By Madeline Fox and Katie Wismer
The performance artist Holly Hughes was born in 1955 in Saginaw, Michigan. A white middle-class woman from the Midwest, she resented her suburban life and felt out of place in the homogenous atmosphere, a theme that has driven her performances. She graduated from Kalamazoo College in 1977 and two years later moved to New York City, where she struggled as a feminist painter (Hughes). It was there that she stumbled upon the Women’s One World Cafe (WoW), a tiny lesbian feminist art collective that called itself “a home for wayward girls” , and who Hughes proudly described as a place for women who had been kicked out of other feminist organizations (Holly Hughes Performs).
WoW was where Hughes’ career as a performer began. Introduced to performance art because of the friendships she made at the Cafe with other female performers, her first work, ‘The Well of Horniness”, was written because she joked about writing a pornographic film, and the other members wanted parts (Hughes 17). Later it was revised into a comedic, non-pornographic play about a woman who reconnects with her lesbian sorority sisters. Written as an over-the-top caricature of an old radio program, “The Well of Horniness” is a murder mystery in which the antagonist outsmarts a would-be murderer and features a stage manager sitting on stage and creating sound effects, similar to how they would be done in the original radio medium. The play, along with most of the other works produced by WoW, was politically motivated (Jones and Stephenson, 186) and meant to inspire a sense of community among lesbian artists (Hughes 18). It did this by focusing on themes of homosexuality, but deliberately writing its characters into unsettling stereotypes that the heterosexual majority formulated against the LGBT community. These included depictions of lesbians as hypersexual, predatory, or perverted, and aided in making tongue-in-cheek references, jokes, and physical humor that would unnerve straight audiences and attempted to unify the lesbian community with over-the-top humor that satirized expectations of what it was meant to be (Hughes 18).
This can be seen in her other famous works, “The Lady Dick”, “Dress Suits to Hire”, and “Clit Notes”. In these shows, along with “The Well of Horniness”, this exaggeration manifests in the style of Camp, a sensibility in which low-brow, kitschy cultural images and easy jokes are playfully and intentionally (though not seemingly so) combined in performance. It is meant to be shocking and usually humorous to the viewer, who sees familiar elements cobbled in an unfamiliar way (Sontag, 1). For instance, “The Lady Dick” uses Film Noir and buddy cop influences in the plot and design, in a way that is comedic and harkens situations from other bits of culture. In “Dress Suits to Hire”, two women live together in a clothing rental shop. One is a predatory lesbian, and the other woman’s struggle invokes cheesy horror films when she can’t control her autonomous right hand, which acts out her secret sexual urges (Zinoman, 2005)
Camp is an important aspect of queer performance art, and Hughes herself sees her work as fitting outside of genre, but her performances and writings all deal with LGBT issues (Hughes, 15). Sometimes this is with humor, as in her plays, but occasionally her autobiographical monologues are more sober, such as the one in Clit Notes in which she discusses her relationship with her partner, society’s reactions to it, and the shame it makes her to feel for being gay (Holly Hughes Performs). Hughes, whose work is critical of patriarchy, has observed its effects on her art and claims that the cultural divide between theater and performance art; white, heterosexual, male creations are given the respectful name of “theater”, whereas works by women, LGBT people, and racial minorities are “performance art”, indicating a stigmatization of these groups, as well as their systematic exclusion from a more venerated medium (Hughes 4).
In order to understand the broader foundation for Hughes’ works, the historical context of second wave feminism because it is the foundation of this period for Holly Hughes. This era was the time where new voices could be heard, and new ideas could be spun, and for a performance artist such as Hughes, this was the perfect time for her to voice her opinions and ideas into the arts. She not only was drawn to the radical arts, but also the freedom it allowed her and the other performance artists at this time. The Second Wave of feminism began in the 1960’s and lasted into the early 1990’s. It unfolded due to the anti-war and civil rights movements, and the awareness of multiple minority groups around the world (Rampton, 2008).This movement is also known as the New Left because it was political movement that was beginning to originate primarily among students during the 1960s (Rampton, 2008). They were concerned with anti-war, anti-nuclear, feminist, and ecological movements. Reproductive rights and sexuality were the main issues at this time which lead to the movement’s focus on passing the Equal Rights Amendment. The second wave drew in women of color and others seeking solidarity and sisterhood (Rampton, 2008).
