INTERVIEW : All the Rage : Karen Finley has become a symbol in the struggle over public arts support

She will not talk about the National Endowment for the Arts, this artist who has been denied federal funding. Nor will she discuss the lawsuit that she and three other performance artists have filed against the NEA. Nor the public fervor surrounding her latest work, “We Keep Our Victims Ready"--a media clamor that began last spring when she was described as a “nude, chocolate-smeared young woman” and has culminated this fall in the most extensive tour of her career. Karen Finley, a 34-year-old feminist performance artist, has become a lightning rod for the nationwide debate on art and obscenity.

“And can we do a fact-check on this article?” she asks somewhat tremulously in her modest second-story apartment in this working-class town 30 miles north of New York City. Finley, who has hung up on reporters and ordered patrons from the theater when they disturbed her performances, has opened her door to an interviewer this brilliant autumn morning with decided wariness. “I don’t like to give interviews when I’m performing,” she says. “You can probably hear it in my voice.”

Her reticence is understandable. In the past four months, Finley has seen her life as an avant-garde conceptual and performance artist go from relative obscurity to nationwide notoriety. Well-known in New York’s downtown art circles for her highly political and emotionally charged stage performances, which often featured Finley smearing food over her nude body to symbolize the oppression of women, the artist has spent most of her 14-year career playing in small clubs and galleries, surviving on a cobbled income of public grants, ticket sales and wages from part-time jobs.


Then, last May, conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak highlighted Finley as “the Mapplethorpe case of 1990,” the latest symbol of “the great culture war raging from Capitol Hill to the hinterland.” By July, she was one of the first NEA grant recipients to have their funding rescinded--one of the so-called NEA Four, a list that also included performance artists Holly Hughes, John Fleck and Tim Miller.

NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer ignored the recommendations of an NEA peer-review panel and denied the four grants. The artists have filed suit, asking that the grants be restored. The suit asks for an additional $50,000 in damages to Finley for violation of privacy rights.

Since then, Finley has become something of a national totem for the ongoing arts-financing debate. She has been favorably reviewed in the New York Times and criticized in the Village Voice. She has played to sold-out houses at Lincoln Center, lost other bookings, acquired a new producer and undertaken the most ambitious touring schedule of her career, which is expected to include performances of “We Keep Our Victims Ready” in Los Angeles early next year. Last month, Finley withdrew as co-host of the New York Dance and Performing Awards in protest of one of the event’s sponsors, Philip Morris, which is also a supporter of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, the NEA’s most prominent critic). Next month, Finley’s first full-length book, “Shock Treatment,” based largely on her stage monologues, will be published by City Lights Press in San Francisco.

“Her life has changed,” says Jed Wheeler, a New York theater producer and Finley’s tour manager. “The kind of press she has received in the past few months has launched her career. She now has the audience potential of a Spalding Gray,” he says, referring to the performer whose monologues composed the film “Swimming to Cambodia” and who appeared in “The Killing Fields.”

Suggest to Finley, however, that such notoriety has been to her benefit, and she stiffens. “I have had to change my whole idea about how I perform,” she says. “I’m not getting a grant and I have had cancellations. There are places that are scared they will lose their (federal) funding if they put me on. I don’t think that fame or celebrity can ever equal injustice.”

Indeed, if anything characterizes Finley’s work as an artist, it is her acute--some have called it fanatical--sense of injustice. Like the other three performance artists who were denied grants, Finley uses strong sexual imagery in her work. Recurring themes include sexual abuse, rape, violence, alcoholism, suicide, homelessness and discrimination. A conceptual artist who paints as well as performs (she has also written plays; her “The Theory of Total Blame” was performed last year at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), Finley is best known for her solo stage work--a furious blend of scripted, incantatory monologue and often self-debasing behavior that nearly always involves smearing food on her partially naked body--all of it tracing the darkest imaginings of men, whom Finley sees as the source of female degradation.

“I don’t hate men,” she has said, “I hate what men do.”

Not surprisingly, her strongly visceral performances have divided critics--even veterans of ‘downtown'--who have likened her purposefully confrontational tactics to a seance, even martyrdom. One reviewer described Finley--swathed in chocolate and bound in a white sheet--in “We Keep Our Victims Ready” as having “been through a crucifixion without the nails.” While many reviewers have applauded her stage techniques for, as one put it, “magnifying exhibitionism until it de-eroticizes it,” others have found less comfortable parallels between Finley’s work and conventional pornography.

“A lot of people have reviewed Karen badly,” says Martha Wilson, founder and director of New York’s Franklin Furnace, an avant-garde gallery-theater where Finley first performed in 1983. “And there are critics who do not believe she is a feminist. But she is--she is a victim of that phenomenon where the messenger is blamed for the message.”

