In the summer of 1990, Karen Finley became a cause célèbre in the world of performance art when she was denied an NEA grant for which a peer panel had recommended her. But that fact alone, interesting though it is for the light it sheds on the process and politics of government support of the arts in America, does not warrant the space accorded Finley in this book. Her solo piece, We Keep Our Victims Ready, does because the obscenity her detractors see in it supposedly was the reason for the denial. A victim is a living being sacrificed to a deity, the sacrifice being the ritual that actualizes the deity's myth. Since myth and ritual imply traditional narrative and prescribed form, Finley's performing the piece establishes the deity, or ruling culture, that exacts the sacrifice. Since the performance is allegedly obscene, it also establishes her irreverent, or nontraditional, attitude toward the dominant culture.
In the imaginative world of We Keep Our Victims Ready, there are many voices but only one body. The voices are those of the disembodied victims of a dominant culture that disfranchises minority selves by confiscating their bodies. And where the ruling culture does not break the spirit but dispossesses it, the master pursues the fugitive, allowing it no sanctuary. "Whenever I see a rainbow in the sky," the performance artist rages in the solo piece, "I only see an angel being raped."1
The dispersed selves, or spirits, speak through Finley, who becomes their medium in a performance that recovers their sanctity by purging her body of the masculine culture's depredation. By offering her body, by sacrificing it in the ritual, she returns to a time that approximates the present, a time in the beginning of Western theatre when women playwrights, denied access to power, empowered themselves: