The Karen Finley Makeover


The worst fame is the kind one’s enemies bestow. Ten years ago, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak attacked Karen Finley in their widely syndicated column, turning her into a caricature: “the chocolate-smeared woman.” Not that they’d ever seen her work. They were simply doing their bit to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts. But the misrepresentation changed her life.

In Finley’s new memoir, A Different Kind of Intimacy, the performance artist who is now probably America’s Most Interviewed finally has her own say. She discusses nearly all her work and its context, presents the key texts, recounts her tribulations at the hands of right-wing frothers, and criticizes herself for being “complicit in the dynamic.”

Over the past few years, Finley moved to Los Angeles and back, posed for Playboy, wrote a screenplay, became a regular on Politically Incorrect, and came up with a stunning new performance that deals with “hyper female sexuality.” It has some of the psychotic joie de vivre of her early club work. She is still trying to break free from the crud, but has a new strategy and attitude. The Grim ’90s are over.

When I first saw Finley performing in the clubs in 1985, she was doing scabrous trance-rap monologues that seemed to burst right from the id. First she’d walk out in some godforsaken prom dress or polyester glad rag, presenting herself as the shy and vulnerable good girl. Then the deluge. While the pieces were heart-stopping in their sexual explicitness, they were never about sex so much as “the pathos,” as she called it, the damage and longing in everyone that triggers both desire and rage. She could take a subject like incest and push it to surreal extremes. Above all, she would address it without euphemism. For me, these performances were cathartic, amazing.

I wrote a Voice cover story on Finley in 1986, a fact she addresses in her memoir, mostly because of Pete Hamill’s ham-handed denunciation in the next issue. Finley often punctuated her monologues by smearing food on herself, and Hamill selected a canned-yam moment to expound upon. According to him, Finley’s work was all about yams. To my chagrin, Hamill’s piece was taken more seriously than mine—and he, too, had never seen Finley perform. The yam thing followed her wherever she went, just a taste of the troubles to come.

Ironically, Finley’s national notoriety began with a performance called We Keep Our Victims Ready, a relatively quiet piece, a work of supreme empathy, and the most straightforwardly political thing she’d ever done. In one section, she again used food ritualistically, smearing on chocolate as she talked about female victimization—because women are treated like shit. Chocolate quickly replaced the yams in the minds of the mudslingers.

As Finley puts it, her new memoir “shows me being this cultural Rorschach test.” Soon after the Evans-Novak attack, she lost a Solo Performance grant that had been awarded by an NEA peer panel. Also defunded were Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller. The NEA Four eventually won back their grants, but they didn’t stop there. They challenged the constitutionality of legislation requiring the NEA to consider “general standards of decency,” a case that took them all the way to the Supreme Court, where, in 1998, they lost.

But that was just part of the Grim ’90s. AIDS claimed a number of Finley’s friends. She made work about death and grieving. She felt compelled to get “more masterful” in performance, telling me in 1997 that she thought she had to “legitimize” and “justify” her work. Then there was the problem of how a lightning rod for the wrathful right could even get a gig in a publicly funded space. Finally, there was the constant demand to talk about censorship.

On tour in 1996, during her first interview in Portland, a journalist asked her if the NEA case had helped her career. “I froze up,” Finley recalls in her book. “Suddenly my voice became tense and hoarse and I couldn’t talk. Later on, it got worse. I had physically and psychologically lost my voice.” Finley canceled that tour, feeling she could no longer handle the stress.

“I couldn’t stand being the Joan of Arc of the art world anymore,” she writes. “Internally, I was burning at the stake from the constant battles of defending the First Amendment. The icon of free speech was becoming a pile of ashes. I had to rethink my career, my persona, my work. I needed an archetype makeover.”

On the day of oral arguments in Karen Finley et al. v. National Endowment for the Arts, reporters clamored for comment, and Finley obliged them by announcing that she had been in an abusive relationship with Jesse Helms for eight years, and she had to get out of it.

Later that year, when the court decided that the “decency clause” would stand, Finley was in the middle of a run with her new piece, The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman, “embracing the deviant character the right had imposed on me.”

She’d entered Jungian analysis and decided she had a hero complex, “enabled by my relationship with New York City, because New York is so self-important. I looked at New York and fell out of love.” She threw out 57 Hefty bags full of art supplies, along with everything she’d made related to the court case, and moved to Los Angeles in January 1999.

Finley’s work has always been about reaction, and her six-page spread in Playboy that July seemed to embody a big fuck-you. But it was hard to blame her for that. She’d spent years defending her work against the right, saying again and again: It’s not sex, it’s not sex. But they’d eroticized her anyway. So, in Playboy, she gave them the ultimate candy-coated woman—two pages naked, four with chocolate. Originally, Playboy said they’d include an interview with her, a discussion of the First Amendment. When that fell through, however, she says, “I was kind of glad, because I just think why not have it—sex, the body? Do I have to defend it?”

While it seems paradoxical, she found it liberating to turn temporarily into the thing the right-wingers accused her of being. As if to say, “Fine, that’s who I am. Now go away.” To those who know her work, the differences between the Playboy shots and the Dona Ann McAdams photos documenting We Keep Our Victims Ready are profound. The McAdams pictures resonate with emotion, which is the opposite of pornographic fantasy.

Finley’s newest performance, Shut Up and Love Me (coming back to P.S. 122 in the spring), is the first thing she has done in years that does not deal with suffering. The roots of it come from one little section of her last piece, The American Chestnut, in which a girl of 13 realizes for the first time that she’s being sexualized by various men as she walks down the street. It’s about the problem heterosexual women always seem to face: “trying to find a sensible way of living within a code of being desired.”

As Finley likes to point out, women are defined by their sexuality, then demonized for it. That contradiction is at the core of her art.

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