During the 1990s Tim Miller, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck were performance artists who were given grants from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). All but Finley are gay and include gay and lesbian themes prominently in their work, which has received broad critical acclaim (Clements, 2013). These artists were denied National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding in 1990, after Congress passed a “decency clause” that gave the NEA permission to deny grants based on the subject matter of the art (Gamareikan, 1990). In an interview with Alexis Clements, Hughes talks about the group of artists that were involved with the revoked funding (Clements, 2013).
A performance peer panel recommended funding to eighteen artists including Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck. The Bush-appointed NEA chairman at the time, John Frohnmayer revoked individual artist grants for performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck in 1990 (First Amendment Center). The National Council on the Arts (an advisory group) convened to discuss the grants, and Frohnmayer told them there were problems. Frohnmayer states: "Holly Hughes is a lesbian and her work is very heavily of that genre. That is what is going to be in the press if you fund it” (First Amendment Center). When those artists subsequently filed suit against Frohnmayer, it brought about to the so-called NEA Four. There was a one-sentence description of Holly Hughes's work that was brought before the National Council, and it was voted to take away her funding; Her work was never seen or read by the council it. What they discussed was her identity as a lesbian (First Amendment Center). She never knew writing about being a lesbian would bring about such a big controversy, and said of the evaluation in an interview with Alex Clements:
“Other than being called ‘The NEA Four,’ we were often called, ‘Karen Finley and the Three Homosexuals’ — like this really bad band. I think there were all sorts of complicated reasons and implications of Karen being named, with us being reduced just to ‘the homosexuals.’ I mean, Karen would get reduced to ‘The Chocolate-Smeared Woman.’ We all got reduced to something. And you know, we've all made work about it, in one way or another” (Clements, 2013).
Previously in 1989, a statute was passed that said the NEA could not fund work that could be considered obscene. Hughes described this process like going through a checklist, and homoeroticism which is the temporary desire of the same sex, was on the checklist. In short, the NEA after artists in this medium that were openly gay or if they were talking about LGBT topics. Each of the artists were awarded grants that were between $6,000 and $8,000, making the argument that this was about taxpayer waste slightly misleading; the government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent three homosexuals and one feminist from getting $24,000 in funding, indicating that the case was less about costs and more about of a rhetorical action to change public perception of art and its acceptability (Clements, 2013). Hughes boiled down this intentional marginalization by saying,
“I think one of the most common questions people hear in critiques... is, ‘Who is the audience for this?’ And I think that’s a really silencing question. I think sometimes it’s useful, but I think it’s lazy as critique, and I think also, if you’re female or you’re from any stigmatized group, that question comes across as, your audience is not important enough” (Clements, 2013).
Since these events, which ironically may have boosted Hughes’ fame and financial success, she has earned a Guggenheim fellowship and many other awards. Notably, she co-edited a book with David Roman about the history and current boom in solo queer performance art (Hughes and Roman, 1998). She has also become a professor of art and design at The University of Michigan, and has written and directed many feminist performances for the school (M Stamps). These include productions that celebrate historical women, such as Feminist Trading Cards (Hughes, 2009). She also wrote a piece that humorously criticized U of M art installations as sexist and outdated, called Dream of a Young Man and a Young Girl (Hughes, 2009).
Holly Hughes has led a fascinating and immensely influential career. Beginning as a struggling painter in the 1970’s, she found her niche at the Women’s One World Cafe and wrote numerous plays that use camp and humor to celebrate the gay community and poke fun and the stereotypes facing it. Faced with opposition from the National Endowment for the Arts’ political strategizing, she bounced back from the adversity and found a position as a celebrated professor at one of the nation’s top universities. She is one of the world’s most influential and critically acclaimed performance artists.