Karen Finley

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Karen Finley
Born 1956
Chicago, Illinois
Nationality American
Alma mater San Francisco Art Institute
Occupation Performance artist, musician, poet
Employer NYU Tisch School of the Arts
Known for Performance art

Karen Finley (born 1956) is an American performance artist, whose theatrical pieces and recordings have often been labeled obscene due to their graphic depictions of sexuality, abuse, and disenfranchisement. She was notably one of the NEA Four, four performance artists whose grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were vetoed in 1990 by John Frohnmayer after the process was condemned by Senator Jesse Helms under "decency" issues. Finley is currently a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.


Finley was born in Chicago. She is a relative of the American humorist and writer Finley Peter Dunne. Her father was of Irish and Scottish descent[1] and her mother was of Native American, Romani, and Jewish ancestry.[2]

While Karen Finley was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, she became immersed in the Bay Area’s punk music scene, witnessing the emergence of the bands the Dils and the Dead Kennedys. In 1977, Finley performed in underground art galleries and music clubs such as Mabuhay Gardens and Club Foot, as well as at Bruce Pollack’s A-Hole Gallery, which hosted poetry readings, punk concerts, and alternative performance art acts. Finley’s performance Deathcakes and Autism included a dancer, called “Laurie,” from the Condor Club. The work’s narrative juxtaposes the shattering psychological impact of Finley’s father’s recent suicide with a study of the female nude.

Having received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, Finley procured her first NEA grant and moved to New York City. She quickly became part of the city's art scene, collaborating with artists such as the Kipper Kids (Brian Routh — whom she married/divorced — and Martin von Haselberg) and David Wojnarowicz.

Finley's early recordings featured her ranting provocative monologues over disco beats (and she would often perform her songs late night at Danceteria, where she worked). These recordings include the singles "Tales of Taboo" from 1986 and "Lick It" from 1988 (both produced by Madonna collaborator Mark Kamins) plus the 1988 album, The Truth Is Hard to Swallow (re-released on CD, with a slightly different track listing, as Fear of Living in 1994; in conjunction with the re-release, both "Tales of Taboo" and "Lick It" appeared on 12-inch again with new remixes by Super DJ Dmitri, Junior Vasquez, and other DJs of note). She collaborated with Sinéad O'Connor on a remix of O'Connor's song "Jump in the River," and was prominently sampled by S'Express on the classic dance floor cut-up, "Theme from S-Express" (her "Drop that ghetto blaster/suck me off" vocal - sampled from "Tales of Taboo" - formed something of a chorus in the song).

In 1991 she created the Memento Mori installation in Newcastle upon Tyne, as part of the Burning the Flag? festival examining American live art and censorship.

In 1994, she released a double-disc set on the Rykodisc label, A Certain Level of Denial, a studio version of the performance piece. Following that piece came The Return of the Chocolate-smeared Woman,[3] her performance rebuttal to Helms and the NEA controversy. The U.S. Congress imposed restrictions on grants for indecent art. NEA head John Frohnmayer, took the side of the targeted artists, which included Finley.[4] The case, National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, was decided against Finley and the other artists.

Finley has expressed delight at the fact that she appeared in Playboy (in July 1999) and received a Ms. magazine Woman of the Year award within months of each other. She was also featured in Time during this period, though she felt that the magazine misrepresented her by "eroticizing" works (such as one that addressed rape) based on her nudity alone; in other words, that they couldn't absorb any information beyond her naked body.

Among Finley's books are Shock Treatment, Enough is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally, the Martha Stewart satire Living it Up: Humorous Adventures in Hyperdomesticity, Pooh Unplugged (detailing the eating and psychological disorders of Winnie the Pooh and his friends),[5] and A Different Kind of Intimacy - the latter a collection of her works. Her poem "The Black Sheep" is among her best-known works, and has been immortalized on a sculpture in New York City. Finley's poetry is included in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.

She has also created gallery installations that include together decorated walls, inscriptions, manufactured libraries of imaginary books, mock documents and objects associated with real and imagined persons.

After the attacks of 9/11, Finley found it difficult to appear as herself on stage. It was almost as if "Karen Finley" got in the way of the material, and Finley had already found herself at the center of a firestorm that made her persona a controversial national reference to nudity in art, in a public conversation that extended from Oprah to David Mamet to Seinfeld to Rush Limbaugh to David Letterman to Dennis Miller (she was famously edited out of a Miller show at mid-show) to Sean Hannity to Bill Maher to Rent, the Broadway musical, where the character of Maureen is often described as an homage to Finley. In her performances, Finley's voice now became the voice of other women that she embodied; Liza Minnelli in Make Love; Terry Schaivo in The Passion of Terri Schiavo; Laura Bush in The Dreams of Laura Bush; Silda Spitzer and "Ashley" in Impulse to Suck; and Jackie Kennedy Onassis in The Jackie Look. Finley also wrote a play, George and Martha, depicting an affair between Martha Stewart and George Bush; the play has its roots in other versions of George and Martha, notably that of Edward Albee.

