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“role in the Culture War” in June of 1990 when John Frohnmayer, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, rescinded four solo performance grants that had been unanimously recommended by the NEA’s panel of peer reviewers. Each of the performers whose grants were rescinded— Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Tim Miller—dealt explicitly with issues of sexuality in their work and each, save for Finley, was lesbian or gay.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, [1990], 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]

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 some kind of part in Jesse Helms’s or Robert Hughes’s [a conservative art critic’s] nightmares. You may find you’ve been cast without even knowing about it. So you’re in it whether or not you want to be. Up to this point, it’s pretty much been their show. They’ve been writing the script and directing the action. But we can interrupt their show at any point. We can break character and start acting out our own plots. I think you’ll find it easier to perform acts of resistance than you think. I have a hunch you’re a natural.[4]

In calling on readers to “start acting out our own plots” Hughes summons the power of an imagined collectivity (the readers of Clit Notes) to defy censorship. Here, as in several of her solo performances, Hughes situates her audience as a source of creative power and political resistance. “I’ll need your help,” she tells us, in order to produce and protect queer art in the face of its public denunciation and federal defunding. In what follows, I look more specifically at the ways in which Hughes calls upon performance—both her own and that of her audience—to resist censorship.


In a 1995 Theatre Journal essay entitled “Preaching to the Converted,” Tim Miller and David Román describe the relationship between queer performers and their predominantly queer audiences as one of “provisional and fragile community,” in which a desire to see and be seen as part of a collective often rubs up against a “desire to defy the politics of sameness.”[5] Part of what queer performances offers their spectators, then, is the power “to unsettle the comforts of identity politics in the very space of its enactment.”[6] Miller and Román link this insight to a broader defense of alternative and community-based theatre and the progressive politics in which it is embedded. They go on to argue that the dismissal of community-based artists as “preaching to the converted” (that is, as presenting work to audiences who already share their sexual and political perspective) flattens the complexity—and unpredictable power—of what happens when people gather together in the space of performance.

In September of 1999, Holly Hughes premiered a solo performance piece entitled Preaching to the Perverted.[7] According to Hughes, the title of the piece was in part inspired by Miller and Román’s essay. Hughes shares with Miller and Román a dialectical understanding of queer performance as an occasion in which a sense of community may be both forged and disrupted. In Preaching to the Perverted, Hughes emphasizes the ways in which queer community is constituted not only by those who seek to participate in it but also (and however unwittingly) by those who attack it from without. Hughes’ use of the term “perverted,” for example, means to reclaim the language of sexual deviance and moral turpitude as a kind of reverse-discourse of self-description. The title Preaching to the Perverted recalls the denunciation of Hughes’ work by evangelical preachers and the charges of perversion to which she was subjected in the wake of her defunding in 1990. But Hughes’ title (like her performance) also insists on the creative and political power of identifying with “the perverted” and of directing one’s art toward—or “preaching to”—an avowedly queer audience. By speaking the very language through which she has been dismissed and denigrated by others (e.g. “perverted”), Hughes resituates it within a different register of representation and thereby reopens the question (and potential pleasures) of perversion for further inquiry.

Hughes’ reclamation of “the perverted” resembles the far more widespread revival, beginning around 1990, of the term “queer” as means of self-description for lesbians, gay men, and other sexual minorities. Calling oneself “queer” necessarily means confronting the homophobic uses to which that word has been put in the past. “Queer” derives its force,” writes Judith Butler, “precisely through the repeated invocation by which it has been linked to accusation, pathologization, insult.”[8] If “queer” cannot but echo a history of denigration and external attack, its more recent use insists on a difference from that history, on a gap between where the word has been and where it is going. When spoken in the first person, “queer” enunciates one’s own identification with sexual non-conformity.

