Of the four artists known by history as the NEA Four, Karen Finley is the one whose full name many people remember, even if they know little else about the situation that led to the artists’ lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). It’s easy to speculate about why Finley’s name is more remembered than the others — it could have to do with the fact that the lawsuit bore only her name (National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley); that she posed for Playboy, a move that garnered quite a bit of media attention, not long after the Supreme Court ruled against the artists’ challenge of the “decency clause” that allowed their grants to be vetoed; that American society, still grappling with the AIDS epidemic and entrenched homophobia, was more comfortable making her the face of the case instead of John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, because of her heterosexuality and traditional beauty. It could be all of those things, or it could be other things; it’s impossible to track it down precisely.
Regardless of the reasons for it, that extra limelight appears to have had a major influence on Finley’s work, particularly in the last decade. Between 2000 and 2010 she created a number of performance works that took on the issues of celebrity and public scandal, borrowing from the mediated lives of such women as Liza Minnelli, Laura Bush, Terri Schiavo, Silda Spitzer, Martha Stewart, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Many of the texts of these performances were published in the aptly titled book The Reality Shows.
That title seems particularly fitting because there’s something about Finley and her work that touches on the ways in which young reality television stars today, specifically women, become briefly famous for heavily sexualized moments of notoriety and then have to navigate and negotiate their relationship to that notoriety for years after, while also leveraging it as a way to maintain a public presence. Finley is obviously in a very different position than those women, operating within the art world, not having consciously entered into the NEA Four scandal, and sometimes making work that specifically resists sexualization; but there’s something about her movements through the arts and popular media, as well as her evocation of subjects like Silda Spitzer and Martha Stewart, that speaks to a larger conversation about the limits of female celebrity, the ways in which notoriety and sexual scandal impact women in particular, and the consistency of public expectations and assumptions once a woman has been marked by scandal.
Like the other members of the NEA Four, Finley is a highly individual artist whose work prior to and following the lawsuit has taken its own idiosyncratic path, despite the symbolic status the group was reduced to in the 1990s. Known primarily as a performance artist, she situates herself firmly within the visual arts and considers herself to be working in a conceptual vein, choosing her medium based on the demands of the ideas she’s developing — anything from performance, writing, or painting to public sculpture or installation. One week before her work Sext Me If You Can opened at the New Museum, I chatted with her by phone to learn about the new piece, and also to reflect back on her career more broadly as part of my ongoing series of interviews with the NEA Four artists during their residency at the New Museum. Given the subject matter of her work, public perceptions of her and her art, and all the ways that sexuality remains a deeply fraught subject in the US, our conversation wasn’t always an easy banter. But it was interesting, and it highlights the fact that simple boundaries can’t be drawn around artists or their work.
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Alexis Clements: I want to start with the project you’re doing for the New Museum, “Sext Me If You Can,” which involves collectors purchasing the opportunity to send you a sext, which you will then receive and use as inspiration for a painting that you’ll create during live “studio” hours at the New Museum, with the paintings going back to the collectors who sent the sexts. Can you talk a bit about what led you to create this work?
Karen Finley: I like to look and see what’s going on in society, what’s in the culture, and I was really taken by how people get so bent out of shape with sexting. You know, let’s say with [Anthony] Weiner, people were acting as if it was World War III. The person is supposed to be made to feel guilty. I was thinking about the body, in terms of life drawing, and so instead of demonizing, I kind of have this sense that you’re looking at the figure, posing the figure and drawing the figure. It’s like a playfulness — trying to take away the taboo, the guilt and shame.
AC: One of the things I think of when I hear about sexting is the fear around the mistaken delivery.
KF: I think there’s a fear of being caught. Isn’t that something, too — being found out with sexuality? And so I think that’s what this is supposed to be allowing. That shame and fear and criminality — I want to expose that. In some ways, we’re supposed to be so much more open [today], but I think that some of the issues still pertain as if it was the 1950s.
AC: Another aspect to the work that I’m curious about is the involvement of both the collector and the public. The public will be able to watch you working in the temporary studio that will be set up at the museum. But there’s also a transactional nature to this, because a collector purchases the work and purchases the opportunity to send the inspiration for the work to you, in the form of a sext. I’m wondering about that choice to make it both public and transactional.
KF: I think it’s layered, and I think that what the artist does is to subvert a thinking, to offer a different perspective. I feel that this dynamic I’ve created kind of opens up a new discussion or awareness about this societal trend that’s very private but that’s part of our technology — it’s a way of relating. Not everyone is always going to be sending me texts; they’re going to really range. But you’re going to actually watch me watching, and I think that is fascinating — to see the woman watching. Because in terms of the male gaze, traditionally, it’s more of the female nude that is going to have her presence in the museum rather than the male. I’m interested also in demystifying it — the intimacy and the transmission of it within technology. Looking at them, gazing — that’s very intimate, but isn’t that what art making is about? You’re looking at the model, but it’s being sent, and I’m interpreting it. That’s what many artists have been trained to do, since the caves of Lascaux. And then the idea of acquiring it — for people to really value what they’re making, to have the sense that it’s an artwork.
