Karen Finley (photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, via karenfinley.com)

Has she no decency? At long last, has she no decency? The transgressive, titillating performance artist Karen Finley was denied a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 because the language and content in her work was deemed “indecent.” Along with three other artists she became part of the infamous Supreme Court case The National Endowment for the Arts v. Karen Finley, which culminated in the discontinuation of individual artist grants.

For her work in the new millennium, starting with her reaction to 9/11, “Make Love,” wherein she performs a trauma-induced cabaret in Liza Minnelli drag, Finley eschewed performing as herself, instead opting to take on the personas of famous females. Having been catapulted to national attention, she felt she could no longer use her own voice to comment on contemporary crises.

Now, fresh off her recent re-performance of “Make Love” and a new book of her performances has Karen Finley finally become decent? Nestled in her office at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Finely works as a professor of Art & Public Policy, she reflects on the past of New York City, the state of women in the arts, Lady Gaga and more.

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Alexander Cavaluzzo: How do you think reality is created?

Karen Finley: Who creates it? And I am thinking about that, which is taking reality and, as an artist, looking at reality as creative nonfiction. I think that’s what I’m asking: who creates the reality or what is the reality underneath the reality? So that’s what I think I’m interested in; I don’t have the answer to that question.

AC: Do you think you’re actively searching for reality and its production in your work?

KF: I think what I’m interested in is seeing what’s underneath what’s presented, seeing the relationships there.

AC: Is that what you’re doing in “Make Love”?

KF: I think what I’m trying to do in “Make Love” is show the psychic states of trauma that happened after 9/11 and that my own voice could not be accepted as the voice to speak about it, because there is a constructed idea of who Karen Finley is. And also to put Karen Finley in that voice of leadership, it becomes grandiose by the audience, like I’m commenting on it. So I’m speaking as Liza Minnelli, and I don’t know if I’m really talking about reality shows there, but I’m showing the reality of trauma and processing trauma. So, there’s many layers: there’s drag, using drag as a theatrical construct or in terms of queering the space and using that as a device to process the trauma. I think I’m also using cabaret and music and splitting the psyche by having more than one person playing Liza [Ed. Note: “Make Love” features not only Finley as Liza Minelli, but a roster of Liza impersonators.]

The cover of Karen Finley’s latest book, “The Reality Shows” (image courtesy the author)

AC: Re-performing it now ten years later, did that reopen some wounds? Did it induce more trauma?

KF: Yes. I think it does. You know, the second week I hurt my ankle and I really feel like a part of it was that week, I mean I don’t even know if I needed the performance to do that, just the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in itself was making me very anxious. I think anniversaries of traumatic events, even going through therapy or having a lot of support, you do have that trauma.

AC: I want to discuss this “construction” of Karen Finley. I would assume that has mostly to do with your involvement in the NEA Four, as the group of artists who challenged the National Endowment for the Arts is known, and your transformation into a public media figure almost representing contemporary art against the government.

KF: I think that, well we can all have many different constructions, and we are also created by projections of others as well. I think in my case, (my “case,” right?) is that there are different constructions and different projections and one is this projection of Karen Finley as this hysterical, Medea/Medusa creature who is out of control and probably nude, screaming down the street with some bodily fluid over her and getting lots of money from the world. That’s I think this feeling there is. And like I probably have some animal tail or animal parts.

And the other construction is me as the female as a victim. So you also have to have this cause that works on the binary, which is one from the left, fighting for the cause and against injustice, and that can become very tiring or just not the reality. But it’s interesting, I just got called in to audition for this Rob Zombie film, and I was told the beginning of it would be this Salem Witch Trial, but as zombies. So the opening credit is probably being nude or wrapped in nothing but a cloak, and I thought that’s playing so much to me as a witch [LAUGHS] back in the Salem Witch Trials.

So, there are these kind of constructions. I guess that’s another reason being in academia is a way to respond to those stereotypes.

AC: So, do you find that you’re using academia in a way to supplement your artistic practice and achieve results that are impossible in art?

KF: No, I do it all, this is what I do in creating art. It’s all through an intellectual process. It’s a relationship between an emotional or intuitive factor, being able to have an awareness of making things right or with aesthetics. But I always think there is an intellectual, professional relationship to our career. I have always been involved in education and the arts since I was a child, so for me I feel like it’s almost a comfort-level.

AC: Talking about your work and seeing how complicated it is, and how many different levels there are to your performances and writings, do you ever worry that, because your art skews to the political that it ever might be didactic in some way?

