The World According to Karen Finley

Karen Finley had already made a name for herself as an artist in San Francisco when she moved to New York City in 1983. I remember her arrival on the East Village art scene—all of us do—because her work instantly stood out for its bravery, punk-rock vitality, and breakthrough radicalism. I saw her perform on stage at the downtown club Danceteria one night in the mid-’80s and was blown away by her ability to inject passion, humor, honesty, and aggravation into one of her signature monologues, set to a disco beat. Finley has always been able to turn up the temperature of the room to boiling. Of course, it wasn’t just New York artists who took notice of her raw, uninhibited performance works, which covered politics, sex, and feminism, and which often involved her stripping down to her bare skin. In 1990, in a piece called “We Keep Our Victims Ready,” she famously smeared chocolate on her nude body at Lincoln Center to prompt questions about sexual violence and the degradation of women. Soon after that, Senator Jesse Helms went on a full-scale attack of her work, and that of three other NEA grant recipients, leading the National Endowment of the Arts to rescind her grant with the charge of “indecency.” This attempt by Washington to censor the arts forever changed the structure of public funding in the United States. Over the next eight years, Finley fought her way to the Supreme Court. She lost that suit but championed the freedom of artists and their voices and bodies the entire way. (She even posed, covered in chocolate, for Playboy in 1993 to draw attention to the hypocrisy coming out of the nation’s capital.)

Finley was an early pioneer of interdisciplinary art, working as she did in performance, music, graphic texts, sculpture, installation, poetry, and drawing—all in the spirit of a public conversation. In 1990, she mounted her poem, “The Black Sheep,” cast in bronze right at the corner of Manhattan’s First Avenue and Houston Street. “We are the sheep with no shepherd,” she wrote. “We are the sheep with no straight and narrow. We are sheep who take the dangerous pathway thru the mountain range to get to the other side of our soul.” This was the first time I had witnessed an experimental artwork taken seriously by the general public. Everyone who rode the subway on the Lower East Side engaged with her piece, and we were its subject—all of us who came to New York City in the late 1970s and early ’80s looking for a place to belong. We had, she was telling us, found it.

Today, Finley’s voice rages on, whether she’s tackling Trump and right-wing America in her performances, eulogizing the friends she lost to AIDS, or teaching performance to a new generation of New Yorkers at NYU. I have always thought of her work as a kind of panacea for society. It’s fitting, then, that we met at a place called Remedy Diner on Houston Street to have this conversation.

Read the full interview here.

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