“Speaking Freely” show recorded Aug. 1, 2000, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts and American culture. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. Holly Hughes is a widely respected performance artist who is known both for her thoughtful work and as a member of the NEA Four. Her fight for free expression took her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. She’s here today to share her thoughts about that battle and about free expression in America. Welcome, Holly.
Holly Hughes: Thank you, Ken.
Paulson: Now, a membership in the NEA Four — that’s not exactly like joining the Kiwanis Club, is it?
Hughes: No, it’s not. It was kind of an honor — dishonor sort of imposed on us by the National Council of the Arts when they took away our funding that had been recommended. It sort of sounds like a bad band, you know, that, — or we were later referred to as Karen Finley and the three homosexuals, which sounds like a really bad band.
Paulson: I’ve seen them play. And yet this has been a battle. Your status as a member of the NEA Four has been a decade long, really.
Hughes: Yes, it all started in, in 1990, when, the four of us were recommended for funding by peer panels in the NEA and then, under political pressure, John Frohnmayer, who was then chairman, took away our grants. And it was during a whole sort of public debate about controversial funding for the arts, and we decided to sue the government. We felt that this was clearly an abridgment of free speech. And it wasn’t something that we felt hopeful about changing in Congress, since they had given us this horrible law, so, that’s when our battle started.
Paulson: What was it about your work that was deemed dangerous?
Hughes: Well, there was a one-sentence description of my work before the National Council voted to take away my funding. Now, they never saw the work; they never read it. What they talked about is my identity as a lesbian. They said, “Holly Hughes is a lesbian, and her work is very heavily of that genre.” And, you know, I can’t really disagree with that. I mean, I am a lesbian. My work is about that. I just didn’t realize it was a genre, and maybe I want my own category of funding, like landscape painting or macramé, plant hangers or something like that. But it was really about targeted homophobia, and — although, as I say that, I feel like, “I hope Jesse Helms would not like my work. Then I’d really have to commit suicide.” It is controversial, and it is provocative, and I think that should have a place in a country that pretends to be a democracy.
Paulson: Even at the time of the controversy, homoerotic work was among the work banned, right? That language was used?
Hughes: Yes. In ‘89, I believe, there was a statute passed that said the NEA couldn’t fund work that could be considered obscene, and they gave you, like, a checklist in case you didn’t know what that meant, and homoeroticism was on the checklist. So, they went after artists in this medium that were openly gay.
Paulson: When you put together this band you referred to, the NEA Four, was that an accidental coming together, or did someone in the arts movement say, “Look, we need four people who represent a wide range of work or a targeted range of work?” I mean, how much of that was strategy, and how much of it was accident?
Hughes: If it was strategy, it was on the part of the right wing in targeting the four of us, but we did make a decision to work together in our lawsuits, which was — considering the fact that we’re all individual artists and artists tend to be very strong individualists, the fact that we were able to work together — organizing artists is like herding cats. And, so, we did work together on this lawsuit.
Paulson: How much money was at stake in your grant?
Hughes: Each of the artists were awarded grants that were between $6,000 and $8,000. So, the whole argument that this was about taxpayer waste is totally specious. The government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent three homos and one feminist from getting $24,000 in hard-earned tax money. So, it was a really small amount, but that amount of money goes a long way in defraying some of the costs in making the pieces that we make.
Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about your work as a performance artist? And where does the $6,000 go into that process? Does that fund your entire project, or is that just beginning the process? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Hughes: Right. Well, even though it’s a solo piece, I always work with other people. I work with — in this work that I’m doing now, “Preaching to the Perverted,” I worked with Lois Weaver as a director and a collaborator. And, so, some of the money would go to pay her a fee. And then I often produce myself, so, you know, at Performance Base 122, you know, you hire the lighting designer, you rent the rehearsal space, you know, the various props. So, it doesn’t completely pay for the project, but it helps pay for some of the costs of making a piece of art. Even if it seems very simple and low-tech, like my work is, because I want it to be accessible, there’s still other people involved. And I feel like artists aren’t air-breathing plants, that we should get paid for working.
Paulson: But, as you point out, even if it’s $6,000 to $8,000, which is not a great amount of money, it might be a make or break for you in some cases or for some artists, wouldn’t it?
Hughes: Absolutely. I mean, I think that a lot of the artists, particularly in the field that I work in — performance art, which is kind of the garage band arena of theater — a lot of the people are coming from communities that are already disadvantaged. There’s a lot of people of color. There’s a lot of gay people. And these are people that don’t have access to, you know, other kind of funding. They’re not likely to get commissioned by, you know, some big cultural institution to make their work. And it does — it makes it possible for a lot of people who wouldn’t have access to art-making to have access to it.
