Holly Hughes’s Politics of Pleasure

This article is part of Hyperallergic2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

In 1990, performance artist Holly Hughes gained national attention as a member of the “NEA Four,” a group of artists who challenged the National Endowments for the Arts’s (NEA) revocation of funding in a censorship case that went to the Supreme Court. Hughes is perhaps best known for a 1985 play titled The Well of Horniness. It’s an irreverent, explicit, and delightfully campy sex comedy.

“It was originally written to be a lesbian porn film that somebody was going to adapt and produce,” Hughes told Hyperallergic over the phone. “Then somebody said, ‘This is just silly. It’s not sexy.’” 

“I was like, ‘What? This is insane. I worked a whole weekend on this thing! What are you talking about?’”

I spoke to Hughes, who now teaches performance at the University of Michigan, about camp, the relationship between feminism and queerness, the personal devastation the NEA Four scandal left in its wake, and more. Below is a condensed version of the conversation.

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Hyperallergic: Has the art world felt open to you as a queer woman?

Holly Hughes: When I was one of only three queer artists funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 and Congress essentially banned homoerotic art, it was during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Not only were there no effective treatments, but there was massive discrimination.

There were also problems on the left, and plenty of left-wing people, including gay people, urged people to speak in code, to not speak about queerness, and to not be provocative. In the last 10 to 15 years, I think there’s been a huge and welcome shift there. More queer artists are making work about being queer, or at least being open about their identity, than there were even 20 years ago.

H: Who do you see as your mentors?

HH: I came to New York City from Michigan in 1978, and in those early days, I was mentored by Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw: They had the mission of nurturing a generation of queer and feminist artists.

There were people who wrote about my work and took it seriously when I was starting my career — people like Cindy Carr, who was at the Village Voice, and Alisa Solomon. There were a few others, too. Whether they loved it or not, they looked at my work as a serious thing.

Then there were a lot of people at the feminist theater and performance space WOW. It provided a sort of peer mentorship, with people like Carmelita Tropicana and a huge number of women who made important work and started conversations that told you to push yourself, go deeper, and take more chances. That was incredibly important to me.

H: What was it like to produce work in such a thriving arts scene?

HH: I was coming up at a time when the East Village was one of the epicenters of a certain kind of Bohemian cultural experiment. You could see tons of different kinds of work all the time, which I think is great for any artist, but particularly for a younger artist.

You just made work all of the time. You’re making it with other people who, whether the work was good or bad, are not going to think you’re crazy for making it. When you’re finished, you’re not going to dwell on anything. You’re just going to make something else. And if you’re part of a marginalized group, there’s a value in having a small community that gets you, because you’re going to have to explain a lot of things, too.

But when I think of the reference points in my earlier career, it’s a very White world. My experience of the experimental avant-garde movement of the time was very White overall and segregated. One of the great shifts of the last few decades has been the visibility of more artists of color.

H: Feminism and queerness are central to your work. How do you see the relationship between these two topics, and how did your representation of these concepts change over time? 

HH: When I left college and came to New York, I was thinking of myself as a feminist and not necessarily as queer. There were lots of experiences I’d had, particularly around surviving sexual assault, that loomed large for me, whether I made work about them or not.

Then I arrived in New York at the moment when feminism was being torn apart by the sex wars. The anti-porn discourse was spilling over into the suppression and marginalization of all sorts of erotic representation. I would never say that I was anti-feminist, but I felt like somebody who wasn’t fully part of it, either.

My first experiences with censorship was during productions of The Well of Horniness. We would get picketed and denounced, often by lesbians. I had been very inspired by going to places like the Pyramid Club and seeing artists like Elisa Berger and many other queer artists doing camp performances. I felt pretty alienated from feminism as a movement at that point. Finding a place where people were using comedy and camp humor, adapted with a sort of intersectional feminism, led me to explore broader questions of gender and sexuality. 

H: What did it feel like to gain national attention as part of the NEA Four?

HH: There was the appearance of feeling like you had a platform because there were mics jumping in my face, but the questions and the framing didn’t allow me to represent my own experience, let alone offer a larger political analysis. So many people saw it as a great thing because there’s “no such thing as bad publicity” — which is an insight that few people who have had bad publicity would cosign, especially if they’re part of a marginalized group.

Becoming a national laughingstock is a devastating experience. It builds on all the insecurities that every artist carries: “Maybe I’m terrible,” etc. There were death threats mailed to my house. There were attacks on the places where I performed. That was all very upsetting. But we didn’t feel a lot of support on the left for a whole bunch of reasons, including that we were considered “gay” but not really “queer.” We weren’t considered transgressive.

I lost a lot of time when I didn’t have a clear enough head to make a lot of work. Some of my earlier and best work was made with a kind of fearlessness. I wanted to ask questions I didn’t know the answer to. That became harder to do after this experience. 

H: What does Pride Month mean to you?

HH: I get the critique of Pride Month and that it’s commercial, but all of these criticisms are both true and not the whole story. One of the most important things about queerness is that there’s a kind of resistance through pleasure and celebration and community. It’s not all escapism, and I see that the month is really important. I’m a professor now, and I see that this stuff is really important to younger people. 

We’re in this moment that feels like “back to the future” all over again. I was accused 37 years ago of being a child molester and a child pornographer, which has nothing to do with my work at all. Now, younger people are being accused of being groomers, and there are drag bans and anti-trans legislation. Queer lives are going back on the ballot. I also see that a lot of queer people got some rights and dropped out of politics to some extent, but I think there’s always going to be attrition as people age. New people come in.

I get upset when I see that some people of my generation, particularly lesbians in my generation, aren’t sympathetic to the trans movement or feel that it’s marginalizing lesbians and queer women. Lesbians are marginalized, but it’s not because of the trans movement.

H: What are you working on now, and what are you excited to work on next?

HH: I’m doing a symposium at the University of Michigan called Gender Euphoria where I’m bringing a bunch of queer artists, mostly visual artists, for a series of exhibitions, conversations, and performances that explore questions of gender and sexual identity through remaking and rethinking objects and interacting with archives. An important part of my work at this point in my career is supporting queer art-making and fostering these conversations.

I’m also working on a solo piece that at this point is titled “The Indelible in the Hippocampus is the Laughter,” a nod to Christine Blasey Ford. I’m working with some really great queer artists including Katie Pearl, who is part of PearlDamour with Lisa D’Amour, and Michelle Memran. It’s structured a bit like a comic detective story with me at the center of why, after 60 years of feminist organizing around sexual violence, it is still so prevalent.

People have done a lot of work: activism and scholarship. There are new institutions, new understandings, and changes to laws, but I don’t see any evidence of change. Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill said they both felt that they were believed, but nobody cared. Do we really think sexual violence is a crime? Rather than turning it into the reality show version of SVU and going after individual bad guys, what would it look like to not have this be so prevalent anymore? 

It’s going to be funny! I don’t know how. It’s funny! Tune in later to find out how it turns out.

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