Karen Finley Applies 'Shock Treatment' : Performance art: The controversial artist takes on Disneyland, sexism and Sen. Jesse Helms at Cal State Fullerton.


Performance artist Karen Finley, whose work helped foment the National Endowment for the Arts funding controversy, was scathing and scatological Wednesday night as she brought her aptly named "Shock Treatment" tour to Southern California.

But there was no chocolate, little skin and no produce--elements of previous Finley performances that outraged some columnists and such members of Congress as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach)--as Finley read for a standing-room-only crowd of 280 at Cal State Fullerton.

Last year, Finley was denied an NEA grant after criticism of her piece "We Keep Our Victims Ready," in which she smears her breasts with chocolate as part of a monologue symbolizing the oppression and degradation of women. She is one of four artists suing the federal agency to force reconsideration of such decisions which, they charge, were based on politics rather than aesthetics. Finley is further suing for $50,000 in damages, asserting that the NEA violated her privacy.

In an interview after her performance, Finley said that she was not impressed with the NEA's recent decision to drop the anti-obscenity oath it had required of grant recipients. The battle over censorship, she said, is not confined to the arts, and is not over because of the NEA action.

"I think that what they're trying to do is to make people think that it's over," she said.

Stripped of her props, the subversion and the outrage for which Finley is known were evident in the content of her performance rather than the form. Wearing a long black dress, seated on a stool and reading from a music stand, Finley presented 10 of her works, most of which appear in her new book, also titled "Shock Treatment."

Finley does dwell on the sexual and excretory in her diatribes against AIDS, sexism and racism. Other than tossing her long hair, however, the most physical activity of the evening came during one piece as Finley pounded her chest for emphasis. But even rooted on the stool, she was equal parts poet, preacher and blues singer, delivering her pieces as if they were incantations, sermons and songs without music.

In "Happy Birthday," Finley mused over the custom of a woman jumping out of a cake at all-male parties. Few of her explanations can be reproduced in a family newspaper but she did suggest a few variations on the practice for women's parties. One is called the "Take Out the Garbage Game," in which a guy "cute in a soap opera kind of way . . . takes out the garbage until he's real sweaty and exhausted and naked."

Many of the pieces and observations were paybacks and potshots aimed at those she says are her tormentors, including Rohrabacher and Helms.

Other targets included Disneyland, Charlton Heston, Nancy Reagan, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, John Cardinal O'Connor and Tipper Gore. Sports Illustrated was hit for giving more space to women in swimsuits than to women athletes, and "classic rock" radio stations for never playing more than one female artist in a row.

Finley got the greatest response of the evening from the largely student-age audience for her last piece, in which she took on the Gulf War.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World