Paulson: We want to talk some more about the battle itself —
Paulson: — and the path through the courts, but if you answer this question: Why in the world does it make sense for somebody who’s working in Rockford, Ill., to have some money taken from his paycheck to fund your work? Why not, why not keep government out of the arts?
Hughes: Well, one of the things is, yeah — this is one of the arguments that people would often say: “You know, if the majority of people in this country didn’t like your work, why should they have to pay for it?” Well, of course, the majority of people haven’t seen my work. But this really goes to the question — a couple of key questions about what is the role of minorities and minority expression in a majority-rule system that we supposedly have? Does this mean that minorities have no rights? You know, and do we have no access to speaking? And it also goes to the question — I think this whole arts question is about a broader question about public funding in general. And, right now, in the last, you know, 20 years — can it be 20 years since Reagan was elected? Oh, shoot me. But there’s been this whole battle to eliminate all kinds of public funding — not public funding for the arts alone but housing, education, health care, all of these things. Government out of this. And the government has become something that takes care of corporate interests and the interests of wealthy individuals. And, so, I feel — I really think that it’s the government’s role in a democracy to provide access to arts, education, housing, all of these things together for people even if they don’t have means. And, you know, the day comes when I get a menu with my tax form about, I get to reallocate the money where I want to go, you know — I mean, it’s like, since when do you get a choice in where your funding goes? You know, direct deposit my amount of my contribution to Trent Lott’s, you know, salary if that is the case. I have a feeling that if people actually got this menu and got to reallocate it, there would be more money going to the arts and less to expensive toilets at the Pentagon or, like, failed Mars expeditions.
Paulson: Did you have any idea what you were getting into? Did you know that it was going to be a decade-long battle, or did you think you’d be in and out of this fairly quickly, take your $6,000 and go home?
Hughes: I really didn’t have — I knew that getting involved in a lawsuit against the federal government was going to be involved, but I had no idea that it was going to go on for as long that it would also implicate other people — for example, the places that would present me would get death threats and lose funding and people would lose their jobs — and that it would go on for ten years. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
Paulson: In the course of those ten years, in addition to having “a member of the NEA Four” attached to your name in every reference —
Paulson: — you won a couple of important court battles and, in fact, did get your grant. Was that part of a settlement?
Hughes: In 1993, the Clinton administration did settle on the part of our lawsuit that was about our grants. They gave us our grants, and they admitted in that settlement that they had violated the NEA’s own policies, in denying us the money initially. And two lower courts decided that, yes, these, restrictions — first the obscenity and then the decency language — were obviously unconstitutional. And that was a very reassuring decision, but why the Clinton administration — Why? Why, why did you do this to us, Bill? Why you — why he had to appeal this to the Supreme Court, and this Supreme Court is — you know, I don’t know. It’s for the Psychic Friends Network. It’s really out of my bailiwick to say why he did this.
Paulson: Well, the case did, in fact, go to the Supreme Court to resolve, really, one issue, and it had to do with language in the funding legislation that said the NEA should take into account standards of decency. It was an advisory piece of guidance from Congress. And then the Supreme Court had to decide whether that was an infringement on the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Hughes: Right. Right, right.
Paulson: And the Supreme Court decided —
Hughes: Well, the Supreme Court decided — actually, it was — they decided, because the statute read “They may take into consideration” — “may,” they could but they didn’t have to — general standards of decency, that that was constitutional and that if the Supreme Court — or if they were required to take into consideration, that that would be unconstitutional. And, so, there was some measure of a victory for our side, ‘cause we had argued that the First Amendment clearly prohibited distribution of funds that discriminated against unpopular viewpoints, like the “lesbian viewpoint,” and they agreed with that. But they said because it wasn’t a requirement, that it was just a serving suggestion — and then they went on to say in this really sort of gaslight fashion that there had been no discrimination against the NEA Four, you know, despite the fact that the whole transcript showed that it had been clearly based on, you know our political viewpoints and our identity that we were denied these grants. But, of course, like — one of the things that was so appalling is that the Supreme Court justices didn’t appear to have read the briefs, so, their judgments weren’t prejudiced by actual familiarity with the facts.
Paulson: So, you were sitting in the Supreme Court —
Paulson: — when they heard the oral arguments.
Paulson: As a performer, it had to be tempting to get up and, and share some thoughts of your own with them. How did you find that environment?