In Preaching to the Perverted, Hughes enacts a similarly “queer” dialogue between external denigration and pleasurable self-description, between deviance as an accusation hurled from without and deviance as a defiant identification made from within. Consider, for example, how the announcement postcard for Preaching to the Perverted (fig. 1) enacts such a dialogue. The postcard offers a wide-eyed Hughes holding an American flag at chest level. The flag drops, garment-like, in front of her body. Although Hughes appears at first glance to be naked beneath the flag, she is in fact wearing a black bra and panties, undergarments that become increasingly noticeable the longer one looks at the image. Shortly after Hughes was defunded in 1990, several press accounts mistakenly described her performances as featuring nudity and simulated sexual acts. In the postcard for Preaching to the Perverted, Hughes revisits the image of her naked body on stage but on terms which reveal that image to be a misrecognition by others, a mistaken perception of sexual exposure. Hughes’ appropriation of the U.S. flag as a mock dress also recalls (and wittily responds to) the public accusation that her performance art—along with that of Finley, Fleck, and Miller— constituted an assault on American values.

At various moments during Preaching to the Perverted, Hughes cites the descriptions (and distortions) of her work by Jesse Helms, John Frohnmayer, Hilton Kramer, Pat Buchanan, and U.S. News and World Report, among others. But Hughes interweaves these descriptions with her own experience of hearing them for the first time and with the jokes, fears, fantasies, and personal associations they provoked. Preaching to the Perverted restages the story of the Hughes’ federal defunding through the lens of her own, and often hilarious, reception of it. Here, for example, is how she introduces the topic of the NEA Four:

June 30, 1990 . . . Responding to a Congressional statute forbidding the funding of obscenity, the National Endowment for the Arts strips four performance artists – Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes – of their funding. Some people called us the NEA Four. Others called us “Karen Finley and the Three Homosexuals.” You remember us. We played your middle school prom. You were hoping for Duran Duran but you got us instead. Later we became “Karen Finley and the three Non-Mainstream Artists.”[9]

With terrific irreverence, Hughes points out how the fact of an artist’s homosexuality may displace any other information about his or her life and work, including, in this case, the artist’s very name. Even as Hughes was targeted for defunding a result of her work’s lesbian content, she was often marginalized, for that same reason, in the media coverage of the NEA Four.

Later in Preaching to the Perverted, Hughes returns to the ways in which the differences among artists are flattened or outright denied within the context of public controversy. Standing silently on stage, Hughes listens to the recorded voice of a man as he spits out the following harangue:

Hello, is this the ACLU?

I’m outraged at your representing Holly Hughes

The woman needs to be shot for her lewdness.

You need to be shot for representing her.

I have just one question.

Which one is Holly Hughes?

Is she the one with the chocolate?

Is she the big nigger lover?

Is she the one with the piss?

Is she the one who wants to kill the Pope?

Didn’t she die already?

She’s dead,

She died of AIDS

Like all the other fags.                                             [19]


In leveling his threat against Hughes, the anonymous speaker slips furiously from one controversial artist to the next or rather, from one epithetic description of a controversial artist to the next. The instability of the speaker’s attack (“Which one is Holly Hughes?”) seems only to fuel the rage through which he collapses different artists, artworks, and bodies such that they all, in the end, become “fags” who have “died of AIDS.” By citing this hate speech in her performance, Hughes demonstrates how homophobia may fuel the attacks on controversial art regardless of the “actual” identity of the artists at issue.


Throughout much of Preaching to the Perverted, Hughes restages her own experience of attending the Supreme Court’s 1998 hearing of Finley v. NEA. Before looking at the terms of that restaging, I want to provide a clear sense of the issues at stake in the case. Two months after Finley v. NEA was filed in 1990, the U.S. Congress imposed the “decency” clause on the funding process of the National Endowment for the Arts. The clause decreed that the NEA must ensure that “artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”[10] At first glance, the clause might seem relatively toothless insofar as both “general standards of decency” and “respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public” sound so vague as to be negligible. But what if the regulation of art is most effective where it is least visible and what if censorship is enabled, rather than disabled, by amorphous concepts such as “general standards of decency”?