The Karen Finley Live DVD (2004) compiled performances of Shut Up and Love Me and Make Love. Finley also played Tom Hanks' character's doctor in the movie Philadelphia at the invitation of Director Jonathan Demme. Finley revived a slightly updated version of "Make Love" September 10–11, 2008 at the Cutting Room in New York to commemorate the seventh anniversary of 9/11; she marked the tenth anniversary of 9/11 with a performance of "Make Love" at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in Times Square.

In 2009, Finley created a memorial at the concentration camp in Gusen, Austria to commemorate the murder by lethal injection to the heart of 420 Jewish children by the Nazis in February, 1945. The installation, "Open Heart," was created with Austrian school children and holocaust survivors, and assisted by the Austrian artist Hannes Priesch.

In 2011, she lectured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York about Music and Art, reflecting on her inclusion in the MOMA exhibition Music 3.0 of her composition Tales of Taboo. In 2011, Finley published The Reality Shows through The Feminist Press at CUNY, a compendium of her work from 2001-2010.

In 2012, Finley was a Fellow at Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania where she introduced a new work, Broken Negative Catch 23, a deeply personal reflection of her performance, We Keep Our Victims Ready that had ignited the NEA controversy 23 year before. Broken Negative Catch 23 was performed at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at California State University, Long Beach in September 2012, as part of a reunion of the NEA 4; Finley's performance and re-performance included NEA 4 colleague John Fleck, artist Bruce Yonemoto and partner Paul Nebenzahl.

In 2013 The New Museum in New York City presented Karen Finley's Sext Me If You Can, a highly personal performance that took place in the public lobby of the museum. The exhibit, which blurred the lines between art, commerce, popular culture, private behavior, taboos and sexuality, allowed patrons to purchase a drawing that Finley created of an photographic image that they "sexted" to Finley from a private room in the museum. The resulting paintings were on display in the Museum's windows, and then went home as the property of the patron. The "Sext Me" exhibition was originally created by Finley for the 2012 Miami Art Project with the Los Angeles gallery Coagula Curatorial.

In the summer of 2014, Finley led group meetings on Friday evenings at the Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle in New York City of Artists Anonymous, designed after 12-step self-help programs. Finley's 13-step program encourages personal exploration from artists whose "lives have become unmanageable because of art." These meetings were Finley's installation in the museum's 2014 Bienialle New York Makers: The MAD Bienialle.

In 2013 and 2014 Finley developed a new performance based on her early writing about AIDS from the 1980s and 90s. In 2013, Finley responded to a request from Sur Rodney Sur to participate in a New York gallery exhibition looking back 25 years at AIDS, Visual Aids, to which Finley responded by installing an abbreviated homage to her early installation, Written In Sand, originally presented at Hallwalls in Buffalo. This led to Finley reading some of her early AIDS writing at Participant Gallery in the summer of 2013 at a tribute to the late artist Gordon Kurti. By fall 2013 the performance Written In Sand was launched from these beginnings. In the work Finley recites twelve poems about AIDS from her own books Shock Treatment, A Different Kind of Intimacy and elsewhere. To soften and deepen the experience, Finley has Paul Nebenzahl playing music of, or inspired by artists who either died of AIDS, or whose work is associated with that time - Sylvester, Freddie Mercury, Neil Young, Boy George and others. Written In Sand was performed at University of Buffalo, at Colby College, at Kelly Writer's House at the University of Pennsylvania and, in October 2014, over a month-long run at Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City.


Finley's work was influenced by her professors at the San Francisco Art Institute, Linda Montano and Howard Fried and pioneer performance artist Carolee Schneemann. She was influenced by jazz artists such as Billie Holiday and the beat poets of San Francisco such as Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. In 2011, she was especially honored to read from her ten-year retrospective, "The Reality Shows," at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, the publisher of her first book "Shock Treatment."

References and footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ "An Interview With Controversial Performance Artist Karen Finley". F News Magazine. Retrieved 2012-10-06. 
  2. ^ "Finley explores the spirit world at The Kitchen". The Villager. Retrieved 2012-10-06. 
  3. ^ The title refers to a small section of We Keep Our Victims Ready.
  4. ^ The Wall Street Journal, "Best of the Web", September 21, 2001.
  5. ^ Pooh also informed her decision to use large amounts of honey in Shut Up and Love Me.

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