AC: Because in our culture, as you’re pointing out, sexting is so often seen as transgressive or private or something that one needs to be furtive about, I’m also interested in the idea that the collectors are purchasing the opportunity to do this publicly, to send a prominent artist some sort of sexual imagery or sexual words. It makes me think about other artists who are making work about the relationship between artistic labor, sex, and the marketplace. One of the first pieces that comes to mind is Andrea Fraser’s “Untitled” (2003). I know that you’ve offered critiques of the art market in other pieces you’ve done in the past, so I wonder if this is also, in some way, challenging the relationship between sex and the marketplace and the role of the artist?
KF: I’m thinking about Mr. Weiner’s sext. If he had printed those and put his name under it and had titled it, Here’s My Junk, and he did an edition of ten, within different contexts, you can see it in different ways. I was interested in the private and public. But in terms of the history, I think it is important to be looking at artists that have challenged sexual norms or dynamics. So yes, you can think about it that way. Another piece that you could be thinking of is Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed,” or Carolee Schneeman’s “Interior Scroll,” Annie Sprinkle’s work.
But I also actually think of it in terms of looking at [Henri de Toulouse]-Lautrec and drawing at that time — that was considered to be very radical, when he was painting the dance-hall women in Paris. I’m also thinking more of Egon Schiele, whose work was highly erotic and sexualized. I feel that I’m playing within life drawing.
AC: One other aspect of sexting and the transmission of sexual images over devices, especially given recent news headlines and picking up on some of your past work that has touched on sexual violence and the exploitation of women, is incidents like the Steubenville rape case. Rather than mistaken delivery, there are so many instances these days of the exploitative delivery of sexual images over technology — particularly instances where a young person sends a sext to their partner and that partner exploits the image, sending it on to other people. There have been a few prominent cases like this in the past year, focused on young women who have been bullied for images that they originally intended to be private or were coerced into taking. Which makes it hard for me to think about sexting and not also think about the fact that, right now in particular, the public taboo is tied up in these experiences of young people being exploited, in part, through the use of technology.
KF: It’s always fascinating to me that artists, when they’re doing one work, immediately, it’s the worst-case scenario. You know, I can’t answer all the questions in the world.
AC: I’m not implying that you’re involved in that …
KF: I know, I’m not saying you’re saying that. But at the same time, I would like to bring up, as an artist who’s been doing work and been interviewed many times, that the artist is supposed to bring an awareness. This isn’t a class-action suit; this isn’t a legal case; this isn’t lobbying; this isn’t for Planned Parenthood; this isn’t for NOW — this is an artwork. And yes, it’s complicated and it’s complex and there’s going to be contradictory levels to it. I am one person with one artwork here. I just don’t know — how am I supposed to answer that? That’s horrible that that happened.
AC: You’ve written a lot about experiences of sexuality, but also about trauma, and I think it’s all in the pot. That’s what I’m trying to get at.
KF: Yeah, my work does have that. I’ve also done work about young women. In this particular work, though, this is what I’m dealing with. But I’m also dealing with that, too. Some people will feel uncomfortable. It exposes that. But isn’t that the complication of creating art — all the different aspects? It’s probably something that I’ll either be accused of or that I’m not thinking about. If it brings that up or if someone feels exploited, they don’t have to necessarily participate.
AC: To build on a separate thread, you did an interview almost two years ago about The Reality Shows book, and you briefly brought up the complicated relationship between your public identity and you as a human being and an artist. You were talking about the experience of 9/11 being very traumatic for you, and you felt that speaking as Karen Finley, the public persona, wasn’t as useful at that point for tackling the subjects you wanted to tackle. So you adopted these other characters, built performances using these other public personas. There’s something interesting to me there about the connection between trauma and disembodiment, and it seems like the characters you chose for those Reality Shows performances — Terri Schiavo, Martha Stewart, Silda Spitzer, and Jackie O, among others — those women have that experience of being disembodied very publicly, of being turned into political symbols and media figures rather than being allowed to be fully human. I just wanted to talk a little bit about that, because I think it’s fascinating, from a feminist angle. Also in the context of the NEA Four thing, in which the four of you were reduced to symbols, and your individuality was taken away a bit.
