Just Give Me That Old Time Derision
Karen Finely preaches to the choir at Lincoln Center.
BY JAMES TARANTO
New York City Tribune, Tuesday, July 24, 1990
She was in tears, according to The New York Times, upon learning that she'd been denied a grant last month by the National Endowment for the Arts because of the sexually explicit nature of her performances. But now, Karen Finley is probably laughing all the way to the bank as she prepares for her second sold-out show Wednesday at Lincoln Center, part of the "Serious Fun!" series, funded in part--yes--by the NEA and the New York State Council on the Arts.
Originally only one performance of her show, We Keep Our Victims Ready, had been scheduled. But because of interest generated by the rejection of her grant application, an additional show was added, on Sunday.
Poor John Frohnmayer. The NEA chairman denied Finley's grant in an effort to appease members of Congress who are outraged at the agency for funding offensive art. He wound up giving her an additional opportunity to perform in an NEA-sponsored venue, and Jesse Helms and Dana Rohrabacher another reason to be outraged. Some guys just can't win.
Most of Finley's show is delivered in the form of a sermon--indeed, it's fair to say she's less an artist than a preacher. She recites her lines in a Southern drawl with machine-gun speed, frequently repeating her phrases punctuated with "yeah." ("Ah barf when ah see William Hurt, yeah, ah barf when ah see William Hurt.")
Unlike the typical Southern preacher, of course, Finley advocates a straight-down-the-line liberal/left agenda. She's for legalized abortion, socialized medicine and child-care, homosexual rights, feminism, animal rights, and more government spending on AIDS patients and the homeless.
Finley opens her show with a bizarre story, titled "It's Only Art," that apparently intends to make some point about the NEA controversy. She imagines a world in which all art is banned by the government.
Michelangelo and van Gogh are banned, and "all ceramics were gone, for working with clay is too much like playing with your own shit." Displays of old American quilts are shut down because "one guard said a period stain was found on a quilt and another said some ejaculation was found on a quilt from West Virginia."
Even toilets are removed from museums because "some might think that the act of peeing is a work of art . . . and the government pays for that pee flushing down the toilet." She explains that her opponents believe that "a good life is one that no one thinks you ever piss or shit--especially if you're government-funded."
Artists are placed in the service of the government "to make Dan Quayle looks smart," to advocate the Stealth Bomber, and to downplay the HUD and Iran-contra scandals. And "all actors and actresses were gone from TV except Charlton Heston."
One day--according to this Finley fantasy--Jesse Helms is entertaining some European dignitaries, and asks them what they want to see in America. Disneyland, they reply. "Oh, that's been closed down for a long time, because we saw Disney's film Fantasia," Helms explains. In that case, they want to go to Coney Island and have a Nathan's hot dog. Sorry, Helms says, hot dogs are banned because they're "too phallic."
Helms' visitors want to go to the Museum of Modern Art, which of course is also closed. But Helms wants to "look cool" in front of the dignitaries, so he calls President Bush, George Will, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, and William F. Buckley and asks them to meet on the White House lawn and make some art. They don't know how, but a young girl paints a picture of her father abusing her, and soon everyone is painting.
But, alas, the girl's father turns the group over to the "confiscation police," who arrest everyone--even Helms, who was painting pictures full of "hate . . . envy and darkness and pride and pain." On the day of his execution, Helms' last words are, "It was only art."
OK, give Finley credit for having a vivid imagination. But next to this stuff, an episode of Married With Children is a Shakespearean epic.
In the most infamous part of the show, Finley strips down to her panties and boots. She then declares, "I go and take a long, hot, steaming shit, because my life's worth nothing but shit, baby, my life's worth nothing but shit."
She then rubs chocolate on her legs, breasts, abdomen, arms, and buttocks. "This is what they're scared of," she says. She delivers several monologues, between which she piles on more layers--first an unidentified food that appears to be some sort of red candy, then alfalfa sprouts (which, she says, represent sperm), and finally tinsel.
Here are some other samples of her material:
Beginning a monologue about a frustrated suburban mother who works as a waitress, she declares: "I woke up smelling the flowered flannel sheets of my dog's urine."
