The Prurience and Prejudice of Holly Hughes
An evening with America's preeminent lesbian performance artist.
BY JAMES TARANTO
New York City Tribune, Monday, October 8, 1990
It's not clear how much of Holly Hughes' show, World Without End, is autobiographical and how much is fictional. If the stories she tells are true, though, it's surprising that the nation's preeminent lesbian performance artist didn't grow up to be even more strange than she is, because she had one weird childhood.
Consider, for example, Hughes' description of being told the facts of life as a young girl:
Her mother takes her into the bathroom and performs a strip-tease. "She shimmied out of her skirt and asked, 'Are you ready for the meaning of life?' " At this point, says Holly, "I am high above that sweet, pink ocean, the ocean we call Mother, and I am about to go in."
Holly's mother tells the girl, "If you want to know something, the answer is inside yourself." She means it literally. "She sticks her hand inside herself," Hughes recounts, "and she brings it out, and I see how wet she is. And that smell makes me want to do the mashed potato."
At another point, Mom says, "Holly, this is your clitoris. Let me tell you what she does for a living."
Years later, as a teenager, Holly is telling this story to a friend. "I saw Jesus between my mother's legs," she says, to which her friend replies, "Holly, my mother does not have a pussy, and if she did, I wouldn't want to know about it."
This story is probably what cost Hughes her NEA grant back in June (see sidebar). But it represents a recurring theme in the artist's work: her obsession with her mother. Though she had an absentee father--"Where was my father?" is a frequent refrain--her mother looms large in her life. "I just can't seem to keep my mother's pussy out of my artwork," she confesses.
But when Holly talks about her mother, it seems as if she's talking about several different women, some licentious, some conservative, all offbeat, to say the least. For example:
"She is always calling me, still," complaints Hughes. "I mean, look at me. I'm completely grown up, and she is dead."
Over dinner at Denny's ("on my father's golf night"), Holly and her mother once had the following conversation:
Mom: "I'd like to ask you a question, young lady. Do you like boys, or girls, or both?" On her deathbed, Hughes' mother tries to seduce a paramedic and then to interest Holly in him.
Holly: "I like both."
Mom: "Well, no wonder you can't hold down a full-time job."
"She gets up when everybody else is asleep to do a slow and sultry strip-tease in front of . . . African violets."
Her mother mortified Holly by enrolling her in Daughters of the American Revolution, because "I know how much you love those women's organizations."
Hughes was told by an old man that her mother was a slut--and was told this at her mother's funeral.
Hughes uses sexual and religious imagery to convey an angry and confused view of the world. At one point, she describes a one-night stand with a boorish male co-worker, but in her version of the story, she is Eve, he is Adam, and her walk-up apartment is the Garden of Eden.
She also has a peculiar interest in animals. We learn that her mother once killed a porcupine with an ax in the parking lot of a bakery, that her maternal grandmother was a trout fisherman who used live mice as bait, and that "I saw this boy grab a cat and sit on it and pee all over it."
Among her favorite causes are battered women and child abuse. When discussing these subjects, she can be quite poignant: "I saw a man beat his wife so bad, the whole house cried," she recalls. She has a special place in her heart for Lisa Steinberg, the 6-year-old girl who was brutalized and eventually killed by her adoptive father.
Hughes expounds upon her ideas about art, all but conceding that her work is less artistic than political. In art school, she says, she rejected the idea that great art is universal and abstract. "Art isn't supposed to hit people over the head," her instructors told her. Her rejoinder: "Fathers aren't supposed to hit daughters over the head either."
Point well-taken, but her rhetorical style is only effective when dealing with unambiguous moral outrages like child abuse. When she turns to a morally complex subject, abortion, her bluntness comes across as viciousness.
She denounces the pro-life movement as the work of sexist men. "I know what you're thinking," she says. "You're thinking there are women in the anti-abortion movement. But those aren't women. . . . [They're] not even human."
Are avant-garde artists capable of any emotion more subtle than outrage? Much has been made of the sexual imagery of performers like Hughes and Karen Finley, but I'm equally struck by their shrillness or dogmatism. They paint a picture of the world in black and white, in which those who disagree with them on matters such as arts subsidies or abortion are not merely mistaken, but actually subhuman.
Hughes, who has a rather engaging personality, is much less guilty of this heavy-handedness than Finley. She's at her best when she uses light irony. For example, she describes a conversation between two black men, in which one says to the other: "Have you noticed how many babies those white people are having these days?" How much more effectively her point is made than if she simply condemned white people as a bunch of fascists.
Yet the latter is the approach she takes towards men. "I'm a man-hater," she says, though she does concede that "I don't hate men as much as a straight woman would." She cites a litany of outrageous and insensitive acts committed by men--and condemns all men on this basis.
The dirty little secret of the avant-garde art world isn't that much of what it produces is deliberately offensive (no secret about that), but that these self-styled iconoclasts and champions of tolerance actually practice a bland conformity that relies on generalities as bigoted as any ever espoused by a Southern white supremacist.
Imagine if a downtown performance artist commented, "I disagree with Jesse Helms on the issues, but I believe he is basically a good man," or, "I'm pro-choice, but I respect the passion and sincerity of those who oppose abortion." Substantively, these statements endorse the prevailing views in the avant-garde community. But the person who made them would probably be shunned as a right-wing radical for even acknowledging the other side's humanity. That would be a real iconoclast.
The NEA controversy has enabled Hughes and her compatriots to paint themselves as martyrs, victims of right-wing prejudice and fanaticism. Even if they're right, their fate seems well-deserved, for they have turned art into little more than an outlet for their own prejudice and fanaticism.
Holly's Folly Is Still Well-Endowed
In June, Holly Hughes and three other performance artists were denied grants by John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, because of the sexually explicit content of their works. Hughes and the other artists--Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and John Fleck--have taken the NEA to court, claiming that the NEA has no authority to overrule the recommendation of the endowment's peer review panels.
Meanwhile, you might think, they're not receiving any support from the NEA--especially since P.S. 122, Hughes' current venue, is hyping her show World Without End as "the Show the NEA doesn't want you to see." You'd be wrong:
The program for Hughes' show at P.S. 122 credits the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) with helping finance World Without End. The NYSCA, like all state arts agencies, is funded in part by the NEA.
The same program credits the NEA with funding a new Hughes work, Dead Meat, which she is performing as a "work-in-progress" this month.
P.S. 122 itself is subsidized by the NEA, the NYSCA and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Tim Miller, one of the four defunded artists, serves as vice president of P.S. 122's Board of Directors.
Spy magazine reported that after her performance-art grant was denied last June, Hughes did receive a $15,000 playwrighting grant from the NEA.
By funding P.S. 122, the NEA is even indirectly involving itself with electoral politics. The program for Hughes' performance declares: "I strongly encourage everyone to support the campaigns [sic] of Harvey Gantt (for senator from North Carolina." Gantt's opponent, Sen. Jesse Helms, is one of the NEA's most vocal critics.
Next article: NEA Head John Frohnmayer: Caught in the Crossfire? (New York City Tribune, 11/2/90)
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