Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Not courting anyone’s favor

Preaching to the Perverted

Who: Holly Hughes

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Pick/Laudati Auditorium in the Block Museum of Art

How Much: $10 general admission, $5 for NU faculty, students and staff, $4 for Block members. For reservations call 847-491-4001.

Holly Hughes, a performance artist, wants to get your attention. She preaches, she acts, she tells her life. She is in your face and wants you to feel her struggle.

Hughes is a voice to be reckoned with.

She connects with her audience by telling stories – her stories. They are about her role as an artist, her life as a lesbian and her fight against what she calls “dysfunction.” She addresses issues, such as “culture wars,” that apply to all Americans and connects them in a narrative style to her own experiences as a lesbian and federally funded performer.

But because she and three other artists had their grants withdrawn in 1990, they had to fight legally to get the decision overturned, initiating an eight-year long battle against conservatives in Congress. As a result, Hughes created a performance, “Preaching to the Perverted,” based on her view of an artist’s struggle for freedom of expression.

“I had performances canceled, funding cut, people fired because they presented me, people getting death threats for presenting me,” Hughes said. “It’s impossible not to take this seriously; it has a huge effect on your life and the way you live it.”

Now she brings her provocative and controversial show to Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art Friday and Saturday as the first part of a series about the artists’ plight.

“Preaching to the Perverted” originates from a 1990 congressional amendment that prevented the National Endowment for the Arts from funding “obscene” works by artists like Hughes. In retaliation, she and three other artists, dubbed the “NEA Four,” sued the government. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment had been violated because the federal government may not discriminate against unpopular groups in its allocation of funds. But the victory was incomplete because the court also ruled that the First Amendment had not been violated in the case of the NEA Four.

But in the end, Hughes and her fellow plaintiffs didn’t receive any money because the NEA stopped giving grants to individual artists in 1998 because of a lack of funds.

For Hughes and the artists the debate over the definition of “obscenity” in their art strikes them on a personal level. The government’s view of Hughes and similar artists as “bad children” comes from homophobia, she said. The decision to take away NEA funding was made by people who had never seen the NEA Four’s work but judged the works to be “obscene” because of a clause in the 1990 congressional amendment that connected obscenity with homosexuality.

Because she doesn’t believe that there is a universal definition of obscenity, Hughes says conservatives oppose her art because she is a lesbian, not because of any aspect of her “obscene”performances.

“The only thing they talked about was that I was gay,” she said, “and the same thing for the other two artists who were gay.”

In “Preaching to the Perverted,” Hughes uses solo-narrative style and props to tell the story of her suit against the U.S. government. She says that her art is designed to address volatile cultural issues, particularly her own sexuality.

“I want to raise questions and be provocative. I don’t think it’s bad to be controversial,” Hughes said.

Hughes wants her audiences to see the Supreme Court from her point of view: as a “dysfunctional family.” As is characteristic of her work, humor in the form of storytelling is the backbone of “Preaching to the Perverted.” Hughes ridicules the Supreme Court and incorporates the purple Teletubby into her piece without marginalizing the gravity of censorship.

In response to the government’s treatment of her and her co-plaintiffs, Hughes fires back with “tacky” symbols to embody aspects of America and its government, as when she uses nine rubber ducks to represent the Supreme Court.

Although Hughes spices up her narrative with pointed humor, her goal is not to downsize the serious consequences of her plight with the government about speaking out against censorship and violations of freedom of speech.

“(The show) is about going to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is a huge part of government, but is invisible,” Hughes said. “The idea is to take that part of the government and make it more visible.”

In “Preaching to the Perverted,” her message to the public is that the invisibility of the Supreme Court leaves many Americans in the dark about its dysfunction. She seeks to correct this by letting fly her own view of the court, the 1998 case and other aspects of government and American culture.

And by using herself as a prime example of what can happen to minorities who tangle with the U.S. legal system, she brings a personal voice to problems that many Americans only hear about.

“This isn’t just something that happened to me,” she said. “The culture wars happened to America.” nyou

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Not courting anyone’s favor