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Hail to the Mayor

by Alexander Cockburn

Has art ever had a more gallant champion than Mayor Rudy Giuliani? We cannot as yet set him beside Pope Julius II as a patron of the arts, but give the man time. The only danger is that by the stridency of his onslaught on the Brooklyn Museum’s latest, rather feeble blasphemy against the dignity of The Last Supper, Mayor Rudy may be devaluing the effect of his comminations.

“Disgusting, outrageous and anti-Catholic,” was the over-heated mayoral outburst about “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”, a fifteen-foot photographic panel by Renee Cox depicting a naked black woman as Christ, surrounded by twelve white guys. The piece was shown in a church in Venice (Italy) in 1999, apparently without arousing any fuss. The same thing happened in Ridgefield, Connecticut, at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Arts. Nobody cared. It just shows how lucky the Brooklyn Museum is to have Rudy as its flack.

Renee Cox and her photographic panel, Yo Mama’s Last Supper.

Anyway, what was the mayor’s problem? That Christ was black; that he was getting in touch of his feminine side? Or that somehow it somehow reminded the mayor of the scorned and abandoned Mrs Giuliani’s recent flirtation with the Vagina Monologues. The Mayor could always strike back with His or Its side of the story in the presumably forthcoming Penis Monologues, starring Bill Clinton and other notables, assuming they don’t decline to testify on grounds of self-incrimination.

The local New York press has been derisive about the mayor’s roars and threats to block any public funding to the Brooklyn Museum, but talk from the New York Times or Daily News about First Amendment rights is hypocritical in the extreme, given the stance of these newpapers on smut.

The New York Times has been at the forefront of a drive to rid midtown of sex stores, thus enhancing the value of its own real estate. And here’s an editorial outburst from the Daily News at the start of this year: “The city is still plagued by 142 pornographic video stores, topless bars and other X-rated businesses – 73 in Manhattan, 42 in Queens, 14 in Brooklyn, nine in the Bronx and four on Staten Island. In the past two years, the Giuliani administration has padlocked dozens of porn shops and dragged their owners into court. But once there, tenacious smutlords and their lawyers have been able to find enough wiggle room in the city’s zoning rules to stay in business and continue blighting neighborhoods.”

The News’s beef was that the number of “smut shops” had only been reduced by two since the Mayor embarked on his anti-porn rampage. On January 3 of this year The News’s editorialist cheered Giuliani’s renewed efforts to shut down the crafty operators of porn video stores who’ve been trying “to pass themselves off as straight businesses by putting a few spaghetti westerns and kung-fu movies on the shelf.” How about that for respect for freedom of expression?

A few weeks ago I found myself at a small theater in SoHo, attending what had been billed to me as a recreation of Weimar and the world of Sally Bowles. This same Sally Bowles, as first created in a short story by Christopher Isherwood, then in “I Am A Camera”, a stage version that transmuted into Cabaret, was based on Jean Ross, my father’s second wife, a charming woman. So I’ve always taken an interest in the fictional versions of her time in Berlin.

The production in SoHo turned out to have nothing to do with Berlin and everything to do with Giuliani, since the strippers ousted from gainful employment in their usual premises were regrouping under the banner of Art. In fact it was a big relief not to listen to pastiche songs in the manner of Kurt Weill. It was the night of the much heralded snow storm that menaced New York the day of George Bush’s inauguration, so the audience of six was heavily outnumbered by the strippers. The acts were okay, though not particularly rousing. The star of the evening didn’t take off so much as a petticoat, being a magician who, since we’re on the subject of Weill, looked slightly like Lotte Lenya in her cameo appearance as the KGB officer in From Russia With Love. She ogled the sparse audience gloriously as she bumbled her way through her tricks.

Jean Ross was a gentle, cultivated and very beautiful woman, not a bit like the vulgar vamp displayed by Lisa Minelli. Jean died before her time at the age of 62. Her daughter Sarah, my half sister, wrote wonderful detective stories under the name Sarah Caudwell: among them The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder, Thus Was Adonis Murdered and, posthumously published, The Sibyl in Her Grave. Before she turned to crime Sarah was a barrister, and a very good one. She used to negotiate my contracts with Verso and I’d pay her by taking her to lunch at the Ritz. As in any other venue she’d light up her pipe, then when waiters rushed up to protest, fling the thing into her handbag, from which smoke would soon begin to wreathe our table.

Sarah felt strongly about Isherwood’s use of her mother, and wrote a piece about it in the British weekly, The New Statesman, in the mid-Eighties. Her mother Jean, she wrote, never liked Goodbye to Berlin, nor felt a sense of identity with the character of Sally Bowles, which in many respects she thought more closely modeled on one of Isherwood’s male friends. (His homosexuality could not at that time be openly admitted.)”

Sarah’s point was that Isherwood, supposedly so avant garde, was actually very conventional: “The convention does not permit an attractive young woman to have much in the way of intellectual accomplishments, and Isherwood follows it loyally. There is nothing in his portrait of Sally to suggest that she might have had any genuine ability as an actress, still less as a writer. My mother, on the other hand, was at least talented enough as an actress to be cast as Anitra in Max Reinhardt’s production of Peer Gynt and competent enough as a writer to earn her living, not long afterwards, as a scenario-writer and journalist

“Above all, the convention requires that a woman must be either virtuous (in the sexual sense) or a tart. So Sally, who is plainly not virtuous, must be a tart To depend for a living on providing sexual pleasure, whether or not in the context of marriage, seemed to [Jean] the ultimate denial of freedom and emancipation. The idea so deeply repelled her that she simply could not, I think, have been attracted to a man who was rich, or allied herself permanently to anyone less incorrigibly impecunious than my father. She did not see the question as one of personal morality, but as a political one.”

The pipe smoking did in Sarah in the end, presumably causing the cancer in her esophagus that killed her at the age of 60, last year. I knew her best at Oxford in the early sixties where she intrigued successfully to have women admitted to the Oxford Union. She was always exclaiming about so-and-so’s “wonderful profile”, pursuing dons with this particular asset. One don was known for watching television and Sarah, amid the ashes of her love, sent him this verse:

I cast aside my modesty, I laid aside my shame And on my knees I offered love ? or something much the same. You brushed my powder from your sleeve, with elegant precision And murmured: ‘Conversation is killing television.’ CP

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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