Hughes: It felt a lot like, sort of a giant detention hall. It felt like kind of a national timeout, like — you’re taken in there, um, an hour before the Supreme Court convenes. There’s nothing going on there. You’re escorted to your seats by members of the secret service who yell at you. They seat you in pews. Your feet don’t touch the ground. And you can’t see — you can’t read the paper; you can’t talk. You just sit there for an hour, waiting until daddy gets home. And then the journalists are — I mean, I think maybe Nina Totenberg gets a better seat in the house, but I knew people that were covering it. They are actually seated behind a curtain. It’s some sort of, like, orthodox … I mean, I think these are people who really don’t like reviews. So, it was an amazing piece of theater. You’re sitting in these very uncomfortable pews ready to, you know, be — turn to hymnal page 214, and the justices are way, way up there in these big, black leather chairs that swivel and rock. And so, it was an amazing performance. As a performer, I was just sort of taking in the stagecraft and thinking, “What does this mean?”
Paulson: I have to ask. Did the Supreme Court yell at — I mean — did the secret service yell at everyone, or was it just you? Were you the problem?
Hughes: I was not the specific problem child, although — they sort of, there was sort of a general dressing down that started before the justices got in. Some burly guy got up there and said, “Here’s the deal: You respect us, and we’ll respect you.” And he barked out the rules of the court. And they stand at the end of your pews, and, you know, I was, like, twisting around in my seat. And I felt like, at any moment, I’m going to get thrown out. But it was definitely directed towards we, the people, in general.
Paulson: Early in the battle, the court battle, I’ve read somewhere that you were told not to talk about gay-bashing, that there’s certain things that your lawyers advised you against making the case for. Is that —
Hughes: Right. It was less from our lawyers, but one of the things that was so disturbing in this battle, was that a lot of the people who were arguing for funding for the NEA really wanted to talk about it in the most bland, First Amendment terms and, you know, not specifically talk about the work that was under attack. And the work that was under attack, from Serrano to Marlon Riggs to my work and lots of other people, is provocative work. It is — it, it’s intentionally designed to raise questions, and, a lot of times, it was questions about sexuality and sexual identity. Maybe it was about the American flag. Maybe it was about use of Christian symbols. And the left didn’t make a good case for why, why work that raises uncomfortable questions should be funded. It’s not a sound bite argument you can make. And, actually, I think a lot of people on the left were uncomfortable. I mean, some of the people would say stuff like, “Well, there’s been a few mistakes.” And you’re sitting there, and they would name you! And you’re just like, “Oh, no.” With friends like this — But, really, most of the money goes for blonde children in Iowa doing finger painting and ancestor worship at major cultural institutions, and we don’t have a lot of these, you know, homos running around.
Paulson: Finger painting can be provocative in its own right, I think.
Hughes: It can be.
Paulson: Is there art that so deeply offends you that you would cut it off? How do you feel about, um, some of the rap music, people like Eminem and others, who are accused of being gay-bashers themselves in art?
Hughes: Well, there’s a — I mean, there’s a lot of — one of the assumptions that they make as a progressive person is that you are not offended by anything, and, in fact, I am offended all the time. Forget about rap music and all of that. Think about — I think about David Mamet, one of the most produced contemporary playwrights in America, who, I think, is a very talented person with Tourette’s Syndrome. You know, but I also feel like I want — I, I feel like dissent and controversy is essential to a democracy, so, yes. Do I have problems with work that’s funded? Often. I have problems with most of mainstream culture, and this is what — only a ten-hour show? So, we can just go over — we can just do a lightning strike of them. But I feel like we should have a diversity of opinions out there.
Paulson: And you would not be in favor of government funding popular culture, things that already have market appeal?
Hughes: The NEA was set up to fund work that wasn’t going to be necessarily funded by the marketplace and this recognition that there is a lot of culture that isn’t going to reach a mass audience and that that’s an important part of, you know, our heritage. And, also, it makes — you know, a lot of popular cultural events are not accessible to, you know, working-class poor people, even middle-class. I mean, think about, like — I would have loved to see the Barbra Streisand concert, but it was a little beyond my means. And public funding meant that a lot of people who weren’t privileged had access. It kept ticket prices down and sometimes free. So, it made art accessible to a lot of people who are cut out of the marketplace.
Paulson: You mentioned your Supreme Court experience as being “theater,” and that theater inspired new theater. You have a new show called “Preaching to the Perverted.” Is this — is that truth in advertising?
Hughes: Yes, I just — I wanted everyone to feel included, you know, and to — I mean, sometimes they think, “Oh, it’s a lesbian performance artist, and, um, I’m not a lesbian, so, I’m not going to feel included.” So, I just pronounce everyone a — sometimes I’ll start out by pronouncing everybody a lesbian for the evening and passing out membership cards. It’s just one evening of lesbianism that’s completely — you know, everything’s free. If you want to sign up for the weekend, it’s more expensive. But it is about including the audience and saying, “This isn’t just my story, but this is something that’s happened to all of us.”