KF: I used to realize this sometimes, of it being rhetorical. I think that … I’d like to just think about that question for a moment, because there’s always going to be a politics involved in the arts, whether it’s being a woman, which becomes a statement in and of itself. So what I do, and because of the challenges that I’ve had because of my work, it will always be political, and I think that everything probably is political. I like to see who’s included, who’s not included, but I always need to have a closer look at the work and what it’s doing, how it’s framed, how it’s read, but a lot of it are the opportunities, too.

AC: This crossover of art and politics naturally leads to the NEA Four case, and since it’s been about twenty years since those legal proceedings started, I wanted you to maybe give a little background on it and reflect on it. And, also, I wanted to know what the exact piece was that was deemed “indecent.”

Karen Finley performing “Make Love” (Photo by Michael Appleton, via The Village Voice)

KF: I don’t know if I can give the complete discourse on an eight-year case, but the situation was myself and three other artists (Holly Hughes, John Fleck, Tim Miller) were applying for an individual artist grant that the National Endowment for the Arts used to award to fine artists.

I was applying under theater, and part of that application process is that you would perform work and you would have professionals in the field review the work, and you’d have interviews … it was a lengthy process. So when I performed the work, this isn’t what I would be getting a grant for, this was a piece that I did, a complicated work, “We Keep Our Victims Ready,” which was about the AIDS crisis, abortion, Pro-choice issues, lots of different subject matter in one piece.

And that performance was cited as an example of my work, and that isn’t what I was looking for an award for. But I was given the fellowship, but then the award was taken away from me, and that’s not something I’m going to get all into right now, but it was taken away and the other artists and I eventually had to go to court to have the grant reinstated, and we did get that, but when we went to the Supreme Court, it wasn’t about the grants. It was about the vague language that was used by the government, “decency,” when giving federal support to the arts. So the government would say they could not give money to art that was “indecent”, and we considered that vague. And we lost.

Now, it’s much more complicated than this issue, you can’t just take an eight-year case and put it into a paragraph, there were other things going on at this time. People would have to sign clauses like the Helms clause, saying that you weren’t going to be doing work that was homoerotic at this time. It was really fear-based that I think was definitely homophobic. And anything that involved religion, too. I think, though, that we’re seeing in society that things have gotten a little bit better. We have gay marriage in New York, there have been some developments in society, but I wanted to participate in this case because I feel it’s very important as a person who comes from a working class family to be able to receive funding for the arts.

And I feel like our profession in the arts should be taken seriously, not that we’re just running around like crazy people. And there were things at that time, you know, death threats; it was just a very difficult and tense time, and I still have residual effects from that.

AC: We’ve made progress, gay marriage in New York like you’ve said, but considering what happened to David Wojnarowicz’s work at the Smithsonian last year, is the state of censorship in art any better? There are still people who will boil art down to a single issue or decontextualize it and object to what they perceive it to be.

KF: Yes, you’re right, there are always dichotomies that you will see. It’s not a clear yellow brick road going to a place where everyone’s happy, everyone’s free. There’s still lots of struggles you can see nationally, internationally, locally and personally.

AC: I want to pick your brain about the art scene in the 1980s and 1990s, because consider Michelangelo or someone; you don’t really know what his “scene” was like, not really. Whereas in New York during that time, it was fairly recent, and there was this underground culture of especially performance art and I get the feeling that it was very social, and I wanted to know if that’s true or if it’s a myth, and if it’s different from today’s art scene which seems maybe a little more commercialized or homogenized.

KF: I think, yes, a couple of points to that. First, part of the scene, you have to know that it’s post-Vietnam War. What is going on in the culture preceding the 1980s? The 1970s. So you have this sense of going against authority, and the performance work for myself was supposed to be going against the art object, the sense of collecting or ownership which then would have to do with class, who would get to buy and have art as part of a collection, part of an institution that’s buying the art.

Much of that time was supposed to be flipping or challenging authority in that way. But many of the artists at that time are in galleries or they are collected, but [that’s now, I mean] if I had fourteen people in the audience that was wonderful. It didn’t have to have a sense of a global audience like Facebook [today] where you have a million people seeing what you’re doing. So that was one sensibility.

[Then] the economy, it was still expensive to live here. When I moved here I was working several jobs and I even had to go to a soup kitchen to supplement my diet, but I think that there was more space. The sense of creating art was that you weren’t necessarily waiting for the gallery or, you know, “the man,” to discover you. You would just discover yourself. And you would take it and just start creating the work. Not waiting for the institution, being an entrepreneur of your art. So I think that’s the difference, just getting together and making a scene that seemed to be very romantic, too. That seemed to be as valuable, or even more valuable than the work. It seemed to be like creating history now, in this moment. But right now there probably is one happening, but we’re not necessarily aware of it.

