Talking with the NEA 4 – Holly Hughes

In anticipation of Thursday’s panel discussion with the NEA 4 at NYU, we asked the artists to share their thoughts on art, politics, and their experience with the NEA.

Holly Hughes

Holly Hughes is an Obie award-winning performance artist and playwright, as well as a central figure in America’s culture wars. Her sassy and brutally honest parables draw from personal experience, from growing up queer in straight 1970’s America, to navigating the perilous waters of post-feminist politics in the 1980’s, to dealing with desire and facing middle age at the end of the 1990’s. On the forefront of performance art for more than two decades, Hughes past works include The Well of Horniness, Dress Suits to Hire, World Without End, and The Lady Dick. She is the author of Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler and O Solo Homo.

5 Qs for Holly Hughes

1. George Bush is President, we’re at war in Iraq, the government is cracking down on free expression … it seems like 1991, but it’s 2004. Have we made any headway at all in the past twelve years or are we still fighting the same battles with new people?

I prefer thinking of the political arena as a landscape that shifts, changes, maybe though in a climate that heats up, cools down, goes thru droughts and effects the landscape rather than thinking of it is as a form of transportation that takes either forwards or backwards. There’s certain features to the American landscape – Puritanism, Nativism, Isolationism – that don’t seem to go away, though the form they take shifts – at the risk of going back to the discarded train o’ progress metaphor – there have been some positive changes in the landscape and some negative. You can’t always use the same tactics even if what’s underlying the issues, the bedrock is similar – sixties tactics worked, in the sixties – we have to evolve new tactics.

But first we have to get rid of George W Bush who is worse than his father and if anyone in this room is not giving at least time and hopefully time and money to getting rid of him this year is part of the problem. is part of the axis of evil. Hey, they take our words, let’s take theirs. And another axis of evil is Nader supporters – hello????? Can anyone reasonably argue that there’s no difference between the Dems and the GOP?

2. What were you doing when you heard that the NEA had denied approval for your grant application? What did you do next?

I was doing the laundry. I was not in NYC. I was part of a conference call that was very difficult as it was clear that there were as many different approaches as there were people on the phone. Maybe more.

3. Were there any positive effects of being one of the NEA four?

This is a trick question. Not intentionally, but nevertheless. Because the conventional wisdom has always been that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And early on I got stuck in this mode of trying to refute this assumption, trying to prove how hurt, damaged, etc I was by this — event — it was like arguing for the flat earth society. And it played into another misconception that really was disastrous, politically… That this controversy was something that happened to a handful of individuals and institutions… Rather than something that happened to the nation but was enacted through these individuals… A bigger story kept getting lost.

4. Presumably your work was found objectionable because it was lesbian-centered. Today lesbians have much higher visibility and, supposedly, are more accepted. What are your thoughts on how lesbians are portrayed in pop culture these days?

I think there’s some relationship between the appearance of a stigmatized group in the wider culture and the way most members of that group live their lives, but it’s not a direct correlation. Many more companies offer domestic partner benefits now and it is a clearly second class benefit, but still better than nothing. Still, most gay people don’t enjoy basic civil rights and I see little sign that things are better for LGBT youth. Though they may be better for Jennifer Beals. It’s not insignificant that Oprah is the richest woman in Hollywood or that Halle Berry won an Oscar, but I think its easy to look at those facts and ignore the complicated and difficult situation for people of color in this moment.

5. What gives you hope?

A short list – the usual things do: Prozac, three dogs and four cats, my girlfriend, denial, working with young people, sunscreen, working to defeat George Bush, a collection of friends, internet activism, the WNBA is crucial, situational Buddhism, going to see performance, having health insurance, dividing hostas and daylilies, the Catskills, record turnout at Democratic primaries, email, wearing fewer layers with the warmer weather, and the awareness that despair is place where they want us to live.

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