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Lesbian Cheek

NEA-Disapproved Holly Hughes Takes on the Supreme Court

Star-Spangled Banners: Holly Hughes' new one-woman show explores government censorship of the arts.

By Michael Anft | Posted 2/23/2000

Preaching to the Perverted: A Tour of the Dark Side of Democracy

Holly Hughes

It was like a stand-up routine gone wrong.

On one side, Holly Hughes recalls, was the lawyer for the "NEA Four," a group of artists denied federal grants because their work failed to meet the National Endowment for the Arts' standards of "decency." On the other were the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, only one of whom had apparently read the legal briefs regarding the NEA's 1990 decision to withhold public monies from rebel performance artists Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Tim Miller. The appearance of the four at a Supreme Court hearing in 1998, after which the judicial body overruled a lower federal court that had said the artists were entitled to the grants, hardly qualified as high theater, Hughes says.

"There's more dignity on Judge Judy," reports Hughes, an Obie Award winner for 1994's Clit Notes and the author of a handful of other highly personal performance pieces on lesbianism. "The justices heckled our poor lawyer," she says. "It was like doing stand-up in front of a bunch of drunken Shriners at a Holiday Inn. I was struck by how misinformed the judges were. At times, I thought I was listening to my father's Kiwanis Club in Saginaw, Mich.—'We don't know anything about art, but we know what we like and what we don't like.'" Hughes, more prone to being provocative than provoked, decided she'd do more than protest the court's decision against the NEA Four. "I wanted to out them," she says.

If Hughes' day in court was dispiriting, it also served as an inspiration. Preaching to the Perverted: A Tour of the Dark Side of Democracy, which opened in New York last summer, explores what some government figures—most notably Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and former NEA chief John Frohnmayer—deem dangerous views. For Hughes, "outing" the justices means showing them at their most frivolous, close-minded—and ridiculous. During the proceedings, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when confronted with the NEA Four's pro-First Amendment argument, was reportedly heard to utter, "We don't deal with abstractions here."

The "play," which comes to Theatre Project on Feb. 25 for a two-weekend stay, features Hughes in a solo performance—as always. "I've just always liked the idea of doing a monologue narrative," says Hughes via phone from New York, where she is in transit to a teaching job at Harvard University. A former painter who began performing in 1983 after being bowled over by the genre- defying performance works of Laurie Anderson and Spalding Gray, Hughes says she was smitten by the stage's post-minimalist return to the narrative. "I really had no relationship with the theater at all," she says. "I'd always thought of it as Masterpiece Theatre or something—something distant and haughty."

Nevertheless, theater suddenly seemed like an option for an artist who felt compelled to explore feminist issues and her life story. "I was a painter, but I realized I wasn't painting anything," Hughes says. "So it was time to explore narrative."

Hughes' explorations have invariably dealt with society's expectations and repression of women. Clit Notes, an early incarnation of which Hughes performed for Baltimore's 14-Karat Cabaret in 1993, features a call to resist a male-dominated culture, and urges an end to stereotypical female passivity and women's acceptance of being the objects of men's desires. While remembering her childhood, she tells the audience at one point in the piece, "I didn't want to be a princess. What if I'd rather be eaten than rescued?"

The 44-year-old artist's early life in Saginaw—"the navy-bean capital of the world," she says with mock pride—nearly ate her up, she recalls. Her plays contain allusions about incest, and she characterizes her mother as "Archie Bunker in a dress." Hughes says she was "a weirdo in my own family." Saginaw, then a town of 80,000 people, had no bookstore and not much else in the way of culture either. "Social life for the kids centered on school sports," she says. "It was horrible. I felt like Cousin It."

After fighting off a strange "flare up" of born-again Christianity during high school, the introverted Hughes turned to art. Besides giving her the ability "to create my own world, my own hard shell of sorts," she says that painting served a second purpose: "Art irritated my parents, which I enjoyed." Much of her work concerns her upbringing—the "stereotypical '50s father," the stay-at-home mom, and the hell wrought from clinging to conformity—and tries to make some latent sense of it now that her parents are dead.

But the overriding theme of Hughes' work—the cultural dislocation of lesbians, the second-class status of women, repressed sexuality, the stultification of art—stake out center stage. Works such as The Lady Dick, Dress Suits for Hire, and World Without End match feminist concerns with Hughes' cheeky wit, energetic physical presence, and a prop or two.

Even though Hughes proudly calls herself a performance artist—"given the politics of grants funding and everything else, it seemed important to stand up and say I'm one," she explains—she's warmed to some theatrical conventions. In Preaching to the Perverted, for example, much of the play becomes an accumulation of props signifying the deadening of certain aspects of American culture. "On one side of the stage are all these small hand props about patriotism and Americana," Hughes says. "On the other side are all these icons of the commodification of gay culture, such as those rainbows you see everywhere.

"Otherwise," she adds with a laugh, "the play's about the USDA-disapproved pervert, Holly Hughes." Unable to resist a last jab at the government, she lets one fly: "I just want to reassure the people of Baltimore that perverts like me are no longer backed by the NEA."

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