Joanna KrakowskaDecency Clause Revisited
Censorship was abolished in Poland 25 years ago – thus collapsed one of the last institutions of the authoritative communist system that stifled social and individual liberties. At that time, it seemed that the freedom of speech was an unquestionable achievement of a democratic state that would never be in jeopardy. This was one of the numerous forms of delusion that we fell for on the eve of the independence of Poland. What transpired in time was the sobering realisation that there could be countless disciplinary mechanisms, legal shackles and pretexts for gagging citizens who otherwise would be exercising their right to freedom of expression. Each of these restrictions could be perfectly justifiable – defence of personal rights, protection of the so-called “religious sentiments”, or a countermeasure employed by the powers that be when the freedom of speech allegedly ran counter to somebody’s copyright. Intellectual property law and intellectual rights are interpreted fairly loosely – they are frequently applied to curb criticism and as such have become one of the leading control tools, often throwing a spanner in the works of the circulation of ideas within culture at large. What transpired as well was the fact that speaking out loud was not enough – what mattered was being heard publicly; this, however, too often was contingent upon financial resources. As a result, two faces of economic censorship have come to the fore: (1) access to media is conditioned by one’s financial standing; (2) self-censorship imposed on oneself so as to accommodate one’s voice to suit the expectations of grantors. And since grantors are predominantly the state and its agencies, then the issue of artistic freedom in a democratic system, in which one is forced to take into consideration political fluctuations and allies, has turned out to be not as obvious as we’ve bargained for.
To make matters worse, we have become aware that the space of the freedom of speech and artistic expression does not necessarily have to pertain to state politics; quite the contrary, it is related to individual politics – privacy, intimacy and corporeality (the physicality of one’s body). And yet again too often the body, desire, sexual orientation, age, health and their public manifestations have become offensive to some institutions, politicians or individuals. Mores, worldview, religion, and a peculiarly defined decency have all in effect hindered the circulation of ideas. This has led to the creation of an expansive space of conflict, in which one has to fight for the freedom of expression, equal rights as well as the freedom of conscience. These are often culturally and economically conditioned issues, which in turn are related to the most important social values: empathy, solidarity and justice.
Did we have a right not to know all of the above 25 years ago?
Perhaps if we had watched and listened more keenly to what was happening in the world back then, our disappointment would have been less substantial – and our reliance on Western paradigms less uncritical. Today marks also the 25th anniversary of the climax of the infamous culture wars waged on by the conservative administration of Republican Ronald Reagan. The very name of this thematic strand of the Confrontations Festival – “Decency Clause” refers to one of the more widely known episodes of these wars – to the spectacular manifestation of economic censorship and to the related attempts to stifle freedom of artistic expression.
In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) – the US governmental agency founded in 1965 as a means of supporting culture and the arts – refused to pay out already assigned grants to four artists on the grounds of the alleged indecency of their art. The NEA based their decision on the “Decency Clause” that had been approved of by the Congress and which in result obliged the agency to take into consideration not just the artistic merits of the applicants but also the supposed “moral” dimension of their work. In this particular case, what was deemed “indecent” was everything that was feminist and queer. The performers, i.e., Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck and Tim Miller – later known as “the NEA four” – lodged an official complaint: their appeal at a district court was favourably reviewed and “the clause” deemed unconstitutional. Eventually, the Supreme Court – after presidential appeals – asserted the legality of the disputed “Decency Clause”, though. This was a highly publicised and unprecedented case whose one participant – a courtroom freedom fighter, an advocate of the freedom of speech and artistic expression – Holly Hughes will be our guest in Lublin, where she will perform Clit Notes, her most famous solo work.
The tradition of solo queer performance is one of the most original and creative strands as far as North American theatre is concerned. Obviously, this is the bitter offshoot of the economic status quo as too often solo performances – due to the entrenched system of theatre (non)funding – are a product of the financial necessity rather than an independent artistic choice. Still, if there are critical strategies of the North American theatre, then they were unquestionably pioneered by queer performers. It was them that, more frequently than others, took personal risks while taking a stand publicly and mining their biographies and identities on-stage. One should not forget that queer in the US arts does not boil down to the casually treated sexual orientation. More frequently than not North American queer is inextricably bound with personal involvement in the issues of race, class, power, poverty, violence, ecology, disease, ageing, politics, etc. And where the fact that something is genuinely “queer” is not contingent upon one’s LGBTQ sexuality but on one’s being a misfit that in turn allows one to see the world in a different light. This becomes evident while listening to Penny Arcade, who is considered so queer that she does not conform to any convention or identity, thereby provoking everybody. She remonstrates with lesbians that consider bisexuals to be people who “do not try hard enough” and gays that cultivate bourgeois values. She accuses the younger generation of opportunism and lack of fantasy while she finds queer academia guilty of the overuse of political correctness. As she maintains, she is bisexual because she objects to being labelled and pigeonholed.
In contrast, being labelled is something that does not concern Split Britches, although – truth be told – the label of the most famous lesbian theatre ensemble does not detract the duo of Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver from dispelling queer stereotypes. Both of them will appear in Lublin – each with her individual show, each of which treats of subjects that are at best rarely staged in Poland. In her unusual, clever and self-reflexively ironic Ruff, Peggy Shaw will talk about how she was affected by brain stroke, underwent recuperation and overcame the effects of her medical condition. In What Tammy Knows about Getting Old and Having Sex – a performance featuring volunteers, Lois Weaver will tackle the issue of the sexual activity of seniors.
And – last but not least – a special guest: Citizen Reno. A charismatic performer capable of making her audiences cry with laughter, on the one hand, and giving US economic bigwigs a heart attack, on the other. She hosted “Money Talks” – a series of public discussions with economists and bankers on the subject of economic policies. In Lublin she will also conduct such a conversation with a brave and prominent individual who has already agreed to take up the gauntlet.
Altogether – Holly Hughes, Penny Arcade, Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw and Citizen Reno, they constitute an explosive mix of unique personalities, idiosyncratic characters, queer identities and political commitment. If it weren’t enough, together they are over 300 years old. And this is by far the most suspicious thing about them. Age, gender and sexual orientation are still in Poland considered indecent subjects – if they are indecent, then they are undoubtedly political as well. Over the last decade the theatre in Poland has managed to discuss these topics fairly thoroughly, but the Confrontations Festival aspires to invigorate this discussion, expand and complicate as well as to raise the intellectual level of the exchange, asking experienced US queer performers what they in principle find decent and indecent in contemporary world.
Global problems – a wave of war refugees in Europe, gentrification of minds and cities, steadily increasing social stratification – make us realise that we should indeed demand that a world decency clause be passed. But this clause, the clause that we are so in need of right now should tackle issues different than feminism, gender and queer that a quarter of a century ago the North American legislator had in mind.