When it comes to censorship, 65-year-old writer Salman Rushdie has been through the ringer. In 1988, upon publishing his controversial book, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie became a wanted man—wanted dead, that is. The book, deemed blasphemous due to its depiction of Muhammad, was banned in several predominantly Islamic countries and inspired acts of vicious protest all across the globe. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran notoriously issued a fatwā for Rushdie’s demise, forcing the writer to live for years in perpetual fear of his own assassination. To this day, the fatwā is technically still in place, though Rushdie seems to be more at ease. In fact, just last year Rushdie released a personal memoir, Joseph Anton, detailing his time in hiding (Wikipedia). For class we read and discussed his article “On Censorship”, which can certainly be classified as anti-censorship. Obviously, being an artist himself (and a highly censored one at that), Rushdie possesses some strong feelings towards censorship, calling it “…anti-creation, negative energy, uncreation…” among other things. He argues that contrary to what some people believe, constraints imposed by censorship are not helpful but harmful to art and artists in the grand scheme of things. He says that great art is a revolution, and that “original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge”. He doesn’t believe that censorship should ever be justified for the mere sake of preventing any group from feeling offended. But most importantly (in my opinion) is Rushdie’s argument that it is necessary, at all times, for an artist to be free and feel confident that he/she will continue to be free in order for his/her artistic choices to be driven by talent and not coerced by fear.
Corpus Christi is an ambitious “passion play” written by good ol’ Terrence McNally in the late nineties. Since it first opened, the play has been a subject of controversy to say the very least, labeled as blasphemous, sacrilegious, irreverent, and so on and so forth. Set in Corpus Christi, Texas amidst the 1950’s, McNally boldly reimagines the Christian faith’s savior Jesus Christ as a gay man, gallivanting about and engaging in sexual acts with his homosexual disciples (particularly Judas). But this play, like many works of art, is intended to be more than just entertainment. Corpus Christi is a vehicle for social change, and its political/religious agenda lurks prominently between each page. In fact, towards the tail end of the play, Joshua (Jesus) gleefully condones same sex marriage between his two disciples, James and Bartholomew:
JAMES: Bartholomew and I had wanted our union blessed for a long time—some acknowledgement of what we were to each other.
BARTHOLOMEW: We asked, Josh. They said it was against the law and the priests said it was forbidden by scripture.
JAMES: “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.”
JOSHUA: Why would you memorize such a terrible passage? “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good”. I can quote scripture as well as the next man. God loves us most when we love each other. We accept you and bless you. Who’s got a ring? (P.48)
But just as Joshua/Jesus is sealing the deal on the two men’s marriage, he is interrupted by a disgruntled High Priest who informs him that he has “broken every commandment”, to which he replies, “You are hypocrites. You are liars. You have perverted My Father’s words to make them serve your ends. I despise you” (p.49) I feel that this particular section of the play is where the heart of McNally’s argument lies. Not only is he advocating for gay marriage, but in doing so he is imploring people to look at the bible in a new light and see that it’s not all black and white—that just because you identify as a Catholic/Christian does not mean that you have to hate homosexuality. However, many people have not gleaned any such message of poignancy, taking harsh offense to the entertainment of the idea that Jesus may have been gay and that he even had a sexual nature to speak of. Performances of the play have been protested, (sometimes violently) and McNally has allegedly received death threats over it (Wikipedia).
I personally do not think Corpus Christi is fabulously written, but I do think that it is conceptually unique, thought provoking, and well-intended (despite what Bill Donohue has to say).
Speaking of Bill Donohue…where do I even begin? He’s a real piece of work. William Anthony “Bill” Donohue is the current president of the Catholic league for religious and civil rights, a gig he’s held down since 93’. He has a PhD from NYU and is famous (or infamous rather) for his persistent trolling of various public figures, artists, comedians, musicians, and whatever and whoever he considers to be slanderous, even in the slightest, towards Catholicism. If he don’t approve, he wants to get it removed! As we saw in class, South Park did a rather hilarious parody of Donohue in their 2007 episode, “Fantastic Easter Special”, completely vilifying him (perhaps justifiably so). Surprisingly though, for Donohue, this South Park depiction proved to be a great source of pride. He thinks it’s swell (Wikipedia). But hey, I guess I’d be flattered too if South Park parodied me, even if the parody was an unflattering one.
