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

October 21, 1990|HILARY DE VRIES

NYACK, N.Y. — 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 By July, she was one of the first NEA grant recipients to have their funding rescinded--one of the so-called NEA Four, a list that also included performance artists Holly Hughes, John Fleck and Tim Miller.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."

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