AC: Do you think that we’d possibly be aware of it ten years after it’s happened? It’s kind of weird, generally, considering the art we see in the media. It feels like there’s a very specific archetype that mainstream journalists are looking for: young, attractive artists who are represented by major galleries.

KF: I get interested in memory and looking at the past and thinking about the good old days, the romance in the 1980s, but a lot of it wasn’t. There was a lot of drugs, it was the beginning of the AIDS crisis, it was a very sad, dire time, too.

You could have one summer and 50 people die. It’s not that pretty. What I like to focus on is the art and what I can be doing and contributing. Interview [Magazine] was like that 30 years ago, it was like that in the 1970s. And you know I certainly waited on Andy Warhol at Area, I mean he was looking for that and that’s what the magazine was for the first fifteen minutes, but that’s what’s so wonderful about what you’re working on now, to respond to that and see, hey, what’s going on in Jersey City? I think that’s a way to react, just take it in your own hands. That’s the energy I like to look for, the alternative. That’s what I love about teaching, meeting younger students coming from all over the world looking at what can you contribute, what can you do now?

AC: I feel like my generation tends to idealize New York City in the 1980s because it seemed so energetic, and we’re told you could get a cheap loft in Soho, but maybe those are just our constructions of nostalgia.

KF: I couldn’t get a loft in Soho [LAUGHS]. But, go to other places now, go to Brooklyn, go to Staten Island …yeah, that is true, that’s a really good point. But I think those views are also created by media.

We have to be very aware of these constructions, because then it keeps the youth feeling powerless, do you see? Thinking the older generation has more power, and they had it better, can create a sense of victimhood.

I think that there are a lot of opportunities now: the Web, more galleries than there were then, but that’s something to think about. Why is that there? I think my generation creates that as well. I think it’s dangerous, as if there’s something wrong with what’s going on now. I just have to tell you: there’s nothing wrong with what’s going on now and it wasn’t so great in the 1980s.

AC: That’s great to hear.

KF: I prefer now much more.

AC: Well now, just thinking about it, history is very cyclical. We try to see it as a linear progression towards something better, but the economy has gone up and down in the past few decades, we have this cycle of Republican President, Democratic President, back and forth. Maybe it’s weird that we think we’re changing when the past thirty years seem to just be repeating themselves constantly. So we shouldn’t be looking at the past as some sort of ideal, we should see the similarities to the present so we can really progress and change in the future. The economy will always go up and down, there will always be wars, so maybe we should concentrate on figuring out how to change instead of just commenting on the present and fawning over history.

KF: I think … yes. But we’re sitting here talking about politics and the external world, and I think it’s so important to have your internal world. There are other factors in creating art and creating your work, and one is your personal legacy, your soul, what it is your legacy? Whether it’s from your parents, whatever. Your personal politics of legacy, identity, family and class; there’s a narrative in that story and that story should be told. I’m very interested in the personal stories being told.

Sometimes under the fiercest regimes people are somehow still creating work. That always surprises me, how the human factor of always wanting to create art with whatever’s happening. Although I know the world can suck, it can also suck in a positive way. Never take the joy out of creating art, and with each person there can still be a joy and relationship to aesthetics. I’m not dependent in terms of a state.

AC: I feel like this idea of finding joy in yourself can be very liberating, and not necessarily liberating you from the harshness of reality, but just understanding you can find happiness in yourself.

KF: If you’re not looking at the joys in the human heart amidst creating, I feel that the oppressors win. Art is an expression out of organizing chaos. It’s a response to trauma. The answers come in the art. So that’s why it’s a combination where you’re understanding what’s going on, but you have to be creating because sometimes the art will give you an answer you won’t be able to see.

AC: Thinking about your piece “The Passion of Terri Schiavo,” and how we project our personal trauma onto this media “star,” and just seeing this summer with Casey Anthony, it seemed to happen all over again.

KF: Oh, right, she became a star! Another star in Florida.

AC: Isn’t that crazy?

KF: I even saw something on the news, they’re still talking about Casey. It is crazy. I haven’t thought about it that much, but it’s horrible. And at the same time you see it brings everyone together.

AC: What made you want to comment on this phenomenon through Terry Schiavo?

