Karen Finley's performance art provokes, but does it provoke well?

The cover of Karen Finley's new book is stunning. Opened fully, like a centerfold, it reveals the back of a woman in sumptuous repose. Naked, but for her green socks wrinkled around her ankles, she's facing away from us. Her beautiful waist curves as she lounges atop a velvety red bathrobe on an overstuffed couch.

The cover is meant to entice. After all, this is Karen Finley's self-defined memoir. What else would you expect from the performance-art provacateur? Finley's known for pissing off the government trying to get funding for public art projects (like her 1-900-ALL-KAREN, a sexy pre-recorded message about the Supreme Court) or by smearing herself in chocolate and posing sexily in both Time and Playboy. In the '80s, she was the lead plaintiff in a near decade-long legal battle with the National Endowment for the Arts that would forever change the way public money funds (or limits its support for) American art.

I want to like Karen Finley, considering how long I've been following her work: diatribes against censorship and the rabid arbiter of "proper" art, Senator Jesse Helms; homages to woman, debased and abused by a male-centered society. I do like Finley, on paper. But I'm wary about her presentation. Not unlike the paper jacket of her new collection of writings, Finley often appears seductive, even overly feminine, like she just stepped off the set of a porn flick. She dons the hyperbolic female accoutrements (high heels, long nails, excessive make-up, big hair). Recently, I stumbled across her on the late-night show Politically Incorrect. There she was, the only woman in a posse of pontificating men; she seemed spacey, flaky (dare I say, femmy?). I'm sure she said something intelligent, but I couldn't get past her pink boa and miniskirt. Is this intentional? Who really knows? She explains that she's shifted from self-righteous self-involvement to post-feminist self-involvement. I don't buy it. Like the bumper sticker on my car proclaims, "I'll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy."

Performance art is a tricky mode of expression, though. Sometimes its exhibitionism is painfully embarrassing and alienating, especially when there's nudity, profanity and hysteria included. For those too squeamish to watch Finley in person, there's "A Different Kind of Intimacy": textural cannonballs cushioned within that beautiful cover.

What I do like about Karen Finley is what ostensibly irks her government funding sources. She makes you squirm. Her newest collection of performance texts, essays and photo stills from her stage work is indeed a different kind of intimacy, one that is meant to make us uncomfortable. Finley wants us to see the world the way she does, both her own experiences and those of other women. In her 1988 performance, "A Suggestion of Madness," she reads her father's suicide note on the 10th anniversary of his death, in the hopes of exposing the absurdity of theater being the vehicle that truly represents emotional pain. In "We Keep Our Victims Ready," Finley aestheticizes the controversy surrounding Towana Brawley, the young woman found covered in feces, dumped in a trash bag and later accused of making up this scenario. Finley addresses the media's doubt by smearing her own naked body with chocolate, then covering herself with red candy hearts ("because after a woman is treated like shit, she becomes more lovable"). Then after the hearts, she covers herself in bean sprouts ("they look and smell like semen ... and after a woman is treated like shit, and loved for it, she's jacked off on."). Finally, Finley spreads tinsel over her body to replicate a Cher dress because "no matter how badly a woman has been treated, she'll still get it together to dress for dinner."

You can't duck away from visceral work like Finley's. What galled the NEA was calling this work art. It's revealing to read Finley's essays that detail the excruciating stress brought on by eight years of legal battles. After a miscarriage, after performances interrupted by death threats, after last-minute cancellations, she and her three fellow plaintiffs won their case. Restitution was minor. They got their grants reinstated and a few thousand dollars. But soon after, the Supreme Court awarded the next round to cultural conservatives: The government's decency clause was upheld and could be used to place restrictions on funding. Finley's reaction surprised even her: "I felt that Senator Helms had been sexually harassing me, he had eroticized me and my work, making me into a battered woman."

There is no in-between with Karen Finley, nor is there a middle ground with her fans and critics. In the final chapter of her memoir--one that is as much a personal as well as a cultural autobiography--Barney Rosset, the underground publisher, asks an important question: "Do we risk silencing daring people?"

His answer: "We do so at our own peril."

More by Joan Schuman

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    • Apr 6, 2006
  • Pondering Place

    Lucy Lippard helps MOCA bridge the gap between visual and textual arts
    • Mar 16, 2006
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