She hasn't much faith in traditional religion. "God is death, God is dead," she chants. "Forget God and religion," she admonishes, "for all they do is propagate fantasies of men."
"I want my body, but it's never mine. It's only for creating babies with a man's name on them. . . . If I use my own name, it's called bastard, bastard, bastard, bastard, bastard, bastard, bastard."
She burns a group of miniature American flags, declaring, "You'll see what I'm going to do now that I'm not government-funded."
"We have our own fascist state," she declares, explaining that there's little difference between Nazi Germany and America, where some people lack sympathy for AIDS patients and the homeless. "We have our own SS--the 700 Club," she continues. She compares William F. Buckley and Pat Buchanan to Joseph Goebbels. "Now they can't kill the commie," she says, "so they're out to kill the soul of America--me and you."
Frustrated at being treated as a sex object, "I went and I took a knife and I cut out my hole, but it just became a bigger hole, and they all said, 'Now she's too big for us to fuck . . . but that's OK, 'cause we can all fuck her at the same time.' "
Believe it or not, Finley seems to have toned down her act in recent years. She used to insert yams into her anus onstage, and nothing in We Keep Our Victims Ready is quite as strange as the following passage from the script of her 1987 show The Constant State of Desire:
"I drive down to Wall Street and break into the exchange. I go up to all the traders and cut off their balls. They don't bleed, only dollar signs come out. They don't miss their balls, 'cause they're too busy fucking you with everything else they've got.
"So I gather all their balls, scrotum, testicles and stick 'em in my mouth. I roll 'em around in my mouth and I feel like a squirrel in heat. I love the sound of scrotum. I take the balls home and boil them. 'Cause they're small balls and need to be plumped up. After I boil the balls I roll them in my own dung, my manure. 'Cause I'm the Queen of the Dung Dynasty. Then I roll the Dung eggs in melted Hershey's Kisses. Then I roll the scrotum, manure, chocolate-covered balls into fancy foiled papers from found Eurotrash cigarette boxes. Now I've got gourmet Easter eggs to sell. And I love to see 9-year-old boys who only communicate with their computers eat their daddies' balls. I love to watch all you Park Avenue, Madison Avenue know-it-alls eating your own chocolate-covered balls for $25 a pound."
Not that she doesn't come close to this level of perversity in her current show. She talks about bestiality: "Sure, I've eaten a doggy out, 'cause I'm a man. Sure, I've eaten a dog pussy."
And in introducing her comparison between the United Sates and Nazi Germany (the source of the title We Keep Our Victims Ready, incidentally), she says, "Hitler likes to have Eva Braun shit on him." Hitler "doesn't like pubic hair," she says, because it "reminds him of sperm." Thus, "Hitler fucks big, hairy ears."
Finley does occasionally have an interesting insight. For example, on the twisted logic that sometimes governs romantic relationships: "I sleep with your best friend to make you jealous. I want to make you jealous because I love you. I sleep with your best friend because I love you."
She also lets us get to know her personally--very personally. "How many days do I menstruate? Five," she says, in an apparently improvisational aside. "When did I start? Twelve."
Hey, Karen, really, thanks for sharing.
Mostly, though, her show is tedious sermonizing. The audience loved it--she got a standing ovation. But that's the way it is with sermons. For true believers, they're thrilling and inspiring. For skeptics, they're an amusing spectacle for a while, but eventually become tiresome and grating.
Finley is able to spout forth leftist dogma with a passion unmatched by most of today's liberal orators. The question, obscenity aside, is why taxpayers should pick up the bill for this crude propaganda. If Jimmy Swaggart can make do without public subsidies, why can't Karen Finley?
At one point in the performance, Finley beats her chest and shrieks, "I wish I could relieve you of your pain." Amazingly enough, she does--half a minute later, the show is over.
Next article: A Civics Lesson for the ACLU Chief (New York City Tribune, 7/24/90)
Previous article: Charting Controversial Art (New York City Tribune, 7/17/90)
Go to main list