Paulson: And I understand, as hard as this is for me to believe, that people have actually walked out offended and said, “We want our money back.” What did they think they were walking into?
Hughes: Who knows? I mean, I did the show in Baltimore at a wonderful little place, the Baltimore Theater Project, and after the reviews had come out, there were, there were walk-outs, and people said, you know, “We want our money back.” And the box office manager was like, “You’re the one who came to ‘Preaching to the Perverted.’ “
Paulson: That’s right.
Hughes: “What did you think?”
Paulson: They thought it was a musical? I can’t imagine. Are you ever tempted, from the stage, to say, “Hold on. Where are you going?”
Hughes: No, and I know certain artists, like Karen Finley, does often confront people who walk out and has some sort of discussion with them. I feel like it’s people’s right to leave. And so, yeah, it’s their right to leave. I’m more upset about the narcoleptics that sit in the front row, the people who seem to — sometimes I suspect that it’s a condition of their parole. It was, like, either 90 days in jail or performance art.
Paulson: And it’s got to undermine your confidence, as somebody who intends to provoke, to have somebody actually pass out in the front row. Talk a little bit about bringing this piece together. I understand there’s a classic moment where you actually introduce the audience to the U.S. Supreme Court — symbolically, anyway. Can you talk a little bit about how you do that?
Hughes: Well, one of the motivations I had in making this piece was outing the Supreme Court, so to speak. And, by that, I mean it’s this hugely important part of our government, but it’s invisible. There’s no television coverage of it, and the process itself is, is very secretive. So, I wanted to make it visible. And then the question came up of, “How do I represent the justices? Do I represent them at all?” And I, you know, I auditioned Beanie Babies for the part. And the idea came up — they’re represented by little rubber ducks that I line up in a row. I’m not sure what it means. I have a lot of fun doing it.
Paulson: These are all matched ducks?
Hughes: They’re matched ducks. They’re in a little row. And it kind of — it will recall for people, you know, kind of going to the county fair and seeing the little shooting gallery with the ducks going by. And I’m not entirely sure what it, what it means. I mean, in some ways, I’m the sitting duck in the situation. But there’s something about the fact that they are the same, they’re kind of uniform that I think is effective and people seem to really relate to.
Paulson: You seem a little ambivalent about being one of the NEA Four. More a blessing than a curse, or —?
Hughes: Well, I think that, um, I got, yes, all this publicity, but it was — people who say there’s no such thing as bad publicity haven’t really experienced it and experienced it when you become sort of a national joke. And most arts organizations wanted to put as much distance between not just me but the other artists that were red-flagged artists. And, you know, it’s not a very catchy title. It doesn’t sound like a good band name. And I know that some of the other artists have felt like, “How do you deal with this notoriety?” Karen Finley made a piece about attack of the chocolate-smeared woman, because that’s how she’s seen, and she carries that baggage around. So, you deal with it. And that was, you know, my attempt in this show. Like, “I know maybe the way that you’ve heard about me is through this NEA Four case, and, so, let’s just start there.” Let’s start the conversation there as opposed to pretending that people can just forget about it.
Paulson: So, where do you take the show next?
Hughes: I am going to be doing a long run of the show starting in October at the Woolly Mammoth Theater, in Washington, DC. I’m very excited about it. It’ll be running during the election, and I’m going to invite all the Supreme Court justices and a box seat for senator Jesse Helms. I may have to build the box myself, but — maybe a padded box. But I’m very excited about doing it. And I’m also touring to colleges and community centers around the country in the next year with the piece.
Paulson: So, what do you think your odds are of actually having Sandra Day O’Connor come sit in the front row?
Hughes: Well, that’s — I don’t know. I had Raquel Welch came to see me.
Paulson: But you never portrayed Raquel Welch as a duck.
Hughes: Exactly. You know, I have the feeling, actually, that Justice Scalia has seen my work. Reading the decision, I thought that he had actually come and seen my work and Tim’s work, so, maybe he will come, and I would be curious — maybe that’ll be my next piece.
Paulson: So, you’ll take this national — colleges and universities. Do you get a different reaction at all from college students than you do from whatever you’d describe as your regular audience?
Hughes: The reaction varies wildly from — you know, I did this at a small college in Michigan, Albion College — 300 people, standing ovation. I did it in upstate New York, and at a certain critical moment in the show where I say all of the negative things that writers said about us and that they’re true, and half the audience got up and left. So, it keeps it fresh, because I’m not just running it in one place in the same old — it is a conversation with the audience.
Paulson: This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for joining us today, Holly.
Hughes: Thank you, Ken.
Paulson: I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts and American culture. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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