I Yam What I Yam


Karen Finley never wanted to be known as the woman who smeared herself in chocolate and didn’t get an NEA grant. “I wanted to be known for my art,” she explains, “not as the anti-censorship queen.” Ever since that fateful day in 1990, when her work got singled out as politically useful art-filth by powerful beltway conservatives, Finley’s been trying to tell her side of the story. But after Jesse Helms denounced her on the Senate floor and the NEA pulled her grant, she became the lead plaintiff in the most publicized anti-censorship case of the 1990s—and in the chaos, she lost control of the microphone.

A Different Kind of Intimacy is Finley’s earnest, plainspoken attempt to set the record straight. Billed, misleadingly, as “The Collected Writings of Karen Finley,” the book is actually an engaging autobiography in the form of a broken, experimental narrative that includes—but doesn’t center on—the text of three decades of performances and installations. Here she describes, sketchily, her childhood in Chicago, her life as a disaffected art-school student, and the trajectory of her performative experiments. In deceptively simple language, she explains the events that led up to many of her pieces—from the early anti-abuse work (Yams Up My Granny’s Ass) to her recent, more polished rants (the environmentalist/AIDS-memorializing “The American Chestnut”). Along the way, she fills out the chocolate-smeared record of her public life with thick personal anecdotes. By the end of the NEA 4 trial she’d had a miscarriage, separated from her husband, and lost her mother to cancer. “I’m so fucking sick of chocolate,” she was screaming by the end of 1997, in The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman.

Soured by the vulnerability of public funding for the arts, the woman who once symbolized the integrity of the downtown arts scene has now reinvented herself—as a single mother living in L.A., working mostly in the officially censored medium of television. It’s hard to know whether to be grateful for or resentful of the earnest and pleasant art-girl tone Finley employs throughout. She is whip-smart, and it shows. Her tale is a condensed account of the changes that have swept through the art world in the past two decades—a disturbing missive about the power of publicly funded censorship to erode the spirit of contentious art-making. Still, she never admits to knowing just how troubling her story’s ending is.