Karen Finley: The Rage of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman

by C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #965, July 12, 1998

I had been looking forward to seeing Karen Finley in "Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman." And when I heard about the Supreme Court decision in "National Endowment for the Arts v. Karen Finley"--upholding a congressional "decency" test for federal funding in the arts, I headed straight for the Flea Theater in New York's TriBeCa area.

Karen Finley's show is a kind of communal experience for the late '90s. As we file in, gorgeously painted men and women in a little bit of brown velvet offer cups of beer and direct us to sit on white plastic paint cans. Up on stage, a good-natured crew (the Furballs) are doing the hustle as a line dance, the beat bouncing off the walls, lights flashing. Karen arrives, disrobes, and begins slathering herself with brown goo.

Right away we get intimate. She tells us about the outcome of her Supreme Court case, and the career plans one clueless Hollywood agent recently laid out for her--"I see you starring in a female version of `Animal Story.' Women, food. I think you understand those visuals." With a remote, she flicks on the TV at one end of the room. Some channel surfing produces "Friends." "You know, I've never been able to watch shows where people look like this. I know they're supposed to be attractive but they look so ugly to me."

Stories of women follow. Their suffering and defiance is at once painful, life-affirming, and funny.

Get me used to it, yeah--
Get me used to it, yeah--
Oh, but I can't, I want something better for my sisters and my daughters
And everyday I hear them laughing at me from street corners
Sizing me up
They don't say it though when I walk down the street with a man
Cause then I'm HIS property...

Karen returns to the lectern to reveal in maximum detail the secret sex lives of Jesse, Newt, Bill...those sick and vengeful politicians who have been "eroticizing" Karen's art for the past eight years.

Towards the end of the show, she washes off the chocolate in a small metal tub, and she gathers about her a billowing white satin sheet. It is one of those after-bath moments when you feel new and shiny again--shared by 80 people. She sits down, smiling, thanks us, and shares her "prayer" for all the outlaws, the "Black Sheep":

Black Sheep destinies are to give meaning in life--
To be angels, to be conscience, to be nightmares,
to be actors in dreams.
I have nowhere to go.
I'm a creature of the night--
I travel in your dreams--
I feel your nightmares--
I feel your pain.
I wish I could relieve you of your suffering.
I wish I could relieve you of your pain.
I wish I could relieve you of your destiny...

Before the show, Karen shared her thoughts on art and politics:

RW: First of all, I want say how much we appreciate your perseverance in this battle against the NEA censorship. What do you think the actual effect of this decision is going to be on the creation of art in this country?

KF: I think the actual effect is going to be something similar to what happened during the McCarthy era with the Hollywood 10. Museums are a public institution, so they have to rely on public funding or they rely on businesses when they can't get public funding. So what happens is you're going to be seeing a different kind of curating happen in the museums. I think it's going to be similar to what happened in the '50s. I think there are going to be artists that are just not going to be included in the shows.

Recently I was going to be in a show called "The Great American Nude" at the Whitney [Museum in New York], and I just found out that it is going to be cancelled, the entire show. There are lots of institutional reasons for things that happen--like the director leaves or different things. But the reality is that if shows are difficult--and by that I mean content, or artists in them are red-flagged, meaning that they're not gonna receive public funding, like for example with me--then you're not gonna receive NEA funding when I'm gonna be involved in a show. That's just gonna be happening. Or the show will be scrutinized if I appear, by someone from the far right--or Clinton, who was the one that made the appeal to the Supreme Court. So what is happening is that certain individuals and certain work is just not going to be included. And I think that's why we're seeing shows like Andrew Wyeth, and more conservative shows going on....

I heard from a museum doing a Francis Bacon show that they couldn't get business funding because people are concerned because he painted the Pope. So even these things that are considered established and proven--not like me--even artists who have died, made their name, are at the Tate [Gallery in London] and everything, they're gonna be having problems. So I think we're gonna be seeing a real kind of a "cleaning out" in looking at work.

For example, I was performing at Lincoln Center, I premiered work there. And there were other artists like me at the "Serious Fun" festival that was very successful, and that's not there anymore. Even though my shows were sold out and I received incredible reviews. But Lincoln Center is not doing the Serious Fun Festival anymore like they did five years ago. In the theatre department you're seeing more and more revivals on Broadway, things that are proven.