Donohue also wrote the book Secular Sabotage: How Liberals Are Destroying Religion and Culture in America, from which we read the fourth chapter, “Artistic Sabotage” where he brings up a whole slew of “offensive” artists. One of his big things is that he believes the government should NOT be able to subsidize any kind of art, performance, or anything for that matter that he does not personally agree with, adding that the funding of such fraudulent works “Means the taxpayers were raped”, and later that, “This is pure unadulterated hate speech. And the government should not be involved in hate speech against my religion and anyone else’s.”
So when Donohue caught wind of Corpus Christi, he was on it like white on rice. Indeed, between litanies of “Another gay ex-catholic”, Donohue spends a decent chunk of the chapter candidly chronicling his epic protest of McNally’s play. Suffice to say that seeing Jesus as a gay man really ruffled his feathers. Another major argument he makes is that “The artistic community would never dream of offending gays, Jews, and blacks”. Donohue seems to feel that the Catholic Church has been victimized, made an easy target. He even claims on page 79 that “There is no other segment of the population that can be trashed with impunity by the artistic community and still receive the plaudits of playgoers and the cultural elites. Yet they persist in the fantasy that they are the tolerant ones”. Hmmm.
2.) I am going to be talking about the iconic and eccentric seeming pop sensation “Lady Gaga”, previously known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. With some research I quickly learned that Lady Gaga has been censored on several occasions, in several different countries, all within the last few years or so. However, I will be focusing my attention on just three instances in which the singer has experienced censorship:
• Sometime in early 2011, Gaga’s so called “gay anthem” (Born this way) was censored on Malaysian radio stations in an attempt to distort its supportive message for the LBGQT community. Stations apparently blurred out the lyrics, “No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way” from the hit song. Malaysia, as a country, is still very conservative in a social-religious sense, and homosexuality is widely condemned (Sean Michaels, the Guardian).
• Again, in 2011, Lady Gaga’s music rocked the boat—but this time in Lebanon. Her album Born This Way was totally banned by Lebanon’s General Secretary Department, their vague justification being that it is offensive to religion. There has been speculation that the track “Judas” may have been the key offender. In the music video, Lady Gaga portrays Mary Magdalene, leather clad and in the middle of a biker gang love triangle of sorts with Jesus and Judas (Didymus). In other words, blasphemous! But it also possible that, similar to Malaysia, Lebanese officials banned the album due to its sanction of homosexuality (Blauvelt). Or perhaps it was both these things combined.
• According to an article in The Telegraph, in 2012, Lady Gaga was met by some major riff raff when she went to perform a show in the Philippines. Approximately 500 conservative Christian protestors assembled in hopes of putting a stop to her performance, and particularly to the controversial songs “Judas” and “Born This Way”. Interestingly enough, many people were put up to the boycott by Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, a Catholic leader (sounds familiar, eh?) Lady Gaga did not appease the protestors and instead proceeded to perform without cutting either of the songs.
3.) Truth be told, I’ve never really been a big a fan of Lady Gaga myself. I think her music is a little lackluster (It’s just not my genre). However, I must say I admire her work as an activist. She uses her celebrity status to promote messages of equality to a mainstream audience on behalf of marginalized groups/people. She has really taken a stand for the LGBQT community and anyone who might be the victim of prejudice in society. The fact that she recognizes she has power and voice and gives it to those who do not, is pretty commendable. Her hit, Born This Way, seems to be particularly influential. The song argues that we are all born the way God intended us to be regardless of our skin color or sexuality. It refutes the old idea that we can change people to fit societal norms. In short, it’s about acceptance. In her own words, Gaga has said, “The point, with ‘Born This Way,’ is to fight for something that not everyone believes in”, and she personally believes that “Honesty and the truth is always what will set you free”.
