Trigger/Content Warning: This post, and the media it contains, has references to sexual assault, violence, self-harm, suicide, strong language and nudity. NSFW.
Greetings readers! Time for something a little different today in this running series. First: I am excited to finally be writing a post about an artist who I find deeply influential in my life, has really helped form my feminist lens and has a completely unique aesthetic that I try to emulate in some of my own work. Second: The artist that I selected for today isn’t Queer-identified and as far as I know (which doesn’t mean much) she is heterosexual. Yet, I think she has produced work that has a distinctly queer-voice, is intended for a Queer audience and is, frankly, some of the most powerful Queer art I have experienced.
That would be the performance artist Karen Finley. Finley is (sadly) most recognized for being involved in the N.E.A. scandals in the early 1990s, in which four artists (Finley among them) were denied their National Endowment for the Arts grants because their art was considered too vulgar and the case became a center for debates about freedom of speech and censorship. Lynda Hart writes that “Finley received by far the most media attention as well as the greatest number of direct attacks on her art” (89) and she became known in the media as “The Chocolate-Smeared Woman”, her entire body of work reduced to a performance in which she douses her naked body in melted chocolate, an act that was symbolic of how society shits on women. Finley became embroiled in a lawsuit with the U.S. government which went all the way to the Supreme Court, a battle that she lost. Finley’s oeuvre is a diverse one: while her pieces focus mainly on the lives of women and utilize her explicit and often deranged depictions of human sexuality, she also takes an intersectional approach in her responses to oppression in our culture, one that directly pays tribute to the plight of the Queer community. It is through these pieces that Finley can be considered a Queer artist simply because her art embodies radical Queer politics.
Lastly, this post has an ulterior motive. I will be performing a monologue that I wrote as an homage to Finley and is to be performed by me in her style next week as part of Live Homosexual Acts, a series of student-written and performed monologues about Queer experiences. It will be the second-to-last event of GayMU (which is next week) and will be in Transitions from 7:00-8:30 on Friday, April 13th. The show is is looking like its going to be pretty great and the more, the merrier!
And now to Karen Finley.
Karen and I have quite a past. A friend once, far back into my young adulthood (my “pre-feminist” consciousness era) played me a recording of her piece “Enter Entrepreneur,” her response to 1980’s mass consumer culture, the rise of the yuppie and the anti-porn debates. I was, frankly, offended by such vulgarity and didn’t really listen to what was being said (Finley’s work can be alienating) and kind of just dismissed it as a novelty at the time. Fast-forward to a few years later, my consciousnesses awakened and suddenly, out of the blue, I wanted to listen to her again. After hours of vague googling I found her and live footage (which is rare) of her performing the piece I had heard so long ago, “Enter Entrepreneur.” (The video below contains everything that is in the content/trigger warning.)
I fell in love this time. Her anger, her frustration, her despair was all something I could relate to. Also, her sense of humor is priceless and I think that the pain and humor in her work, so stark in contrast to each other, is really a signature aesthetic of how her pieces can both wound and heal. Months later, a professor so very-kindly put Karen Finley as an option for a group project and presentation on the syllabus and I leaped at the chance. The research that we found on Karen’s work, the critical interpretations, etc only made me love her more. I showed the video posted above as part of the presentation and the reaction was about as mixed as you would expect it to be.
Later, when I took a trip to Feminist Summer Camp, I stumbled upon two of her works: her newer book The Reality Shows and an old, kind of rare collection of her older pieces called Shock Treatment buried on a back shelf in Bluestockings (I swear this was karmic retribution for straightening their shelves for four hours as part of my one-day internship at the store.) These books became my subway reading and never left my bag for the entire trip. I remember sitting on the subway, flipping through one of the books with Jennifer Baumgardner (who is one of the hosts of Summer Camp) while we chatted away excitedly over our appreciation of Karen Finley and she told me the story of how she had brought Finley to her own campus as an undergrad. I would perform some of the pieces for my friend I was staying with that week at her apartment in Brooklyn. Finley had become an unexpected thread throughout my week at Summer Camp and I think that it was here that my love for her was fully cemented because it was here that I discovered her pieces that addressed me as a Queer individual.
The recording above (not a live performance, FYI) was not one of the pieces I found while in NYC, I discovered this one more recently and it struck me deeply as being very representative of Finley’s Queer politics. The piece is a very personal narrative about her mourning the suicide of a friend and Queer performance artist. In what I find to be one of her most powerful pieces, she says:
“One learns to live in a world that makes you a deviant, an untouchable, so you become invisible to not get in the way. For if you don’t they’ll just beat the Queer out of you. And if you come out they’ll deny you work, that’ll get the Queer out of you. Deny you legal rights, that’ll shake the Queer out of you. Deny you a civil marriage, forced never to be legally a couple, your love is never quite good enough, that’ll depress the Queer out of you.”
Finley was articulating the injustices that Queer people were suffering at a time when the government and society at large were paying little to no attention to the rise of HIV and AIDS because Queers, the poor and drug addicts were disproportionality affected by it. While this seems long ago within our past, it was within my lifetime and I’m only a quarter of century year-old. Bigotry became a public platform in elections, and considering Finley wrote the piece I quoted a little under twenty years ago and how much it still rings true today shows what a stop-and-go ride gay rights has been since the late 80s.
Finley has numerous pieces calling attention to the suffering caused by the AIDS epidemic, comparing it to a kind of genocide caused by deliberate inaction in her show We Keep Our Victims Ready and even creating Queer narratives, such as the deceased gay son finally talking back to his bigoted father in The Father In All of Us. Queer voices and stories are a central component to Finley’s work.
So, does one have to be Queer to participate in creating art that gives voice to Queer identities and politics? I think so. While the question of appropriation should always be applied along with a consciousness that still examines systems of power when minority narratives are told by a member of the dominant group. For example, its probably really worth questioning why The Help has been such a runaway success and why To Kill A Mockingbird is often used as the novel discussing race in middle and high schools. Both are books about race relations, but both are by white women (not saying they can’t write books on race relations) but why are we not collectively falling over and weeping on our sofas while watching a popular film based on a novel by a black woman? The author and the source matter when we are appraising the value of a work, and I don’t want to make it appear that I think Finley’s work should be exempt from such examinations.
That said, I think that Finley’s contributions to both Queer and Feminist art are invaluable. While I wish there were more quality recordings (both audio and video, you are looking at at least a fourth of her material posted to youtube in this post) of Finley’s older pieces, I suppose its best to treasure what has sustained this long. Finley’s work packs a punch and often leaves the listener reeling, challenging everything that we are comfortable with and pushing us out the false image of self that we accept so willingly. If that isn’t Queer art, I don’t know what is.
Note: For some really awesome reading (and a citation for a quote I used earlier) check out the chapter titled “Reconsidering Homophobia: Karen Finley’s Indiscretions” in Lynda Hart’s Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression.