Thank You, Mr. Mayor

The Renée Cox Story. It’s the tale of a courageous African American artist who defies patriarchal authority—and the mayor of New York City—to fight for freedom of expression. Robin Givens plays the stunning photographer, who poses nude as Christ in the controversial masterwork Yo Mama’s Last Supper. Dustin Hoffman is Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which bravely displays the piece. James Woods is Mayor Giuliani, who denounces it as anti-Catholic. Al Pacino is Norman Siegel, head of the American Civil Liberties Union. John Waters is Philippe de Montebello, head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Al Sharpton plays himself.

Renée Cox appears as the superhero Rajé in her photograph Chillin with Liberty, 1998.
Courtesy Cristinerose Gallery


Ten years ago, who would have imagined that the obscenity trial against Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, which revolved around Robert Mapplethorpe’s graphic photographs of gay sex, would be re-created in a made-for-Showtime movie?

If we’ve learned anything from the Culture Wars, it’s that the media loves transgression—or, more accurately, what is perceived as transgression. One of the quickest routes to an instant 15 minutes of fame, short of being banished from Survivor, is to be branded offensive by a nationally known politician.

Staying in the limelight is another matter. Interestingly, few artists involved in high-profile censorship cases move on to greater prominence within the art world (with the exception of Mapplethorpe, who was dead by the time the obscenity trial took place). Remember Karen Finley, the chocolate-smearing performance artist attacked by Jesse Helms? She was one of the NEA Four, who sued the National Endowment for the Arts for denying their grants. A few years ago, she turned up naked in Playboy, reaching a whole new audience. The photo spreads, which also featured TV pundit Bill Maher and did not seem to be part of Finlay’s artistic oeuvre, are evidence that the avant-garde and entertainment worlds continue to merge in ways no one imagined.

Which brings us to Cox, the first artist in the Culture Wars to come with her own action figure.

Compared to the Mapplethorpe trial, which could have resulted in jail time for the director of the Contemporary Arts Center, or the “Sensation” case, in which Giuliani froze the Brooklyn Museum’s city funding because it showed a dung-bedecked Madonna, the immediate stakes were not particularly high this time around. Having lost the “Sensation” case on First Amendment grounds, all the mayor could do was to propose a decency commission to evaluate art in publicly funded museums, a suggestion so untenable and potentially unconstitutional that even the Wall Street Journal took him to task.

For Cox, however, opportunity knocks. Her work shows that she is poised to move into a number of arenas. In a photo Lyle Ashton Harris made “in collaboration with” Cox, she was Venus Hottentot 2000 (1995). She appeared in a lot of eye makeup, a metallic bra (think Madonna in Gaultier, but much more anatomically correct), and an accompanying metal “butt extension” that was intended to enhance the Africanness of her physique.

Then there is Rajé, a superhero Cox created for her 1998 show at New York’s Cristinerose Gallery. The exhibition featured photographs (in which Cox appears) along with a matching doll.

“Throughout her quest to garner equality for all oppressed people, Rajé struggles with issues as poignant as cross burning, the liberation of stereotypical icons, justice, the motherland, liberty, and the presidency,” the press material says. Rajé “embodies a calculated wrath, one that demands the eradication of patriarchal consciousness and transference toward the equitable realignment of our social current race and gender politic.”

One curious thing about Rajé, who is supposed to bust stereotypes, is that Cox modeled her on Christie, a black Barbie—in other words, a doll that is a pretty good example of fostering stereotypes. Cox added dreadlocks, a clingy leotard (I mean, “Jamaican tri-color threads”), and shiny black boots with spike heels so high you’d have to be a superhero to walk in them. Take away the PC press material and the pics could run in Playboy.

Now: modify the lingo and give the doll shoes that are a little more sensible, and Rajé is mainstream enough to cross over. She’s a postfeminist empowerment advocate with a kick that can kill you and a wardrobe to die for. Get a male rap star to design the outfits (Sean “Puffy” Combs?) and you’ve shown how genders can defy stereotypes, reaching a younger and wider audience than you ever could in a museum.

Whatever direction Cox takes, you could argue that she owes Giuliani thanks for bringing her into the public eye. The whole thing’s enough to convince artists to send “offensive” art directly to City Hall. They’d better hurry up—Giuliani’s leaving office soon.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.

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