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Angry at Daddy.

An uncensored Holly Hughes rails against censorship

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 freed from its high-culture moorings, has drifted over the century into the arms of capitalism, so much so that in 1999, the entire concept of an artistic being--personality, style, body of work and consumption--is coldly and very quietly manipulated by corporations."

Flak's doubts about the Kinkade persona are not unreasonable. But so what? From the sheet-wrapped Bohemiens of post-revolutionary Paris to the strategically furnished art studios of fin de siecle modernists to the boho-dancing abstract expressionists of mid-century, the art world of the past 200 years has relied rather heavily on poses. But Flak's suggestion that Kinkade is a threat to art is as overwrought as MAGI's claim that it has invented a new art paradigm. Kinkade is neither a paradigm nor a "process come to fruition"; he's a niche.

Kinkade is about subculture, specifically the sizable but relatively underserved Christian subculture. Indeed, a reported 80 percent of Kinkade's customers have never before owned an artifact they considered to be art. The Kinkade phenomenon thus joins with such genres as slickly produced religious pop music, specialized cable programming, and popular religious fiction in addressing this subculture's needs. Whether this audience in fact owns art after putting down its money for The Mountains Declare His Glory may well be a subject of heated debate for Flak's audience. But it's a moot point for Kinkade's.

Charles Paul Freund ( is a REASON senior editor.
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Author:S. D., Trav
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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