The Vice Man Cometh

New York's Art War Archives

Less fortunate was the gifted novelist Dorothy Baker, one of the few artists to provoke mayoral ire in the era before Rudy's self-proclaimed curatorship. The irate mayor was Fiorello LaGuardia, still reeling from his protracted wartime fight to close down the city's many burlesque theaters (so what else is new?) when Baker and her husband, Howard, proffered a stage version of her 1943 novel Trio, a love triangle with a lesbian hypotenuse. The subject was treated, if anything, more seriously than it had been in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, which had enjoyed an unchallenged long run a decade before. But while the critics lauded Trio's sensitivity, honesty, and in-depth acting (the male lead was the young Richard Widmark), LaGuardia blasted it as "offensive" and "indecent." By another of those coincidences, there suddenly turned out to be difficulties in renewing the Belasco Theatre's license. It only took Trio's producers eight weeks to get the hint. Baker never attempted another play.

Between Bourdet's and Baker's inquiries into lesbianism, the film that is probably more calculated to offend Catholic sensibilities than any other work of art ever created slipped into New York's nonprofit institutions unhindered by city authorities. Luis Buñuel's L'age d'or (1930) is one of the central achievements of Surrealist art. It's also ferociously anti-Catholic, parodying the faith's key images and depicting priests as buffoonish persecutors. "Our sexual desire," Buñuel wrote in his autobiography, "has to be seen as the product of centuries of repressive and emasculating Catholicism." This is the central theme of L'age d'or, which provoked right-wing riots and stink bombs at its Paris premiere, and was finally banned outright in France till after World War II. Shown here chiefly in museum and college screenings, it's never provoked a peep from church or state. MOMA doesn't keep cumulative records, but says the work has been screened regularly over the decades, Giulinai time included.

It's not, of course, the only Buñuel film with anti-Catholic content: He spoofed the Last Supper in Viridiana (1964), while the Virgin Mary appears as a gum-chewing tart in The Milky Way (1969), a parody of Christian pilgrimage that's nothing but surreal jokes on Catholicism from start to finish. These films, along with a multitude of other works that ridicule one or another of the city's principal religions, have likewise been seen in publicly funded venues, as part of the continuum of free expression in public discourse. Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, which has been the subject of Catholic protests from Boston to St. Louis, premiered at a nonprofit space housed in a city-owned building. The New York Shakespeare Festival has in George Wolfe's tenure favored Delacorte audiences with Tartuffe and Measure for Measure— morally troubling plays centered on false priests— and with that classic piece of anti-Catholic propaganda, Henry VIII. Downtown, perhaps for evenhandedness, it's produced The Merchant of Venice, with its vengeful Jew intact. Neither Rudy Giuliani nor any previous mayor has seen fit to object to any of these proceedings. Even Rudy's favorite performing arts institution, the Metropolitan Opera, has tackled antireligious works like Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, in which the villains are fundamentalist bigotry and hypocrisy.

Statue of limitations? Some holy toe-sucking from Buñuel's Anti-Catholic L'age D'or.
photo courtesy of Photofest
Statue of limitations? Some holy toe-sucking from Buñuel's Anti-Catholic L'age D'or.

Ironically, the one case in which New York City actively conspired with the Catholic Church to suppress a work of art makes the lousiest precedent of all for Rudy. In 1950, the foreign-film distributor Joseph Burstyn acquired U.S. rights to Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle. The story of a gullible peasant woman tricked into thinking she is giving birth to a new Messiah, the film was instantly condemned by Catholic organizations. Cardinal Spellman, the well-known militarist and closet homosexual, demanded a boycott, and the city obligingly revoked the Paris Theatre's license. Burstyn, however, obtained a court order which kept the Paris's projectors rolling while he fought the New York State Board of Censors, which had also condemned the film. The battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court; their decision, four years later, guaranteed film the same right of free expression as the written word, defusing permanently the power of state and local censorship boards. When Cardinal Spellman tried the boycott trick again in 1956, against Kazan's Baby Doll, the city stayed out of the fight. Now that Rudy's dragged it back in, he'd better be aware that art has him surrounded. Having made the Brooklyn Museum's opening a smash success, he ought to do the same for Queens by attacking the Museum of the Moving Image, which has just opened a retrospective of Pedro Almodóvar, the only Spanish director who can make a bigger joke of Catholicism than Luis Buñuel.

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