Gang of Four

The continuing travails of Karen Finley--performance artist, free-speech test case, and professional pariah

Valentine's Day, 1986: In a show at the Kitchen in New York, Karen Finley stands naked, midstage, holding a handful of gooey canned yams in her hand while fervently channeling the depraved rants of a man who wanted to stick the candied tubers "up his granny's butt." The audience holds its collective breath waiting for Finley to make good on the rumors, the juicy ones suggesting she uses her own body as a proxy for the sexual fantasies of her characters. Then Finley falls out of the rhythm of her monologue for a brief moment. Her high-heeled stance is defiant, her lingering rage cathartic. The pause is like a dare: Who is Finley anyway--a Cassandra for our times or yet another example of fleeting art-world self-indulgence? She smears the yams across her bare ass and goes on to tackle a few more taboo topics before exiting the stage as unassumingly as she had entered. This is art as kamikaze attack.

Fast forward to 1998, when performance art toils in the mainstream. The Blue Man Group, a collective of Twinkie-squirting, paint-spewing androgynous "beings" has been offering a friendly performance-art experience to tourists off-Broadway for years now. Sitcoms work performers into story lines as foils for "normal" characters on a regular basis. Recently, even dour Bob Dylan unwittingly shared the Grammy stage with the shimmying "Soy Bomb" dancer, a performance artist who later cashed in on his 15 minutes of televised fame. Underground cachet, it seems, is strictly passé.

So where does this turn of events leave Karen Finley? As a seminal figure in the now largely innocuous realm of performance art, she continues to face challenges to her artistic credibility well into the second decade of her career. While critics hail Finley (whose new work The American Chestnut opens Wednesday at Intermedia Arts) for her honest rage, spontaneity, and acerbic wit, one must concede that her writing style is sometimes uneven and immature.

In recent years, however, Finley has garnered the most ink for her performance on a prominent public stage with more rigid protocols: the court controversy over public arts funding. In 1990, Sen. Jesse Helms targeted Finley, along with performers John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, in his campaign to put a "decency" clause in the funding criteria for the National Endowment for the Arts. The "NEA Four," as they became known, were stripped of grants in retaliation for the frank sexual content of their works.

Subsequently, communities large and small began their own witch-hunts for transgressive artists. (Locally, the Walker Art Center became involved when the Associated Press picked up a Star Tribune article inaccurately portraying the use of ritual bloodletting in a Ron Athey show.) Ultimately Helms's crusade combined a bit of McCarthyism with a lot of political opportunism; and the NEA and the artistic world at large have yet to wholly recover.

"It's taken up a fifth of my life," Finley says from her home in Nyack, New York, referring to the past eight years of court battles and the emotional upheaval connected with her NEA woes. "I felt ashamed about having my sexuality attacked, and humiliated that I had to constantly defend myself. All I ever wanted was to be appreciated like the other artists I admired." Some may argue that Finley's perspective is disingenuous--that her outrageousness has largely been a plea for attention--but her journey on the publicity train has been anything but a free ride. Many theaters, for example, refused to present her work for fear of losing their own federal dollars. Some members of the NEA Four received death threats.

This year, however, the issue might finally be settled: Next week the United States Supreme Court will hear the case of the NEA Four. Ironically it's the Clinton Administration on the attack this time as the Justice Department seeks review of a lower court decision that found the decency clause unconstitutional. Finley, wary about the prospect of revisiting 1990, expresses concern about becoming a sacrifice on the altar of free expression. "If the case loses there's going to be a lot of people not liking me," she states softly, alluding to some unnamed detractors who "would rather I didn't pursue the suit."

Although she admits the events of recent years have put a strain on her work, Finley has been productive, creating new pieces, writing books, and helming a pay-per-call phone line (1-900-CALL-KAREN, $1.75 the first minute, $1.25 each additional minute) which features a new two-minute performance daily through July. The phone lines provide an intimate, anything-goes way to experience Finley as she urgently whispers, warbles, and chants personal observations into your ear. A recent recording was cut short by the arrival of Finley's young daughter fresh from a nap. Callers can also leave messages for the artist and hear "The Black Sheep," a poignant work that captures the essence of being an outsider. The poem will be installed on a monument in New York's Chelsea neighborhood later this year.

Finley's new evening-length work, The American Chestnut, takes a cue from the chestnut tree, once the most abundant in the country until a blight nearly wiped it out earlier this century. She portrays the survivors of tragedy through several character studies, using her keening trance-like style of delivery and projections of her visual art works to comment on her will to persevere. "It's a Joycean narrative, with a lot more humor," Finley states. "I think my other works had humor too, but it was used to deflect attention away from reality. Humor is a more [palatable] way to get my point across [after] being put down so much for my work."

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