Seeing Holly Hughes' recent performance piece, Preaching to the Perverted, at New York's premier downtown performance space, P.S. 122, last April was like traveling back to 1989. That was when the first shots were fired in the so-called culture wars, a clash among myriad factions in Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, the media, and the arts community itself. That year, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and then-Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) discovered just what Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano were doing on the taxpayers' dime. In the grand political tradition, they proceeded to turn a case of one penny-ante federal agency's indirect support for controversial art into a national perception of the NEA as some sort of sodomite's Pentagon. By 1990, Helms had introduced and passed a proviso in the year's spending bill that barred the NEA from underwriting art with "obscene" content. The first victims of the new law were dubbed "the NEA Four": Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes.
Hughes, a New York performance artist, was penalized for having allegedly stuck her hand up her vagina–a gesture that, however mutually rewarding for audience and performer, occurred during a federally funded performance, which the NEA felt violated its obscenity rules. After the agency withdrew its grants, the NEA Four fought the decision in federal court twice, winning both times and eventually receiving their money (a few thousand dollars each) in 1993.
The Clinton administration actually appealed the rulings, and the case went before the Supreme Court in 1998. Hughes and Co. lost. The Court decided that it was indeed constitutional for the NEA to consider "general standards of decency" in awarding grants. It did not rule on whether it is constitutional for the NEA to exist in the first place.
Still licking her wounds from a decade's worth of battles to retrieve her $6,000, Holly Hughes re-emerged, hopping mad, with her latest jeremiad. Preaching to the Perverted, which ran for about a month to mostly positive reviews, is an interesting artifact for at least two reasons. First, it raises in crystal-clear relief a number of issues related to public funding of art. Though the culture wars may no longer be front-page news, the underlying issues raised by them–especially dueling definitions of censorship–remain highly relevant in a society that continues to fund culture with local, state, and federal tax dollars.
Second, Hughes' performance lays out in excruciating and exquisite detail the mindset of all too many contemporary artists. Less an artwork than a piece of spoken nonfiction presented with a minimal set and props, Preaching to the Perverted lives up to the first half of its labored title. This is a self-contained exercise in ars gratia politis, a performance piece by, of, and for Holly Hughes and those people who sympathize with her. It doesn't matter whether Hughes' piece is good or bad, as far as her audience is concerned. Hughes' Hosanna Chorus likes its art political–pretty pictures be damned. In this milieu, mentioning a name like "Antonin Scalia" is a punchline.
This presents a problem for the critic, however. Paraphrasing George Jean Nathan's doctrine of aesthetic jurisprudence, to be fair to Hughes, one must judge her work on its own terms. The difficulty lies in the fact that she so thoroughly privileges content over style, one is forced to judge her on the strength of her ideas and the accuracy of her discourse alone. She gives us no writing, acting, movement, stagecraft. To discuss these elements would be to eviscerate her. To be fair to her, we must confront her on the basis of what she says, as we would do for a politician, a critic, or a philosopher. This is the playing field she has chosen.
Unfortunately, her political thought is illogical, uninformed, inaccurate, superficial, and based on emotion (a terrible basis for a polity). And the flaw at the root of her eagerness to share such thoughts and observations is a colossal, astounding self-involvement, comparable in all ways to that of the asinine busybodies who pilloried her in the first place.
Preaching to the Perverted begins with Hughes throwing a bunch of American flags on the floor while she recites a litany of artists who ran afoul of the political right in the late '80s and early '90s. This sets the stage for the meat of the piece, an anecdotal, humorous recounting of her experience hearing her case argued before the Supreme Court (which she represents with nine rubber ducks). She picks apart every detail of the experience, including the size of the stairs leading up to the grand edifice (too large: designed specifically to inconvenience Holly Hughes); court protocol (they don't allow Holly Hughes to talk, take notes, or read a book during the proceedings); and judicial pomp and ceremony (the justices wear robes and sit up high, further alienating Holly Hughes).
