Performance artist Karen Finley, oracle



A portrait of Karen Finley in her golden years
  • Timothy-Greenfield-Sanders
  • A portrait of Karen Finley in her golden years
Karen Finley became notorious in the early 1990s, when (a) archconservative senator Jesse Helms used her work to help make his argument that the National Endowment for the Arts was one of the handbaskets that America was going to hell in; (b) NEA chair John Frohnmayer responded by rescinding her grant, along with those of three other artists, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes; and (c) the so-called NEA Four sued, initiating proceedings that ended—badly for the Four—in the U.S. Supreme Court. Until then Finley was known to a much smaller audience as the fiercest and messiest member of her generation of performance artists, creating works that had her applying substances like chocolate syrup and peanut butter to her nearly naked body while making profane speeches.

I've known Finley since we went to Evanston Township High School together decades ago. (Oddly enough, she was in one of a handful of Allan Kaprow-inspired happenings I put on there with a friend.) And I started writing about her when she was performing around Chicago in the 80s, before she moved to New York for good. The syrup and such were shocking, all right, but what stunned me more than anything was the verbal aspect of her art—the diatribes, which put me in mind of nothing so much as the Hindu death goddess Kai. As I recollected when Finley came to town for a performance in 2003, "I thought of her as much more than an artist or performer. I considered her an oracle. The monologues that accompanied her dead serious food fights channeled a rage so pure as to be archetypal. Kali-like. She seemed to be spoken through rather than speaking, and there was a sense that whoever was possessing her cared nothing about the consequences for anyone present."

Finley is a professor at NYU now—a kind of provocateur emeritus. It seems significant that the last substance she publicly doused on herself wasn't brown chocolate or goopy peanut butter but golden honey. Still, when I contacted her for this piece and asked her some questions that annoyed her, she slapped me down fast and hard (though not without style). What else should I have expected from Kali?

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