As Karen Finley reclines on a striped recamier, her satin dress hiked up to her waist, legs crossed coyly, she intones, “You respect me for all my values, you respect me for everything I’ve done for feminism, everything I’ve done for the uterus.” She continues her litany, adding what she’s done for politics and freedom of expression, then concludes, “but I just look at you and I want you to fuck my fucking brains out.” Call the Coast Guard, fourth-wave feminism has arrived.
In Shut Up and Love Me, Finley acts a bravura burlesque—a burlesque in that she strips, shimmies, and shakes, and a burlesque in that she keenly parodies her own career. Ever since the NEA’s defunding of Finley’s work, which rendered her a pinup girl for the First Amendment, Finley has strenuously opposed reducing her art to its sexual content. But this latest piece is nearly all sexual content, a cheerful fuck-you to detractors and even supporters—to everyone who believes they have Finley pegged.
Finley dons the now-familiar garment of overeroticization as a strategy for de-eroticization, but on her it looks good. She wears the trappings of seduction with a goofy and rapacious insouciance. Tongue extended and eyes heavy-lidded, she kicks her heels, tugs and jerks at her red dress, bites at her stockings, wrenches her breasts free from her lacy brassiere and then seems uncertain of where to put them. It’s far sillier and stranger than it is sexy.
Much the same may be said of the monologues Finley declaims once in an acceptable state of undress. With sheets of her script arrayed before her, she launches into a ridiculous picaresque of female sexual adventure—a confusion of lovers, boyfriends, fathers, even dogs. In classic Finley fashion, she does not so much perform the pieces as perform the performance of them. Her voice shifts unceasingly, from girlish lilt to sex-kitten burr, from pinched mid-Atlantic to California screech. She drops in and out of character, distracted by noises in the audience or by her own internal monologue. At one moment, she announces a certain line should have received a laugh and speaks it again so that the audience may oblige. At another, she turns to a group of girls seated very near the stage and says, “This is what happens after the fourth wall, it’s post-fourth wall. This is why I had to meet you all over there. It’s intimate, but I’m pretending it’s not intimate.”
Finley can pretend as much as she likes, but a non-intimate evening with her is nearly inconceivable. Beneath the salaciousness, the ribaldry, and the disco soundtrack, Finley can still invoke remarkable vulnerability, pathos, and beauty—as she proves at the close of the show, when she joyfully cavorts on a plastic-covered mat slathered in honey.
Next to the supreme theatricality of Karen Finley, it’s no surprise that other events appear quite untheatrical. Case in point, May 19’s conference at Soho’s Location One on “Art and Performance 2001,” held to commemorate Performing Arts Journal‘s 25th year. A sedate affair of white walls, white table cloths, ice-water glasses, and tabletop microphones, of course it was untheatrical. The real surprise? It was positively antitheatrical.
Though termed a “celebration,” the event felt more like a memorial service. Aural artist Gregory Whitehead, it should be noted, provided a welcome exception—offering 25 anagrams of Performing Arts Journal, including “Singular Trojan Perform” and “Strange Journal for Prim.” But the two reactionary panel sessions, moderated by PAJ‘s editors Gautam Dasgupta and Bonnie Marranca, weren’t nearly so charming or generous, comprising laments for the state of art and criticism in the so-called golden age of the ’60s and ’70s.
The first panel, led by Dasgupta, discussed “The Idea of the Contemporary” and essentially concluded the contemporary suffers in comparison to the past. Several audience members chimed in with suggestions of excellent contemporary theater (Sarah East Johnson, Erik Ehn, Ruth Margraff), and panelist Mac Wellman made a few attempts to mention young artists (fellow panelist Michael Counts of Gale Gates would only mention his own show and pass out its postcards). But the air of gloom went undispelled. The talk shifted to grant troubles, the political climate, the NEA situation, etc., leading one frustrated audience member to ask if the work could be discussed instead.
The Marranca-mediated second panel was, if possible, even less heartening for the drama, as theater went almost completely unmentioned. Of the five panelists arrayed to argue “Criticism and the New Arts,” only one, Daryl Chin, associate editor of PAJ, was even in part a theater critic. He was joined by three art critics and the amiable Whitehead. There was much talk of the Internet, the difficulties of art training, and the absence of young critics. (Hey!) But, again, very little discussion of actual critical work or positive trends. Even the venerable Stanley Kauffmann joined the pity party, but in as august and avuncular a fashion as anyone could expect.
Kauffmann mourned less free-form times when critics could confront a work of art with a set of semi-objective criteria, with certain standards for judgment. But, even without such criteria, it’s a simple matter to confront the PAJ conference—and find it wanting.