FINLEY, KAREN (1956– ) Performance Artist

In the 1990s, performance artist Karen Finley found herself and her work at the center of a national debate on censorship. Born in 1956, she grew up in Evanston, Illinois, encouraged by her parents to express herself through the arts. She was especially inspired by her father, who sold insurance but considered jazz drumming his true vocation. Intending to become a painter, Finley left home to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. While she was visiting her parents during a break, her life was shattered when her father killed himself in the garage. Finley later maintained that the event was “where everything comes from” in her work. She explained that her father’s suicide left her so full of anger that she had trouble concentrating on her painting. She instead turned to performance art as a way of turning her rage into art.

Finley arrived in New York in 1984 and soon became a fixture in the city’s art scene. Her shows developed into mixtures of provocative onologues, dramas built around props, and projections of prerecorded videotapes. Nudity and obscenities, too, became familiar elements in her work. Although praised by many critics of avant-garde theater, her performances also drew sharp criticism, most notably an eloquent attack by journalist Pete Hamill that appeared in the Village Voice in 1986.

An even more influential diatribe against Finley’s work appeared in The Washington Post. Syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak expressed outrage over the content of the work produced by artists with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). They singled out Finley, ridiculing her as a “nude, chocolate-smeared young woman.” Their criticism focused on one section of her 90-minute performance piece, We Keep Our Victims Ready. In this part of the performance, Finley stripped to her underwear and rubbed chocolate over her body, shrieking obscenities in the voice of several characters, including victims of rape, suicide, and poverty.

Commenting that the chocolate was a “symbol of women being treated like dirt,” Finley was offended that the diatribe mentioned only a part of a much longer work, taking it entirely out of context. Evans and Novak themselves admitted that they had never seen the performance they were commenting on. Still, their criticisms were embraced by conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan. They chose Finley’s grant from the NEA as a battleground for the fight to further their political agenda. Under pressure from conservative groups, the National Council of the Arts, which advised the NEA, rejected grants for Finley and three other artists—Holly Hughes, John Fleck and Tim Miller—on June 29, 1990. Finley, who had been an NEA grant recipient since 1984, was aghast. “I am shocked,” she told the press, adding, “A year ago I was in a country of freedom of expression; now I am not.”

Now known as the NEA Four, Finley, Hughes, Fleck, and Miller responded by suing the NEA. The artists won their case; each was awarded their grant money and $6,000 in compensatory damages. In the meantime, the NEA approved a new requirement for evaluating grant recipients: The agency was now to consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” The new requirement and its subsequent appeal in the NEA case was largely seen as a concession to its conservative critics.

Despite her notoriety, Finley continued to produce provocative performance pieces, including American Chestnut (1997) and Shut Up and Love Me (1999). She also wrote three books. Shock Treatment (1990), published amidst the NEA debates, includes the text of two performance pieces and other writings. Her other books are works of satire. Enough Is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally (1993) lampoons self-help literature, while Living It Up: Adventures in Hyperdomesticity (1996) offers Finley’s own take on the Martha Stewart phenomenon. In 1998, Finley was performing Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman, a piece that commented on the image of her presented by the press in the thick of the 1990 NEA grant debacle.

During its run, the appeal of the NEA Four case was decided by the Supreme Court. In an 8 to 1 decision, the court decided for the NEA, claiming that its decency standards constituted “advisory language” that did not violate the First Amendment, as Finley and her fellow artists alleged. Finley called the ruling “a big loss for our country.” Even with the defeat, Finley has remained a symbolic leader for freedom of expression. As Laurie Stone wrote in a 1998 profile of the artist in Ms. magazine, “We need Finley: she doesn’t duck bullets, . . . and she continues to push against her own boundaries as an artist.” Seeking a fresh start, Finley left New York for Los Angeles in 1999. The same year, she posed nude for Playboy magazine—an ironic response to critics who saw nothing in her work but sexuality. In 2001, she debuted a new performance piece, Shut Up and Love Me, which explored how heterosexual women must “[try] to find a sensible way of living within a code of being desired.”

Further Reading
Finley, Karen. A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000.
Sante, Luc. “Blood and Chocolate: What Karen Finley Really Does.” The New Republic. October 15, 1990, pp. 34+.