KF: I was just reading so much about it, and I think it started when people like Mel Gibson started having an opinion. And I just decided I was going to bring some of these opinions or thoughts together. I just couldn’t help myself. Some people can’t stop eating ice cream, I couldn’t stop thinking about this.

You just see these issues and, that’s another one, this Casey Anthony case, people get into these routines and check in to see where they are. I don’t know if they become enablers, I don’t know what the actual psychic function is, but I think for Casey Anthony it’s kind of like this sense of Medea, going back to myths where the mother kills her own child. It’s the biggest taboo and she’s there, and in some ways it speaks to so many mothers, that you should always be loving your child and there can be this moment where there could be this possibility. It triggers something, and why is that? Why are we devoting so much?

AC: Going back to how you said you couldn’t comment on 9/11 with the voice of Karen Finley because of your position as a character of the media, do you ever feel a constant pressure to perform fame?

KF: That’s a lot about what it is and that’s why in some ways I have declined opportunities for fame in the past ten years, as opposed to concentrating on art.

With the celebrity culture, it really is looking at you instead of what you’re doing. As an artist, I’m really more of an introvert, I don’t really want to be out there, that’s why I make the artwork, even though I’m in the artwork. Privacy is more important than money. There’s a lot of negotiations with that.

AC: Do you find that kind of ironic coming from a performance artist? There’s a stereotype of a performance artist, well not even really a stereotype, it’s just naturally not something you can easily separate yourself from. A painter can make a painting and steer the attention to the object and be a recluse, but you actually have to go out into the public to do your work. I kind of love that you said that, but it might cause pause in a lot of people to hear that as a performance artist you’re very introverted and value privacy.

KF: I like going out, I like meeting people, I live in New York, I wanted to be part of the art world, I’m not living in Wisconsin, I work at a prominent university with high exposure, but I like to have a balance between my family life and not to have everything exposed. But no one really tells you before it happens, you have no idea. I wasn’t really thinking about the fame when you’re put on the front page of newspapers, you’re on Rush Limbaugh every day [LAUGHS], you know, you’re being discussed and you’re misunderstood.

AC: With all this talk about fame, I have to ask: what do you think about Lady Gaga?

KF: Oh, I love Lady Gaga. I’m crazy about her, I think it’s great. See, there are also different personalities. I think she’s fantastic. I don’t see a downside. I don’t see any downside! Do you love her?

AC: I do, yes, but so many people seem to despise her.

KF: Really? Oh, well then they’re not my friend. I really feel that if someone can’t understand and appreciate, because I think there are so many different parts of her, like, if you don’t even know the persona, her voice and her music, I love. But if you don’t like her music, I think the way she does stuff and takes ideas another step. I think it’s wonderful that she is a woman using the opportunities in whatever openings in society there are. I mean, sure, there might be some little thing here and there, but those are things you figure out in terms of adjusting and dealing with the media.

AC: What’s the state of women and the arts now?

KF: I consider myself to be a feminist artist and I’m glad to see that there are more women, that there are numbers, and that’s positive.

But, you know, I was going to be in a show at the Whitney ten days after my Supreme Court case and they cancelled it. There’s lots of different ways of doing things, but I’m very happy to see more women included. There has been a lot of progress made for representation, and that’s good.

Karen Finley’s book The Reality Shows, a collection of her work from 2001-2010, was published this year by the CUNY Feminist Press.

Alexander Cavaluzzo is a Pop Poet, Cultural Critic and Sartorial Scholar. He received his BS in Art History from FIT and his MA in Arts Politics at NYU. His interests focus on the intersection of fashion,...

One reply on “Artist Karen Finley Talks New York of Yesteryear, Women in the Arts, Lady Gaga and More”

  1. This is a great interview.  Having been around during Finley’s early days and the NEA case, I fully appreciated her, but have to admit over the years since then, I have sort of categorized her, like she says.  So GOOD JOB KAREN…for refreshing me about yourself, as an artist, woman, and person. What I hear in the interview is a real woman artist just speaking down to earth about navigating her path and finding her center of motivation and joy, in art, over the long haul. She knows who she is from outside and inside, which takes time, but not everyone gets there even WITH time. She has…by not trying to romanticize or play the victim, by being aware of both lurking to trap her and her words.  I  especially like and agree with her point about the present art scene, as being equally full of creative energy as the 80’s…but that we don’t gain the perspective on a period of time, till later.  The very existence of computers and the internet, and the resulting networks and blogs, are just so phenomenal for art making and the art community… along with the economic recession that has spurred tremendous grass roots art activity all over the boroughs of NYC. Onward!  

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