We're even seeing problems in publishing. Barnes & Noble--because they're selling books by Sally Mann and Jock Sturges, who are artists dealing with the nude, the store is being sued for something having to do with indecency. So you're seeing an eliminating of choice. I'm just waiting for the '60s really to happen again.

RW: The revolt.

KF: Yes, I think things really have to go to that--well, I don't know if they have to go to that level but something will happen in this. I think what happened [in 1992] was that we felt that in voting in Bill Clinton we were getting a Kennedy person to usher in the new millennium or the '60s. He had maybe smoked pot, maybe he had an open marriage. There was something going on there. He seemed to be liberal --

RW: Some people thought he was gonna keep abortion legal --

KF: Right, keep abortion. Different things. Gay rights. But what's happened is that I think he hasn't been true to all the things he was going to do. Although I think that he's being eroticized himself--it's fascinating in terms of the sexual kind of stuff. It's almost like something out of J. Edgar Hoover. Like how Hoover put the clamps on Kennedy and he taped Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King--except now no one cares.

RW: It's interesting that it was Jesse Helms who started this censorship attack on the arts, but it's actually the Clinton administration that has carried the attack through. They've appealed the lower court rulings two times. Was that a surprise to you?

KF: I think when you're seeing elements of fascism in a culture where there's repression...that you have to have lay people carrying it out. Not that I'm comparing this to that kind of life--I'd have to use more serious subject matter. But during times when there's been war or racism, you have to have lay people carrying it out. You have to have workers carrying it out. I was surprised initially, but I wasn't surprised.... like during the Nazis, the whole idea that silence is death, people not really doing anything or taking action, being quiet.

I think the other thing is that what this is about, in terms of my particular case, is equal rights for women and equal rights for gays and lesbians. And I feel Bill Clinton really isn't for that. I think he is so calculating in terms of looking at politics. Like on the gay rights issue, he did that on the first day, knowing full well that he would lose. I think there are no equal rights for women, there are no equal rights for gays and lesbians --

RW: And he's executing that.

KF: Yes, he's executing that, and that's what he really feels. Underneath, it's about a sexuality issue. And obviously he has a sexuality problem. I mean he has a problem with women, he has a problem with his sexuality. And so art work that has sexuality in it, or deals with gender, he's not going to be able to deal with.

RW: You've been on the forefront on this whole censorship battle in the visual arts for so long--eight years--and I wondered, what has sustained you in this?

KF: How did I sustain? I don't think I sustained all that well. It had a big cost to me. But I think really, it was things that are kind of bigger than myself that allowed me to do what I did. There were some moments there, like with the [recent cancellation at the] Whitney, when I was thinking well gee, maybe I should have accepted the opportunity to move abroad. I was offered to go to Finland or to Amsterdam. But I feel very strongly, coming from working class roots, with my education, and from public [schools] and really like deep American values-- I think really what sustained me is the Constitution and the First Amendment.

And I felt that it was important to protect these views because I felt that as an artist for the first time we're starting to see people of color, we're seeing immigrants instead of just a European background, in terms of being an artist. We're seeing gays and lesbians and women. We're seeing all that for the first time in the history of, if you want to say, Western art. And I felt as a woman who's entering that, I just had to do this. There just wasn't any choice to it.

RW: And to keep fighting till it was finished.

KF: Yeah, I'm fighting, but I think it's gonna be a continuous battle. I've made some major decisions. One thing now is that I have a fame from it, and I intend to use that. There is a power there that I have from this experience. I'm not gonna be going away and I think that's what makes the far right the angriest, is that I don't go away. And I think that's the power, not going away and continuing to be there. There's a voice. And my work continues to be credible and good and makes a contribution. The work is the most important thing.

I think it's important for young people too. I also felt, as a straight woman--the other plaintiffs are gay and lesbian--that I had an advantage. I mean I'm not a straight man, but I'm not gay or lesbian. I can be a wife and a mother. And those things have a certain type of place in this society. I felt it was my responsibility in terms of having that privilege of being born that way that I should be using that. I'm looked at as the accomplice to the crime--that I'm a straight woman and I'm for gay rights. I think that if you're gay and lesbian that's the real crime. You don't even have to make art. Like for me, if I stop making art, I'm not gonna be looked at as a criminal or a pervert.