In this context, it is instructive to recall that the decency clause was designed as an alternative to (but hardly an undoing of) the so-called Helms Amendment of 1989, the original wording of which prohibited the NEA from funding “obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts.” When read in tandem with the original text of the Helms Amendment, an insistence upon “general standards of decency” begins to sound more pointed as means of precluding certain kinds of art—and of artists—from receiving NEA support. If “general standards of decency” still sounds a bit vague to your ears, consider that in August of 1989, when Senator Helms was pushing for the adoption of his amendment, he sent xeroxes of four Robert Mapplethorpe photographs to every member of the House and Senate and labeled those photographs with the word “indecent.”[11] Helms mailing reveals one of the central contradictions of censorship—namely, its compulsion to reproduce and distribute the allegedly “indecent” images it seeks to suppress. The 1990 decency clause recalls and revives Helms’ prior use of the term “indecency” to describe Mapplethorpe’s photography. In contrast to Helms’ attacks on Mapplethorpe’s work, however, the decency clause derived its restrictive power from the vagueness of its language, from the fact that terms such as “homoeroticism,” “sadomasochism” and “individuals engaged in sex acts” were no longer spelled out as specifically prohibited. “Decency” allowed for a more subtle restriction on federally funded art, one that could be used to regulate not only gay and lesbian art but also any socially critical or sexually explicit art.


Early in 1991, The NEA Four amended their case so as to challenge the constitutionality of the decency clause. In 1993, the four artists accepted an out-of-court cash settlement from the federal government.[12] Even as they did so, however, NEA Four pushed ahead with their lawsuit against the federal government so as to contest the legality of the decency clause. Hughes succinctly describes the legal history of Finley v. NEA in Preaching to the Perverted:


So we sued the government. . .

We won.

They appealed.

We won again!

They appealed again

This time “they” means Bill Clinton

And the appeal is to the Supreme Court. . .

And well . . .

Did you hear the one about the lesbian, the feminist, and a couple of fags go to the Supreme Court . . . [4]


By describing the Supreme Court’s hearing of Finley v. NEA as a joke—or more precisely, as the set-up to a joke whose punchline we never hear—Hughes suggests the absurdity of this proceeding. Hughes renders this absurdity visible on stage by presenting the nine Supreme Court Justices as nine tiny yellow rubber duckies, each of which she pins to the top of a lectern. These rubber duckies then hear the oral arguments in the case of Finley v. NEA, arguments which Hughes recounts as follows:


The government’s lawyer is up first.

He’s trying to explain how the NEA can take into consideration

General standards of decency without violating the first amendment.

I guess the reason this lawsuit got this far

Is that everyone is pretending that the definition of decency isn’t clear

Everyone is acting as though that word

Weren’t a big pink neon sign flashing: “No Queers! No Queers!”


And the way the NEA insures decency, we are told

Is by asking people who are certified to be decent to sit on the panels

Decent people, says the lawyer, can only make decent decisions.

The other defense that is offered by the government

Is that the law doesn’t really mean anything

It hasn’t hurt anyone

But it’s a nice little law and we shouldn’t get rid of it.


But the obvious question doesn’t get asked:

How does the government decide someone is decent?

Perhaps its not asked because we’re talking about

“general standards of decency”

and it’s no mystery how that is determined.

They no doubt use my mother’s method:

They check your underwear.

First, it has to exist; no drip-dry advocates need apply

It must be all natural fibers, preferably white

No holes, stains, sagging waistband, safety pins!

Maybe a simple pattern but no slogans, please!

No “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”

And it’s got to be appropriate:

No boxer shorts on women

No lacey thongs on men. [23]



Hughes recasts the NEA’s insistence on “general standards of decency” as an exercise in discipline no less literal-minded and infantalizing than an “underwear check” by one’s mother. Like an underwear check, the decency clause insists on cleanliness, appropriate gender roles, traditional styles—in a word, respectability. By drawing out this analogy within the space of her performance, Hughes punctures the demand for respectability made by the NEA. She likens the decency clause not only to an underwear check but also to a “big pink neon sign flashing ‘No Queers!’ ‘No Queers!’” At such moments, Hughes forces the rhetoric of decency to speak its own fear of queer artists.