Indeed, Finley’s most vocal left-wing critics have included certain reviewers in the Village Voice, as well as members of such political groups as Women Against Pornography and Women’s Caucus for Art. She was most recently criticized by writer Jonathan Kalb in the Voice for becoming “a misplaced prima donna” whose national tour included stops in “white liberal intellectual temples of art,” including such mainstream venues as Boston’s American Repertory Theatre. (Conversely, Voice theater critic Michael Feingold reviewed Finley “as the cleanest artist in America,” her anger “the justification of her art.”)

Adds Wilson: “The goals of performance art are not the same as for theater, which involves a suspension of belief. Karen uses both techniques in her works, and because she often takes on the persona of the victimizer--the rapist, the abusive father--people get confused. But I have seen Karen make whole rooms of people cry.”

On stage she may be adorned in red rubber boots, a red turban, a baggy dress, voicing a smart-mouth preamble that lampoons local critics, area restaurants, even some audience members. The nakedness, the chocolate-smearing, the profane poetry comes later. But offstage Finley is pale, aloof, rangy with a long spill of red hair, like some Joycean heroine rather than the flashpoint for a rancorous nationwide debate. On this particular morning, she is dressed in blue jeans, boots and a white hooded sweat shirt. She apologizes for having run out of milk and for being groggy.

“I usually don’t get up until 5 p.m. on performance days,” she says in her flat Chicago accent. “And I don’t usually give interviews,” she adds, leading the way through the apartment she shares with her husband and manager, Michael Overn.

Across the street is Finley’s studio, an unheated two-room space with pine-board floors and a salmon-colored wall painted with one of Finley’s poems in black letters, “Why Can’t This Veal Calf Walk?”

“I hope you are warm enough,” she says, plugging in a small table-top heater and directing it toward her visitor. “These are great,” she says. “They cost about a buck a day.” There is a moment of silence. “I just like sharing those kinds of things,” she says evenly.

It is a tactic similar to that which Finley uses in her opening monologues, a way of establishing a sort of confrontational intimacy with her audience that is simultaneously off-putting and attention-getting. “That’s what art is about--it’s shock value,” she says. “I manipulate entertainment, but I am not an entertainer.”

Her emphasis on language--scatological and poetic--in her performances, Finley has said comes from her belief that “language is the only weapon you have once everything else is taken away.” When pressed for a further definition of her work, Finley searches for an answer.

“It’s about feelings and emotional issues. I try to bring out the invisible, what people are feeling.” Although her stage performances are scripted--and indeed she most often reads from a typewritten page “because I want the audience to know this is a controlled situation, like music on a stand"--she says her pieces “don’t happen in linear time, but emotional time.”

“Karen is not a political scientist,” says Doug Hall, an artist and chairman of the performance video department at the San Francisco Art Institute, where Finely earned her graduate degree. “As an artist she’s most interesting for her aesthetic--how her performances are on the verge of decaying into chaos. She’s brilliant at that control.”

Hall’s comments echo those often heard among followers of the performance-art scene, who assert that it is precisely those emotional states that Finley creates in her audience that are the strongest part of her work, that her “texts"--with their emphasis on sexism, racism, classism and homophobia forged at the hands of “Mr. Yuppie, Mr. Businessman, Mr. Entrepreneur"--are simply re-packaged ‘60s rhetoric.

It is not a surprising description, considering that Finley grew up during the 1960s in Evanston, Ill., an integrated, upper-middle-class Chicago suburb that Finley describes as “real four-star liberal territory.” She was the oldest of six children; her mother was a homemaker and civil-rights activist, her father a jazz musician who sold vacuum cleaners to make ends meet.

“We had been living in Chicago, but my parents moved to Evanston because of the schools,” says Finley. “They were considered among the best in the country. Also the political climate at the time. I was going to peace demonstrations when I was in eighth grade. I was reading Allen Ginsburg.”

It was a similar sense of rebellion that Finley brought to her study of art, which began when she was not yet a teen-ager. She first enrolled in drawing classes at a local arts center, and later attended the prestigious Chicago Art Institute. “I felt like it was a community,” recalls Finley, “and that I had a future.”

It was at the art institute that Finley first began to dabble in experimental performance art and learn about “object process--where the process of creating art is just as important as the product,” she says. She studied with performance artist James Grigsby, who, Finley says, emphasized “that art wasn’t just about drawing, that it was about going inside yourself and understanding the process of creating.”

It was during these high school years that Finley--who had once faked an epileptic seizure in public as “a way to affect people’s normal routines"--first began to exhibit her confrontational leanings. “We’d make our own happenings,” says Finley. “Like we’d tin-foil the hallways of the school, or we’d take over the sports field, because we were mad so much money was going for the sports teams. And we started doing arts sports--just like throw paint, games with no rules.”