• I think that Lady Gaga and Salman Rushdie are connected because they are both artists who have had their work censored and branded “blasphemous”. But beyond that, they seem to have similar views on censorship, and clearly, neither one of them thinks it is a dandy thing. Rushdie and Gaga are in favor of absolute freedom, not just for some, but for all (even for individuals in the margins). In his article, Rushdie has this to say:
“The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today” and “When censorship intrudes on art, it becomes the subject; the art becomes “censored art”, and that is how the world sees and understands it”.
In an interview from a couple years back, Lady Gaga said:
“If the artist is constantly molding ourselves and changing and abridging what we do for the machine, then the artist becomes part of the machine. I don’t want to be part of the machine; I want the machine to be part of me”.
While Gaga and Rushdie may not be saying the same exact thing verbatim, I feel as if they are essentially getting at the same idea. They feel that thoughts of censorship negatively impact an artist’s conscience, and in turn, inevitably impact the work an artist produces in some way.
• I believe there are quite a few parallels between Corpus Christi/Terrence McNally and Lady Gaga’s body of work. It would appear that they are both using their art to further a social/political/religious agenda. Both are advocating for the acceptance and love of all people, and both are privileging gays. While it would appear that McNally’s play has attracted more controversy overall, the grounds for censoring Gaga’s music video “Judas” are strikingly similar to the criticisms of Corpus Christi. Christians were offended by seeing Jesus and his disciples depicted as gay men on stage, and they were also offended by seeing Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene (Gaga) depicted as bikers dancing in risqué attire and taking suggestive baths together on MTV. Because of this “blasphemy”, Lady Gaga’s concert that featured “Judas” was protested in Manila just as Corpus Christi was protested at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
• So how are Dirty Donohue and Lady Gaga connected? After reading various articles on cases of censorship against the pop diva’s empire, I was surprised to find no trace of Donohue on her trail. After all, she did manage to offend Catholic Archbishop Ramon Arguelles so greatly that he organized a boycott against her performance in the Philippines singlehandedly. I wonder why Donohue didn’t get in on the action?
On page 81 in the chapter Artistic Sabotage, Donohue openly brags about coercing NBC to pull a mock crucifixion scene from Madonna’s Thanksgiving Eve concert (2006) off the air, saying, “Indeed, we threatened a boycott of one of the show’s sponsors if it was included”. But even sketchier is what he adds afterwards:
“It would be one thing if this secular hate speech disguised as artistic liberty were confined to the margins of society. Unfortunately, it is often given a high profile, showing up in prestigious venues”.
I just find it interesting that he has blown the whistle at Lady Gaga’s predecessor (and admitted influence) Madonna, but not the “monster” herself. Perhaps she just hasn’t pushed the envelope far enough to catch his attention, or hasn’t specifically victimized Catholicism in his eyes.
I was able to make a connection between these two in terms of intent versus interpretation. Intent meaning what the artist claims to have been trying to do and/or not do with their art, and interpretation meaning how the audience and critics such as Donohue perceive said art. If you will recall, Bill Donohue’s closing statement of Artistic Sabotage was “All of it is deliberate and all of it is intended to offend” (referring to potentially irreverent works). Whereas Lady Gaga, in response to her “Judas” video being banned for offending Christians, allegedly said, “This video is not meant to be an attack on religion. I respect and love everyone’s beliefs. I’m a religious and spiritual person who’s obsessed with religious art” (Didymus). It sounds sincere, no?
How can we truly know if an artist intended to offend people or not? And does it matter?
5.) Links of Articles read or referenced:
Other sources consulted:
• On Censorship, article by Salman Rushdie
• Artistic Sabotage chapter by Donohue
• Corpus Christi, by Terrence McNally