NEW YORK — Wearing only black panties, glittered spiked heels and a pink feather boa, performance artist Karen Finley greeted the audience Thursday night at her show, "The Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman," currently running at a tiny off-off-Broadway theater in Lower Manhattan.
"Welcome to the first show after the Supreme Court decision," she said upon her entrance after a chorus line of nine go-go dancers warmed up the capacity crowd sitting on overturned plastic buckets.
"I'm a loser! I'm a [expletive] loser!!!!!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Just hours earlier, the Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled against her in a suit she and three other artists filed eight years ago, challenging a 1990 congressional law requiring the National Endowment for the Arts to consider "general standards of decency" in dispensing grants. The NEA had denied cash awards approved at the panel level for Finley and the three others--Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck--following an outcry from Republican critics such as U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Jesse Helms who found their work offensive. While lower courts decided in favor of the artists, the Clinton administration appealed those decisions and the government's argument prevailed in the Supreme Court.
Finley told the audience of her show--a deconstructivist look at the same 1990 performance that drew conservative ire in the first place--that she had been besieged all day by reporters seeking comment and had decided to incorporate her response into the show itself. Consequently, she said, the theater would soon be invaded by a media contingent that had been invited for a press conference. But before that she re-created a moment from the 1990 show, "We Keep Our Victims Ready," that had so upset her congressional critics. Lathering her body with a chocolate substance, she invited members of the audience to lick it off for $20. "Cab fare," she said.
Describing herself as "unhappy" and "very disappointed" with the decision, during the press conference Finley lashed out at the Clinton administration for appealing the lower court rulings.
"It isn't just the far right--and it's very important to keep that in mind," she said, adding later that "the people you think are on your side turn out to be your worst enemy." Referring to the president's mounting legal bills, she bitterly joked to the press that "every time Clinton has oral sex, it could pay for one year of the NEA."
Unlike some of her supporters, Finley said that she took no comfort in the majority opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, which said that the law contained only "advisory language" and that any penalizing by the NEA of 'disfavored viewpoints" would violate the 1st Amendment.
"I don't agree that the law is 'meaningless,' " she said, and she predicted it will have a chilling effect on artistic freedom of expression. "Who's going to be deciding who's decent and what's decent? Is a banana going into a mouth decent? Is chocolate on a body decent?"
Referring to her blue-collar Irish Catholic roots and her father's humble job as a vacuum cleaner salesman, Finley said she relied on federal grants to get her through college and to jump-start her career as a performing artist.
"Will having a career in the arts now mean that you have to come from money or create propaganda to support the state, or be a white straight man?"
Asked what being a lightning rod for the political right had meant to her both personally and professionally over the last eight years, she responded that she had been the object of stalking and death threats, and that her marriage had dissolved under the pressure. Having been "demonized," she said, it was difficult for people to see her as a professional. She had been constantly on the defensive to prove herself as "a good girl," an artist, a caring mother, a recipient of master's degrees and Guggenheim awards.
Following the conference, in one of her monologues Finley portrayed herself as a victim, "sexually abused on the Senate floor," expanding on what she'd told the press had been eight years of a "humiliating, sexually abusive" relationship with Jesse Helms.
"He eroticized my career, my work, my livelihood," she said. "I'm an abused woman on the job. As a federal employee, he harassed me."