Holly Would: A Conversation With One of the NEA Four

In the late '80s, New York performance artist Holly Hughes was a polemical, respected but not-yet-famous figure in spoken word circles. Already known for her razor-edged yet eloquent monologues about lesbian life and power struggle, Hughes was given what she thought would be a great honor in 1990. A "peer panel" of artists and critics from the National Endowment for the Arts recommended her and three other performance artists to receive grant money. Only then, NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer vetoed the grants, citing a recent promise made by Congress never to fund gay artwork on the grounds that it was "obscene." Brooking little opposition from anyone, Hughes and the three others -- who soon became known as the NEA Four -- sued the government for discrimination and violation of their rights to equal freedom of expression. To Hughes, it was not only "clear prejudice" at the hands of the Endowment, it was also a plain case of the "government cracking down on dissent and resistance" expressed in the arts. Backed by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the NEA Four devoted years to the case.In 1992, the anti-gay language of the Endowment was ruled unconstitutional. The following year, the Four got their grants. Their awards totaled a rather paltry $6,000 per artist, but the federal government had spent an estimated $500,000 to keep the grants from going through.The case of the NEA Four became a benchmark by which other cases would be measured. By most accounts, it was a triumph not only for gay rights but also for continuing struggles for fair patronage of the arts and freedom of expression on the whole. As Hughes is still finding out, though, the incident's effects have not all been on the upside. After a brief stint on stage here last summer, Holly Hughes returned to Albuquerque as a visiting professor of performance art at University of New Mexico. She recently finished her tour of duty there and is now back in New York, where she spoke with us.First of all, did that columnist -- and later, White House Press Secretary -- David Gergen really say that your skits were "a threat to national security?" Yes. It's funny. There's a humorous aspect to a lot of this stuff, I guess. But at the same time, I don't want to trivialize it because the whole case was a very frightening experience. (During the NEA hearings,) we got death threats, hate mail. Our lawyers got death threats. People who presented us (at venues) lost funding and sometimes jobs, simply because they presented us. Just this year, somebody who presented me in Virginia got death threats.Why would people see you as a threat?Well, I'm assuming that David Gergen didn't ever see my work, but it's really about blatant homophobia. That's the only evidence he gives: I'm a lesbian, and it's true that I raise questions about power and powerlessness in this country, but I think that's a different thing than accusing someone of treason. It's really not that these particular artists did anything so shocking and outrageous, other than to imagine that, as queers, they were still citizens, that they had rights.But that's not to say that outrage and pushing the envelope aren't legitimate artistic strategies. That's something that's been a big part of modernist art. (Marcel) Duchamp was always shocking. The Impressionists were considered shocking. So it's not really a new thing.What were the lessons that you took away from the whole NEA incident?I think I became very aware of the power that the government and the media have -- and how it feels to be put in the target, so to speak. In the target zone. That was very frightening, to feel like the weight of the government was landing on you. At the time, my work was so marginal -- on the fringes -- that I never imagined that I would get that kind of attention, that Jesse Helms would even bother. You'd think he had bigger concerns than a few grants.What effects did it have on your work?For a couple of years, it made it very difficult for me to get work done. Emotionally, it was a huge thing. It was terrifying. Getting death threats is terrifying. Also, on the level of time, I was so caught up in the case, it was hard to finish anything.It also made it difficult for people to see my work outside all that attention. During the case, Jesse Helms basically set up my work as a freak show, so it got so that people couldn't see beyond that. And for the first time, I got criticized for not being shocking enough. People were expecting shows that were much more shocking than they really are. It's still all sorting itself out. It left a lot of scar tissue. It was very painful.Well, in light of that, now what do you think the government's role should be in the arts?I still definitely feel that the government should fund art. In the Western democracies and industrialized nations, we fund the arts the least. Even in Canada, public spending on the arts, per capita, is higher. But here, so much of the government is supposed to be based on the principle of free speech. It makes sense that they would work things so the greatest number of voices will be heard.And the fact is, most Americans support the NEA. Because (the NEA) could do a lot -- to put the arts in the light of education, of job opportunities, to make art accessible to those who can't afford the $30 and $40 ticket prices to go to a show.But if the government has more say in the arts, doesn't that increase the risk of censorship?It shouldn't if you have a government which supposedly believes in free speech. I think there can be an increase in censorship (from the government), but censorship can take many (other) forms. One is that big corporations are swallowing up all the media. So you end up having a case like ABC (TV) not being able to do a story on the tobacco industry. It's very hard now to get alternative points of view out there.Well, do you think your case has helped? Do the NEA or the performing arts seem better off after everything you went through?No. It's totally decimated. (The NEA) ended up getting around the unconstitutionality by saying, "Well then, we won't give out grants, period." So they cut back all kinds of funding, and they don't give grants to individuals anymore. Just today, there was an article in the New York Times about a place here called Jacob's Pillow, a great space for modern dance. They're suffering so much (because of lack of funding) that they're really on the ropes. Experimental performance is becoming endangered.Fortunately, I'm lucky enough that my work does get presented. I'm lucky enough to still find places to perform. But the people I'm most worried about are the emerging artists, the people just starting out. Where are they going to go?What can people do about all this -- as artists, activists or consumers? One of the things I'm really glad about is that people are still doing work despite the fact that it's hard to get presented. Just in Albuquerque, I know you have several alternative spaces, like the Meteor, the Reptilian Lounge. I was really impressed with the alternative strength of Albuquerque.Other things people could do would be to join the National Coalition for Free Expression or People For the American Way -- organizations that fight censorship and encourage diversity. And just educate themselves and always support alternatives -- whether it's the Alibi or NPR stations or other art spaces. There are always things you can do.

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