If such radicalism was beginning to distinguish Finley’s academic and artistic career, it was an expansiveness tempered by an increasingly narrow view of her opportunities elsewhere. She was raised a Catholic and even attended a Catholic elementary school for a few years. But it was within the church that Finley says she first encountered the sexism that would come to characterize her work later.

It is a view of organized religion that Finley maintains today.

“I love the ritualistic aspect of religion, but I think all religions are very misogynistic, this emphasis on women not being part of the God structure. I think until religions change, women will not really be opened up.”

It was a similar sexism that Finley says she encountered later, in college at the San Francisco Art Institute during the 1980s.

“I had only one woman painting teacher, and work by women was regarded as ‘female art,’ ” she says. “I had things said to me like, ‘You’re too pretty to be an artist. Men will want to sleep with you but they won’t want to exhibit your work.’ That’s a devastating thing to tell somebody at 21.”

She worked nights and weekends as a cocktail waitress to “make that $80 bucks a night” to put herself through school. “I noticed that men didn’t have to exploit their bodies. They could do house painting. Plus, there was this whole male network of artists that women didn’t have."It was a time when Finley says she began “to feel that I wasn’t a whole person, that I couldn’t compete in that world.”

It was also a time when Finley experienced the most significant event of her personal life. When she was 21 and home during a spring break, her father went into the garage and shot himself.

“Karen’s family situation was very difficult and fairly oppressive,” recalls Grigsby, Finley’s former teacher. “I think that is one of the reasons she just immersed herself in art. She was willing to try anything.”

That suicide has continued to serve for Finley’s rage as an artist. She says she can trace her embracing of performance art to that single event--an abandonment of painting for the need to be with other people.

“I am an angry person, but I think that I have an ability to empathize with people,” she says. “I made the decision that knowing desperation or pain is what’s important, not some physical object.”

As a result, she began to alter and hone her stage work. “My first performance was in 1978, and I was supposed to use food and I put cantaloupes in my bra,” recalls Finley. “And I remember people laughed and I thought that was so odd, because I thought they would cry.”

Today the theme of the abused female within the dysfunctional family--political and otherwise--dominates Finley’s work, as does her use of food, which, she says, “comes from a long tradition of artists using food as a symbol.”

She says she also intends for her work to serve as a populist rebuttal to “that whole form of elitism that says you have to go to school for eight years to understand art and that’s why I have such emotionalism in my performances. I can’t stand that minimalism about a lot of modern art, that says it’s just for theoreticians.”

Her writing as well as her performing, she says, takes on an almost automatic quality. She never rehearses, she says, and “I cry a lot when I write.” She doesn’t enjoy her performances, “but I have to do them--in terms of what is going on in society, that women’s creativity can’t be used until it’s acknowledged.”

As for her themes of sexual abuse, rape and incest, Finley says she has never experienced them herself--except perhaps vicariously--and she insists her family is supportive of her work.

“I think what we’re talking about is control,” she says. “Whether a parent is an alcoholic or depressed or whatever their unhappiness is, the child feels they are to blame, especially for women. Even when you grow up you still feel that you never had a childhood. I feel, being the oldest, that I was robbed of a childhood. I remember, even going back to the age of five, of having to be responsible for my actions. Being the oldest, being a daughter, it was very difficult . . . " she says, letting her voice trail off.

Although she returned to Chicago after graduating from San Francisco in 1982--and was briefly married to her graduate adviser, Brian Routh, half of the Kipper Kids performance-art duo--Finley soon left for New York. There she began to perform her solo pieces, like “Summer of Hate,” “The Constant State of Desire” and “Strangling Baby Birds.” New York was where she received the first of the two NEA grants she was awarded between 1984 and ’87, totaling $10,000.

But this year, Finley’s grant was denied. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I can’t depend on the NEA now.” As for any self-censorship in her work, Finley admits to “hesitating” while writing her new play, “The Lamb of God Hotel.”

“As I was writing each line, I was thinking it would be considered blasphemy and I started feeling like an abused child, a damaged artist. That scared me.

“I think that’s why I was so devastated this summer with the NEA,” she says. “Because what helped me through (my father’s suicide) was my art, that I had my outlet and that I was supported (by the endowment.) I felt like they were taking away my source.

“I guess I was extremely naive. I didn’t think that what I had to speak about on stage would be that threatening. The NEA was set up to avoid these kinds of backlashes.

“You know if you’re a creative person, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have any money or you don’t see your parents. If you still have your art, it’s like your spirit or your religion. And if that’s taken away from you--well, I don’t know what I would live for.”