I felt it was a responsibility. It wasn't something I looked for but it was chosen for me. I don't consider myself to be a politician... I feel that the strongest thing that I can do is I can keep my work out there, and I have tried in the past eight years to basically travel around the country and the world with my work.

RW: Can you talk a little bit about some of your work that's come under the fiercest attack, like the "Chocolate-Smeared Woman." What is that piece about?

KF: For me, the symbolism of the chocolate came out of the Tawana Brawley case, where she was found with feces on her in a Hefty trash bag. I felt I couldn't use real feces, but I wanted to be commenting on the sexism and the racism and also the age-ism. Even if she did what she's accused of doing to herself, you know, putting feces on herself and putting herself in a Hefty trash bag so she would avoid punishment or whatever the problems were, I felt that that's a horrible choice--that she could be thinking this in her mind, this is the better choice! And no one ever thought about that--this was a girl, she was only 16 years old, that's a child, not an adult. And I'm thinking if this was a white girl who was found that way I don't think it would have been the same problem.

And the piece was also about how basically I consider that women are treated like shit, like dirt. Here, I've kind of made it more like I'm like Judy Garland--kind of glamorizing it--I'm changing it around to where it's like my show, it's like I'm doing a cabaret act in Vegas. And each one, instead of going into this emotional trance, it's staged in a way where they're actually like drag acts. Kind of deconstructing drag--you do numbers, you're doing someone else's songs.

So that's what that piece was about, and that's the piece that was eroticized by Helms. I had this revelation about six months ago concerning how [my work] is so misrepresented. In Time magazine they misrepresented my work. They did an essay on me, and I realized if Time gets my work wrong then I might as well stop trying to be this good girl, constantly trying to convince people about what I do. Because I try to tell them it's about rape, it's about abuse of people, but they just wanted to constantly eroticize it as me being the pervert--which I think represents a misunderstanding of what is sexuality. Anyway, he hadn't even seen me, Helms, but he had an erotic relationship with me. I really do believe that--I connected to him somehow sexually....

RW: Sex as in rape. That violent act.

KF: Right... It's guys with their dicks and there's a girl, and that's it. What it is, they're not gonna let a woman speak out. I went out of my place. I'm not just staying home. It's just being a woman speaking out, a lot of that is very political too. I had a lot of politics in that piece. There is a politics that I can't really be looked at as being as serious or talented, but I can only be put to the lowest common denominator as something to just fuck...

I think I was a problem for them, and that's one reason why I continued doing it. I knew I had that substance. I was at a certain age. I had accomplished a certain amount of work that I felt could stand on its own in this political pressure, that could be looked at, and scrutinized. Even though for the First Amendment, it doesn't matter if it's amateur speech or if it is credible, I don't think it matters. That's very important. Or it can be pornography. But I knew that my work could stand up, and that I'd made enough work. And I felt even living in New York helped.

RW: You have this amazing combination of an incredible fierceness against the enemy and a real love, a tenderness, with your audience. It's a very potent combination I think. I am wondering, where is this coming from, how do you think about this?

KF: Okay, let's take for example last night during my show there were these two men who left right during this point where I'm supposed to be being raped. And I called them on it because I felt that it was very aggressive and actually violent to be leaving at that moment. I called them on it and stopped them because I wanted to do that for the audience. Like why should they--I mean it's not their show, there's a time when you can leave.

I love people and I don't like to see anyone hurting people. I don't like that. I just don't have any time for people who don't work out of love. I mean I work out of love or joy for humankind, mankind, womankind, and when I see that stopping I don't have a problem with telling people that they're wrong. I do believe there's like an element of a hate or an evil going on. And you know, NO, you can't do that....

I think people, when they're given an opportunity they have to take it, because that opportunity doesn't come again. When there's something to speak up and do something about, when you have that opportunity, you have to do it. It's a soul thing. It's something that's spiritual actually. For me, it's like god or nature, it's in that kind of sense, making the best of your talents for other human beings, doing the best you can provide for them. It's actually a spiritual journey, when you realize that you've been given that opportunity, you have that thing, you do that, you have to make that effort.

NOTE: You can hear a new message from Karen every day through August 15, 1998 by calling 1-900-ALL-KAREN.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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