The art of the defensible

Posted: Feb 22, 2001 12:00 AM
When it comes to art, there's the defensible and the indefensible.

I, for one, will defend "Yo Mama's Last Supper," a photo by Renee Cox that depicts Jesus Christ as a naked black woman. Rudy Giuliani heedlessly and foolishly charges the picture is anti-Catholic bigotry.

I say foolishly because the mayor opens himself up to the obvious riposte, delivered with deadly accuracy by Renee Cox herself to the New York Post: "In terms of his decency thing, I would ask him to return to the other commandment -- thou shalt not commit adultery."

I say heedlessly because Rudy's reductionistic equation ("nekkid lady Jesus" equals "anti-Catholicism") is just silly. To portray Jesus as a vulnerable, naked black woman is not in itself any more offensive than portraying him, as medieval artists did, as a baby sheep. "Yo Mamma's Last Supper" is not anti-Christian. It is, however, viciously anti-Semitic. All the apostles are black except for Judas Iscariot, described in news reports as a "white man." But take a look: Judas is actually a crude caricature of a beaked-nose Jew gazing devotedly at the black Jesus figure -- just before he (the Jew) is about to betray Jesus (the black woman) and his movement (of black men). Need I say more?

When it comes to defending the indefensible, surely those who've rallied around Grammy-honoree Eminem deserve an honorary mention in the Bill Clinton Hall of Spin Doctor Fame. Eminem sings beautiful songs about raping his mama, killing his wife, spitting in other people's food and attacking "fags."

For my own amusement and edification, I've compiled a partial list from various press accounts of why it's OK to honor, broadcast, perform with or make money off Eminem:

Elton "Please Love Me" John: "I'm a big fan. ... If I thought for one minute that he was (hateful), I wouldn't do it."

CBS spokesman Chris "We'll Make Piles of Money" Ender: "We believe there will be a lot of viewers interested in seeing him perform."

Grammy chief Michael "He's Not a Bigot" Greene: "He hates everybody. He hates himself. He uses the microphone as a therapist most of the time and doesn't edit himself."

Pat "Artists Will Be Artists" Boone: "I'm totally opposed to violence, racism and homophobia, but I vigorously feel that we must respect an individual's right to speak his mind, especially when it comes to all forms of art."

One of the few singers not joining the Eminem chorus is Boy George: "If Pol Pot had a successful record, people would probably be running around him as well."

Boys love to think of themselves as rebels. For most of the hipsters, the social power to stigmatize morally now belongs on the left. So a younger generation of bad-boy artists are setting out to break the only taboos that matter. Or used to matter. Mere sex? Violence? Passe. Artists seeking the immoral edge are no longer content to outrage only Rudy Giuliani or Dr. Laura. Which is why Eminem must reach down so low -- dissing his wife, his mother and gays too.

The most peculiar defense comes from Eminem himself, who as Marshall Mathers on April 10 faces a prison sentence of up to five years on a charge of concealing a gun.

Eminem: "I think that Elton John, I think he gets it. Because the kids ... they are taking my music for what it's worth, you know what I mean? They're taking it with a ... grain of salt."

It's just art, in other words; don't think he really means it, or it really means anything.

"My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That'll stab you in the head/ Whether you're a fag or lez/ Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest/ Pants or dress -- hate fags? The answer's 'yes.'"

Is Marshall "It's Just a Harmless Schtick" Mathers right? Anyway, we'd all better hope so.