An hour before the official hearing of Finley v. NEA is to begin, a member of the Secret Service informs Hughes and the rest of the assembled courtroom audience that “There is absolutely no talking in the U.S. Supreme Court!” In Preaching to the Perverted, Hughes recalls this instruction as well as the collective, compulsory hour of silence that followed it. She then uses this concrete example of silence to symbolize the broader silencing of expression imposed by the Court’s ruling in Finley v. NEA. Throughout her performance, Hughes reenacts the terms under which her art has been denounced, defunded, and dismissed as indecent. But in reenacting those terms, Hughes reworks them into something else, something far more compelling and uproarious than any Supreme Court hearing or NEA funding clause. And that something is Preaching to the Perverted.


Holly Hughes could not transcend the homophobic constraints imposed upon her work in the course of the NEA Four controversy. She could, however, resist, respond to, and at times represent those constraints within the space of her writing and performance. In Preaching to the Perverted, Hughes restages that attacks and dismissals to which her work has been subjected, whether by the NEA, the Christian Right, U.S. News and World Report, or the U.S. Supreme Court. But rather than countering these attacks by defending her work as respectable or decent, Hughes insists upon the symbolic power of the unrespectable and the indecent.


I have seen Holly Hughes perform Preaching to the Perverted four times since the Spring of 1999: in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, in San Francisco at the New Conservatory Theater, in Montreal at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, and in New York City at P.S. 122. I first go to see this performance not because I intend to write about it, but because I know it will be laugh- out-loud funny. But as I sit in Hughes’ audience—first with my students and later with my boyfriend or with other academics or with a grab bag of sundry strangers— something else happens as well. Hughes extends the narrative of her defunding into that of the culture wars more generally and from there into a free-wheeling story of the ways in which private memory rubs up against public controversy. She responds not only to Jesse Helms and John Frohnmayer but also to the broader set of prohibitions and restrictions, of fears and fantasies that are imposed upon queer culture and the people who make it. Finally, Hughes creates an alternative to those restrictions and prohibitions, a space apart from the hushed precincts of the Supreme Court or the phobic rantings of the Christian Right. Each time I see Preaching to the Perverted, whether in a university classroom, a conference hotel, or a community-based theatre, I visit this “space apart.” In reenacting the history of her own censorship, Holly Hughes defies the silencing of art and sexuality that history sought to enforce. And she invites me—along with everyone else in her audience—to do the same.




My thanks to Holly Hughes for her support and friendship and to Susan Bennett for editorial input and suggestions. David Román’s critical engagement with this essay, as with all of my work, has been invaluable.


Richard Meyer is an assistant professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Southern California. His book, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2001.

[1] Holly Hughes, Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 22.

[2] John Frohnmayer, Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 161.

[3] Hughes, Clit Notes, 20–21.

[4] Ibid., 212.

[5] Tim Miller and David Román, “Preaching to the Converted,” Theatre Journal 47 (1995): 176.

[6] Ibid., 176.

[7] Preaching to the Perverted was commissioned by Dixon Place in New York City, where it was performed as a work-in-progress in July of 1999. Hughes’ premiered the piece in September of 1999 at the New Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in a production directed by Lois Weaver. [There is also a performance review of the New York production of Preaching to the Perverted in this issue, pages 557– 59—Ed.]

[8] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 226.

[9] Holly Hughes, Preaching to the Perverted performance typescript: page 16. Preaching to the Perverted © 2000 by Holly Hughes. My thanks to Holly Hughes for kindly providing me with a copy of her script. Subsequent references to the Preaching to the Perverted will be included parenthetically in the text.

[10] Cited in “National Endowment for the Arts, et al., v. Karen Finley, et al.,” Supreme Court of the United States (October Term, 1997), Brief for Claes Oldenburg, Arthur Miller, Jasper Johns, Hans Haacke, et al. (Amici Curae), 4.

[11] Kara Swisher, “Helms’s ‘Indecent’ Sampler: Senator Sends Photos to Sway Conferees,” The Washington Post, August 8, 1989, B1.

[12] Jacqueline Trescott, “NEA to Pay 4 Denied Arts Grants But Decency Rule Challenge Unresolved,” The Washington Post, June 5, 1993, D1.