A QUESTION OF DECENCY
A Question of Decency debuted at the Confrontations Performance Festival in Lublin, Poland in October 2015. The exhibition incorporated archival material from Split Britches, Holly Hughes, Citizen Reno and Penny Arcade to expose the context of making queer work within the Culture Wars of the 80s and 90s in America. This exhibit was a reinterpretation of materials presented as Desperate Archive at La Mama Galleria in New York 2013. In Lublin, the exhibition included the archives from the collections of other female performers who appear in “The Decency Clause” curated by Dr Joanna Krakowska.
In the early 1990s, the US art world faced legislative attack and political demonization on an unprecedented scale. Later to be dubbed ‘the Culture Wars’, the period witnessed a blacklisting of artists deemed ‘indecent, ‘anti-Christian’ or ‘un-American’: denying individual artists government funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and pressuring galleries and institutions to avoid progressive, marginal or challenging works. Shock-baiting tactics from politicians, journalists and religious leaders prompted a flood of moral outcry against an arts community seen as elitist, sparking a debate which threatened to censor arts from minority communities, with non-white, female or gay artists disproportionately targeted.
New York City was the frontline for much of the Culture Wars, and home to the four artists featured in this exhibit: Penny Arcade, Holly Hughes, Reno and Split Britches. During this time, they presented work which refuted the standards of “decency” being bellowed across the Senate, instead bringing voice and visibility to marginalized communities and perspectives. Although only Hughes suffered direct funding cuts as part of the ‘NEA Four’, each of these artists formed part of the Culture Wars’ counter-attack, continuing to create fierce and vital performance in the face of censorious government, a prejudicial public and an hysterical media.
This exhibition, Decency Clause, attempted to outline the historical and political context of the Culture Wars, and ask questions about decency and freedom of expression that may still resonate today – not only in the US, but here in Europe and worldwide.