Performing Art: National Endowment for the Arts V. Finley

By Bezanson, Randall P. | Federal Communications Law Journal, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Performing Art: National Endowment for the Arts V. Finley


Bezanson, Randall P., Federal Communications Law Journal


Karen Finley claims to be an artist. A performance artist.

Not everyone agrees.

Finley's art is who she is. She grew up in a Chicago suburb and was educated at the San Francisco Art Institute. (1) She describes herself as the child of a "not white" mother and a "manic-depressive jazz musician [father] who eventually committed suicide ... 'I have used that information in my artmaking I think very well' ... 'I had to get out that emotion somewhere.'" (2)

Her most infamous performance was described in the Harvard University Gazette in an article following a public lecture she gave at Harvard in 2002. The title was We Keep Our Victims Ready.

   She took her inspiration from Tawana Brawley, the 16-year-old who
   was found alive in a Hefty bag covered with feces near her home in
   upstate New York. Finley was moved when Brawley was accused of
   perpetrating this act herself. "Was this the best choice? What was
   the worst choice? What was the other choice?" she said of Brawley's
   apparent desperation. "All of us have that moment where puttin' the
   shit on us is the best choice we have."

      At the end of the piece, after smearing herself with the
   feces-symbolic chocolate, Finley covers herself with tinsel
   because, she said, "no matter how bad a woman is treated, she still
   knows how to get dressed for dinner." (3)

The Gazette article described other, thematically related works. One is "The Body as Rorschach Test."

   [It] showed Finley at work in a studio, surrounded by paintbrushes
   and other tools. Instead of using them, however, she pulls her
   breast out from behind her apron and "paints" on a black page with
   her breast milk, growing increasingly animated and ultimately using
   both breasts.

     Another piece features large, close-up photographs of her
   daughter's birth surrounded by Post-it Notes of quotes by the
   practitioners who assisted the drug-free delivery of her 9-pound
   baby. "I couldn't believe that people were telling me to relax,"
   she said. "This was the most dismissive piece of crap I ever
   heard." (4)

Finley discussed some of her more overtly political work in an interview in The Nation with Bryan Farrell. (5)

[Question:] George & Martha [one of her performances about George Bush and Martha Stewart] had a brief theatrical run in 2004, in which you played the Martha character. Was it difficult to perform such an intense yet insidious psychosexual relationship? Did audiences react the way you expected?

[Finley:] Well, I did perform it nude. And I did diaper Bush. That was a lot of fun....

I think we also have to look at our national narratives. We have to be seeing that with Reagan, who was the child of an alcoholic. And when Clinton had his acceptance speech, he was talking about standing up to his father. We vote in a national narrative that we relate to. That's why I was wondering ... how did this guy get in? ...

... Why is he so simple? Why does he act so stupid? I think it's to make himself stay like a child.... Even Laura is like his mom. She's a librarian. It's like marrying the teacher.... I think everyone likes the fact that he's the black sheep.... Everyone thought he was the dumb kid. And he showed them. That's one reason I'm against inherited wealth. The playing field would have been even, so he could have just started on his own resources and self-generated what he was doing rather than what he was afforded by the family dynasty. I think he could have had a great bar in Houston.

Finley's performances are bawdy, lewd, dirty, political, powerful. The critic C. Cart described his reaction in a Village Voice review. (6)

   When I first saw Finley performing in the clubs in 1985, she was
   doing scabrous trance-rap monologues that seemed to burst right
   from the id. First she'd walk out in some godforsaken prom dress or
   polyester glad rag, presenting herself as the shy and vulnerable
   good girl. … 

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