in just the same way, so what Ofili is telling us is that he paints shit. It's a no-brainer to recognize that that this isn't just London punk attitude but it's a message: This is still what it feels like to be black in the art world. To quote Cornel West (in Race Matters):
"White supremacist ideology is based first and foremost on the degradation of black bodies in order to control them. One of the best ways to instill fear in people is to terrorize them. Yet this fear is best sustained by convincing them that their bodies are ugly, their intellect is inherently underdeveloped, their culture is less civilized, and their future warrants less concern than that of other peoples."
The recurring character who rescues Ofili from all of this is that space-travelling pussy magnet, Captain Shit, who looks every inch like Luke Cage, Power Man, the world's first ghetto black superhero, only with a pile of cash money backing him up. Just like Sun Ra and George Clinton before him, Ofili's riffing on cartoons as an escape valve, because when you run the cartoon routine, you can (usually) slip by the censor.
Except when you try adding dung and porno to the BVM. In an interview with Kodwo Eshun, Ofili explained what he was up to with The Holy Virgin Mary:
"I wanted to juxtapose the profanity of the porn clips with something that's considered quite sacred. It's quite important that it's a Black Madonna ... I wanted to make a 90s version of Christ's mother. ... I was ... looking at van Eyck's paintings of mother and child. The exposed breast is hinting at motherhood but those images are very sexually charged. I think the Virgin Mary was an excuse for pornography in the homes of these holy priests and Godfearers. So I think in the '90s a version of it would allow the pornographic images to come more to the surface. [W]hat would have been angels [flying around her] are now replaced by bumshots clipped from magazines. I really think it's a very beautiful painting to look at, full of contradictions which is perhaps why it's been misunderstood."
Yeah, and in this case willfully. If Ofili's Black Madonna is offensive, it's offensive like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, it's offensive like gangsta rap, it's offensive like, if you want to get down to it, Malcolm X. The thing that offends me is that the Mayor of New York thinks Ofili's art should just dry up and blow away, and that stamping on freedom of expression is an okay way to win cheap political points.
Whether it's out of ignorance, expedience, or malevolence, racism is racism. It's enough to make you vote for Hilary Clinton. And that's really obscene.
Paul McEnery went to school with Gary Hume and he won't let anyone forget about it.