KF: Yeah, you know, you lose your privacy. But I think that happens with all public figures. I think there’s a sense that there was already a kind of iconic understanding of who I was, and an expectation. And that expectation would usually disappoint because that version of what Karen Finley was didn’t exist anyway, because everyone was just reading or imagining. So yes, in some ways, when I was performing, my image got in the way. That was a way I kind of negotiated that.
AC: That gets at something else that intrigues me about your work — that tension around the fact that the four of you were all symbolically associated with “perversion” and sexual deviance, or public deviance. I’m interested in the ways your work grapples with how to negotiate public sexuality, as well as individuality and personhood in the context of having this highly sexualized public image. As you say, you can’t ever really be the person people expect you to be. It seems like you’re exploring that through a lot of your work, but I like the idea that you did it through these other characters.
KF: I’m using or appropriating public figures. I think society selects individuals to then work out their — they project onto these individuals. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m just using a process that’s been used for probably thousands of years. Shakespeare, when he’s doing a play about Anthony and Cleopatra, that isn’t about Anthony and Cleopatra, it’s about other issues about human nature. And that’s what I do. That’s what I’m trying to look at. Everyone has a familiarity with the archetypes of these known figures, and that’s what I was doing.
Now what I’m interested in are actually scenarios that happen in communities — events that happen to the common person, and then they are put into the limelight.
AC: Can you give me an example?
KF: There was a woman who was on a plane singing different versions of a Whitney Houston song over and over and over again until they had to land the plane and have her removed, because people couldn’t stand it. That’s what I’m thinking about. A person who is an everyday person, just part of a group experience, and then they deviate out of that experience to challenge and to heighten the situation.
AC: I’d also like to ask about the role of vulnerability in your performance work. Specifically in light of the discussion about being a public persona and being very clear about the fact that people have unrealistic, or just incorrect, expectations and assumptions about who you are. I know you don’t just do performance, but you’re present in front of an audience in a lot of your work. What, for you, is that about — placing yourself in a very vulnerable position as a performer?
KF: My daughter just went skydiving today, and she put herself in this position that’s very vulnerable, right, and exhilarating — the feat of being able to go and do that. But I’m just going to bring a different point of view now. When I first started performing and doing work, I would actually get physically ill. But then at one point in my career, it was just so difficult, with everything going on. I came to a point where I had to sit down and talk to myself, and I thought, you know, I want to do this for the rest of my life, and I was looking around in the world, and I made a decision that I was going to feel the joy and the generosity. I wanted to change and transform my pain into compassion. So when I go and perform my work, I’m really considering it as a gesture — being with the human race. That I’m there, that I have — whether it’s my ability or my talent — this connection. So I’m going to participate in the human world with my art. I look at it as an act of kindness or generosity, and I feel the joy that I can be there and participate. I try to bring my soul and my heart and my fingertips with the love of the human condition. And it’s really a wonderful feeling. So I don’t feel vulnerable at all. I feel how joyful I am in my life, that I’m able to be here to work with the people.
AC: I wanted to end by talking about the ways in which you seem to have been able to move across different areas of the arts over the course of your career. My understanding is that you started your artistic career, in part, in the punk scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then moved from there into gallery settings and pursued performance work. It seems like you’ve taken in a wide spectrum of the arts: you’ve been in punk clubs, I saw “The Jackie Look” in a cabaret space here in New York, this work at the New Museum isn’t the first time you’ve been in a museum setting.
KF: I grew up in the Chicago area, and I’ve been doing, if you want to call it, performative conceptual work since I was in high school. And then I moved to go to the San Francisco Art Institute, and one way that I paid for myself to go to college was that I worked as a cocktail waitress in a strip club. Then there was this kind of mixture of the music scene and the art scene. Many of the musicians — new wave or punk — were going to art school as well. You would have that interplay of who can be an artist, who can be a musician, and performance was supposed to be a way to subvert or destabilize economic dynamics or the market — the gallery system and collectors. And so that’s also what “Sext Me If You Can” is doing. The prices are pretty low — they’re not $5, but it deals with marketplace, it looks at who is the artist, who is going, and who is acquiring.
I like to play with those kinds of things, and that was part of the original impetus, part of what was coming out of post–Vietnam War and earlier performance — challenging the object, that only those with wealth were able to have art. So that’s what [“Sext Me If You Can”] is supposed to be doing, too. It’s supposed to sort of destabilize that. And you know, it is about sex, but I think, more so, it’s about the transmission of images and drawing images, and for people to really look at what they do have. It is an art. There is a communication, there is a value, and we kind of just look at these images and we don’t spend time with them. I’m going to be spending time with these images. Isn’t that what we try to do in a museum? We really try to look and spend some time with an image. If we can spend more time, to think about them and to connect with images, that’s what part of art criticism and theory and visual culture are about.