For a woman whose performance art drew howls of protest from conservative politicians, and who is well-known for performing while covered in chocolate and honey, Karen Finley sounds like one of the more sane people one has encountered in some time.
In addition to her controversial work as a performance artist, Finley is also a visual artist, essayist, satirist, author, film and stage actress, teacher, feminist, political agitator, and a working single mom, who lives with her daughter, Violet, in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Finley’s most recent achievement is her new book, “The Reality Shows” (The Feminist Press), a collection of performance texts from her past decade of works.
Finley appears on Monday, April 11, at 5:30 p.m. at 106 McCormick Hall on the campus of Princeton University to do dramatic readings from “The Reality Shows,” but she won’t be adorned with chocolate frosting this time. “I don’t have a set or a costume, that kind of thing,” she says in a phone interview from her office at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, where, since 2001, she has been a professor of arts in the department of art and public policy. This will be her first time appearing in Princeton. “It’s probably more of an academic presentation. But I’d be happy to come and perform in Princeton in the future.”
Instrumental in proposing the event was Dorothea Von Moltke, owner of Labyrinth Books, and Jill Dolan, professor of English and theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, who is also director of Princeton University’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Finley’s dramatic reading and discussion is co-sponsored by Labyrinth Books, Princeton’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Princeton’s theater program.
In addition to being laugh-out-loud funny as well as occasionally cringe-worthy, “The Reality Shows” highlights how Finley is able to capture the psychological complexity of the last decade’s dark, bizarre political and social milestones. Finley embodies pop culture icons and people in the news, creating a kind of catharsis within each drama. For example, she imagines Liza Minelli reacting to the September 11, 2001 attacks. As Terri Schiavo, the comatose woman who drew such controversy when her husband wished to discontinue life-prolonging procedures, Finley explains why Americans love a woman in a coma.
Finley creates a scenario where Martha Stewart and George W. Bush have an affair right before the Republican National Convention, and Dubya gets dumped. Then there is “The Dreams of Laura Bush,” where the former First Lady keeps a dream diary, and one reverie has her in bed with Frank Sinatra.
In Finley’s most recent performance piece, “The Jackie Look,” Jackie Kennedy Onassis does a slide-show tour of her life in the public eye and muses on how she helped channel the public’s grief throughout the events of the ’60s. In one way, Finley is observing how these public figures are performance artists themselves, performing to us, the tabloid-reading, TV-watching public.
“With this work, I am using Jackie to look at how the public processes trauma,” Finley says. “First, I am trying to look like Jackie, and I also have a series of images, all the images we know of her, the gaze of her being looked at. But in this piece, there’s another portal, to look at Michelle Obama and how we look at her, as well as the way we look at a woman’s body, particularly the black female.”
In one piece, “Impulse to Suck,” Finley careens around the minds of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, his wife, Silda, and his mistress. Finley writes that, on March 10, 2009, she had traveled to Albany to hear a speech by Governor Spitzer on reproductive health, but the speech was mysteriously delayed. “Instead, Spitzer spoke publicly about a private indiscretion,” Finley writes. “He apologized for having sex with a prostitute, while his supportive, devastated wife stood beside him. This political moment was in many ways very familiar.
“Beside the stage, there are many other ways of performing everyday life and social customs,” Finley says. “With Eliot Spitzer, I’m looking at one of the performance genres, which is the performance of the apology. There’s a time when the nation will stop to see how someone apologizes, this private/public relationship has become paramount. There’s a historical understanding of the apology.”
Finley is also interested in looking at a wife’s relationship to a public figure’s apology. “We know about this in New Jersey, with (former governor) McGreevey’s apology and his wife by his side,” she says. “That was one example, this is another.”
There are so many public figures and so much information to mine, even more so than just a decade ago. Finley can choose from “old media” such as print, public and commercial radio, TV and pop culture, but now she can also sift through the Blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and all kinds of things on the Internet for material.
“Throughout this book, I’m looking at this past decade, with TV being the primary medium, but now, also the Internet, which has become the primary medium,” she says.
Born March 7, 1956, in Evanston, Illinois, Finley is known for provoking controversy and debate with her raw, live performances, which have been presented at Lincoln Center in New York City, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Institute for Contemprary Arts in London, the Steppenwolf in Chicago, and the Bobino in Paris, among many other venues. She had a very public battle in the’90s when individual grants from the National Endowment of the Arts came under Congress’ scrutiny for perceived obscenities within the works, with Congress insisting on applying decency standards to publicly funded art.
Finley was (and is) known as one of the NEA Four, along with performance artists Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck, who were denied grants on the grounds of indecency. The late senator Jesse Helms was especially vocal in condemning the works, focusing his wrath on Finley’s piece, “We Keep Our Victims Ready.”
In 1993 the artists won their case in court. However, their triumph soured when the case went all the way to the Supreme Court; in 1998, the Supreme Court upheld the application of decency standards, 8-1.
The oldest of six siblings, Finley was doing conceptual works at a very young age, as well as reading everything she could get her hands on about art, art history, and poetry. Her formative years as an artist were spent studying the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Finley’s father was a jazz percussionist who played with such noteworthy folks as Anita O’Day. However, he struggled with depression and in 1979, took his life, a traumatic event that has often found its way into Finley’s work. Her mother was primarily involved in raising the family, but was also politically engaged, interested in the arts and civil rights.
Finley earned her MFA from San Francisco Arts Institute in 1982, and also did her undergraduate work there. She had, at first, desired to be a visual artist, but after her father’s death, decided to focus on performance art. She also has an honorary PhD from SFAI.
Finley is still a visual artist, however, and her artworks are in numerous collections and museums, including the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. She has received a plethora of awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim fellowship, two Obies (off-Broadway theater awards), and two Bessies (New York Dance and Performance awards).
She has also authored or edited more than half a dozen books, and is a prolific recording artist, recording albums of poetic musings with dance-based backing tracks. In addition, Finley has been on the silver screen, notably in the movie “Philadelphia,” in which she played Tom Hanks’s doctor. She has posed for “Playboy,” written for “The Huffington Post,” and appeared frequently on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect.”
Currently, she has a studio at the Edward Hopper House Art Center, the artist’s childhood home, in Nyack, N.Y. “My studio is in his former bedroom, and my keys are identical to his,” Finley says. “I’ve been thinking of doing a series of studies of impressions of his keys, thinking of doing some work (inspired by) Edward Hopper.”
Meanwhile, there are so many characters out there Finley could take on, figures in the news and pop culture who range from Hillary Clinton to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi from “The Jersey Shore.” Is there anyone is particular she might like to embody in a future work? She thinks for a few seconds and then says, “Elizabeth Taylor. I’ll have to think and do more research on her.”
Author Event, 106 McCormick Hall, Princeton University. Monday, April 11, 5:30 p.m. Karen Finley presents a reading and performance based on her new book capturing the psychology complexity of this decade’s political and social milestones. Finley presents Liza Minnelli, Terri Schiavo, Martha Stewart, Silda Spitzer, and Jackie Onassis. Presented by Labyrinth Books. Karen Finley on the Web, www.karenfinley.com. 609-497-1600 or www.labyrinthbooks.com.