Theatre Journal 52.4 (2000) 543-552
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"Have You Heard the One about the Lesbian Who Goes to the Supreme Court?":
Holly Hughes and the Case Against Censorship
This part of the script isn't finished. My role in the Culture War is still
very much a work in progress, a story that I'm telling as I'm living it.
But the point is, it needs to be performed in front an audience.
If I'm ever going to be able to write this wrong, I'll need your help. 1
These words conclude the introduction to Clit Notes, a 1996 collection (or "Sapphic Sampler" as the book's subtitle puts it) of the plays and performance scripts of Holly Hughes. Hughes assumed her "role in the Culture War" in June of 1990 when John Frohnmayer, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, rescinded four solo performance grants that had been unanimously recommended by the NEA's panel of peer reviewers. Each of the performers whose grants were rescinded--Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Tim Miller--dealt explicitly with issues of sexuality in their work and each, save for Finley, was lesbian or gay.
Although he provided little justification for his actions at the time, Frohnmayer would later explain his decision as a response to political pressures applied by President George Bush. In his 1993 memoir, Frohnmayer recalls that:
On June 19, , the President wrote saying that . . . he didn't want censorship, but he didn't want a dime of taxpayers' money going to art that was 'clearly and visibly filth.' He said he was shocked by the examples in a recent Washington Times story (describing, among others, Fleck, Finley, Hughes, and Miller) and that we had to find a way to preserve independence and creativity in the arts and at the same time see that taxpayers' money would not subsidize 'filth and patently blasphemous material.' 2 [End Page 543]As Hughes would later point out, Frohnmayer never saw the work of the four performance artists whose grants he defunded. His decision was based, at least in part, on the second-hand accounts of their work as "filth." In the wake of Frohnmayer's decision, Republican politicians and fundamentalist preachers attacked the work of these four performers (by now referred to as the "NEA Four") as indecent, obscene, and pornographic. In September of 1990, the four artists sued Frohnmayer and the NEA for violating their First Amendment rights. Their case, officially known as Finley v. NEA, would eventually reach the Supreme Court who would rule in favor of the NEA.
In her introduction to Clit Notes, Hughes describes the NEA Four controversy through the language of theatre, the language of roles and plots, of characters and audiences, of scripts and staged scenes. Being defunded by the government becomes, for Hughes, a kind of (terrible) performance piece, one in which she no longer controls the representation of her own body of work:
Now I found myself sharing the stage with a whole cast of characters who were either upstaging me or drowning me out. Of course, Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson, and Donald Wildmon, and others of their ilk were there all doing their family values and tax-payer waste schtick. Their routines were tired, but they were in the best position to make sure that everybody heard their side of the story. 3
Hughes presents Helms, Robertson, and Wildmon as loudmouth scene-stealers whose tired "schtick" displaces and distorts her own appearance on stage. And yet, by characterizing the politicians and fundamentalist preachers who attacked her work as bad performers, Hughes also suggests the possibility of interrupting, and perhaps sabotaging, their performances at some point in the future.
At the end of Clit Notes, Hughes returns to this possibility by asking her readers to consider their own roles in the ongoing cultural and political conflict over artistic expression:
If you're reading this book, there's a good chance you're already playing...