Along the way, there are digressions reflecting even greater self-involvement. At one point, apropos of nothing, Hughes reveals the fact that she witnessed her father sexually abusing her sister. A traumatic experience no doubt, but the sort of detail that deserves its own (separate) docudrama, unless it is included here solely to ratchet up more sympathy for plaintiff Hughes.
As with so many on both the left and right, she leaves her own views unexamined; they are self-evident and above reproach. The views of others she dismisses out of hand, like a left-wing Archie Bunker. When one of the justices asks the rhetorical question, "What if the NEA-funded art in question had depicted Nazi hate images, such as swastikas?," Hughes comments dryly, "Nazis aren't making much art right now." This provokes resounding laughter from the audience, as if it somehow negated the justice's point, which no one seems to have heard.
The justice (Hughes didn't say which one) was making an analogy so that people who are not offended by the likes of Piss Christ can understand why others might be. The inability of Hughes and her compeers to put themselves into someone else's shoes is what got them into hot water in the first place. Like it or not, they are a special interest, just like tobacco farmers and defense contractors. We are all expected to tolerate their art, however, as if it is somehow different from federally funded lung cancer and $1,000 toilet seats.
Hughes also commits the (very popular) error of conflating vastly different issues into a single category for the purpose of making a case. She lumps together the proposed flag burning amendment, the 1990 obscenity arrest of the band 2 Live Crew in Florida, and the congressional restrictions on NEA funding. We might term this convenient category "Mean Old White Guys Out to Circumscribe Self-Expression by Any Means Necessary." The problem is, the differences between the methods make all the difference in the world. The flag burning amendment would amount to a partial repeal of the First Amendment. What happened to 2 Live Crew was a local, and very real, injustice. But the withdrawal of NEA funding is hardly analogous to those censorious examples, for as even Helms could realize, artists remain free to make their art "on their own time, on their own dime."
The NEA has no power to prevent Holly Hughes from presenting her work. Thousands upon thousands of non-NEA-supported artists make thousands upon thousands of non-NEA-supported pieces of art every day. Hughes has now joined their ranks. How has she been censored? Yet she complains in her piece that flag burning, cross burning, and campaign contributions have all been found to be protected speech under the First Amendment, but her performance art has not. She misses the fundamental point that federally funded flag burning, cross burning, and campaign contributions are all verboten under the current NEA restrictions. This is the point that that Supreme Court justice tried to make about Nazi art, but Hughes wasn't listening. Equating "not funding" with "censoring" is a fallacy akin to saying welfare reform forcibly prevents people from going to the grocery store. Indeed, Hughes claims she is being censored by the federal government…in a performance piece that has not been censored by the federal government.
Perhaps the moment that most tellingly reveals the level of sophistication of Hughes' political thought (and that of her audience) is when this 50-ish woman kicks a cardboard box supposed to represent Jesse Helms and shouts, "Fuckin' asshole!" More than anything, her work, and work like it, is a sort of case study in arrested development. She herself admits she has a hang-up about "Daddy," surely stemming from the above-mentioned incident of abuse.
She refers to "being punished for being bad" and "having her allowance taken away." Her problem with Daddy even extends to Bill Clinton, whom she attacks mercilessly for his part in defunding her, much to the hilarious confusion and embarrassment of her audience of knee-jerk Democrats. (Despite the fact that he has betrayed his and their professed principles time and again, criticism of him does not compute, testament to the man's mesmerism.)
Hughes seems to be running from the obvious solution: Remove yourself from under Daddy's thumb. The Great White Father has always been an asshole. Helms and D'Amato are boors, and the people who run government agencies are bureaucrats. This has always been the case and always will be the case. This is why, for the First Amendment to function, there must be a separation of Culture and State. Only a masochist would actually want to make herself the indentured servant of government in exchange for $6,000. But maybe this is what she means by "perverted."