Progress Through Provocations: Analyzing the Work of Karen Finley

Larissa Holmes

Artist Karen Finley has provoked controversy wherever she has gone. Her works and performances have stirred artistic and social communities, mainly throughout North America, enough to raise their consciousness beyond the art, to issues such as social activism, consumption, distribution and censorship. Finley’s work in the art world system has both influenced and altered societal perspectives. Through a close analysis of Karen Finley’s stage performances, this paper will discuss how Finley’s use of food in her performance reveals the female body as a consumable product in society, the many forms of distribution that have effected her work, and the role that censorship has played in her work. These areas of focus will be analyzed in specific reference to the following performances: Momento Mori,Yams Up My Granny’s Ass, We Keep Our Victims Ready, and American Chestnut.
Finley’s art delivers messages on social issues; her use of food has symbolic meaning. The controversy of her subject matter has spawned distinctive distribution, and the attempts at the censorship of her work have contributed to her progress through provocation. An artist is always a product of their surroundings and upbringing, so it is important to establish a context, both past and present, which has influential impact on the resulting works of art.

New York-based Karen Finley was born in 1956 in Evanston, Illinois (just outside Chicago).[1] While interested in performance from an early age, Finley started her performance career in 1979, after her father’s suicide the previous Christmas.[2] The suicide of her father was a pivotal event in the formative aspects of her career as a performance artist.

Her performance work, all self-authored, was mainly centered around the oppression of women and resultant feelings of rage and self-loathing, but also addressed sexual repression, domestic abuse, homosexuality, and other taboo subjects. It was confrontational, provocative, often scatological, and left no room for neutrality.[3]

In her performances, Finley usually adopts the role of the oppressor to convey her message to her audience. Finley’s work is based on the saying “the personal is political”.[4] She uses this mantra from second-wave feminism to bring awareness to issues that are often considered private.

Karen Finley is best known as “the nude, chocolate smeared women” of the 1980’s and 1990’s, but her work as a sculptor, television personality, and social activist are little known.[5] Much of her work is based on social activism within the constructs of American society. Her performances deal typically with ‘taboo’ subject matter including but not exclusive to: incest, rape, domination, as well as more general topics like the ‘sexualization’ of women in everyday western society, the body, violence and AIDS. Finley’s focus on AIDS in her 1991 work Momento Mori resembles the work of many artists making social statements in New York City at the time such as Gran Fury, a division of ACT-UP, a group that was also based in New York City in 1991.[6] Gran Fury and Karen Finley both used art to advertise the importance of Safe Sex and other health-related issues related to AIDS awareness. Both used the public not only as viewers, but also as active and integral participants in the artistic process. In Finley’s piece Momento Mori an installation was created that centered on the grieving rituals for AIDS victims practiced by friends and family.[7] This is an important piece in Finley’s career because it marks her awareness and recognition of interactive art practice. For the piece Ribbon Gate the audience members were asked to select a ribbon and tie it to the gate in memory of someone they lost to AIDS. The artwork itself was therefore actually created by the audience. This piece not only raised awareness to the issues that victims are faced with, but it also validated and confronted the feelings of loss and grievance among those left behind. This traveling exhibition demonstrates how Finley has embraced the role of social activist for the AIDS communities. It is personalized by consistently adjusting and amending the piece based upon the varying locations and audiences. When the piece went to Gallery 76 at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Finley added the Vacant Chair.[8] This was an addition to the installation that consisted of two wooden chairs; one normal size and one child’s size. The participant could sit with the vacant chair, representing the deceased, and adjust themselves emotionally and mentally before going back into their daily lives.[9] Although Finley herself does not have AIDS, she has lost many friends to the disease. Her work reflects the importance of representing segregated groups of society in an accurate and empowering way.

Finley has used food as a main device for conveying her message. She uses food in a similar way that to how other artists such as Chris Burden used instruments and other devices,[10] not only to test their physical limits, but also to demonstrate their materiality. Finley’s use of yams, chocolate and breast milk, to mention a few, as central props in her performances has allowed her to incorporate both gender roles. She too, is using outside force (food, in her case) to convey the severity and physicality of the situations that her characters are in. Finley uses language through dialogue to take on the role of the perpetrator. She enacts the role of the male consumer while still embodying the role of the victim (female) physically. “Food provided a primitive, visceral, almost gruesome element. It helped to convey to the audience the ways in which the characters I portrayed were being violated”.[11] Finley consistently addresses these myths of women as clean, ‘natural’ beings. In 1986, Finley grabbed the attention of theVillage Voice’s journalist C. Carr with her performance of Yams Up My Granny’s Ass.[12] In this performance Finley chose to enact the piece by turning around to the audience and

…lift[ed] up my dress and pour[ed] a can of sugared cooked yams onto my backside, then smear[ed] them on the cheeks and crack of my ass. It was supposed to be a moment of black comedy and that was how my audiences usually took it.[13]

As in this piece, Finley does not always use food to show the direct relationship between women and consumption patterns. She shows how physical violations and food are abusive to the body, while projecting a humorous aspect to her message. Food has also been used as a prop in displaying the intrusion and penetration that the characters experience in the form of a visual abuse to the body.

Finley acquired her nickname; “the nude, chocolate smeared lady” from one of her most well known performances in the vignette collection entitled, We Keep Our Victims Ready (1989). For this performance Finley describes how the piece was played out on stage:

I smeared my body with chocolate, because, I said in the piece, I’m a woman, and women are usually treated like shit. Then I cover myself with red candy hearts-because, ‘after a woman is treated like shit, she becomes more lovable.’ After the hearts, I cover myself with bean sprouts, which smelled like semen and looked like seamen-because, after a woman is treated like shit, and loved for it, she is jacked off on. Then I spread tinsel all over my body, like a Cher dress—because, no matter how badly a woman is treated, she’ll still get it together to dress for dinner.[14]

For Finley to adopt this idea of the female as the ‘all consumable’ product in such a visual, ‘in your face’ way, it almost seems natural to associate food and women together. This is because they are usually viewed in a similar way in today’s Western society. Food is usually used to sexualize and glamorize the female form in advertisements and the general media. One would not have to look very far to see a billboard that is advertising anything from apples to zero percent financing costs using the images of ‘attractive’ women.[15] In Finley’s performances, not only has she addressed notions of ‘consumption’ to bring attention to the concept of women as the most consumable product on the market, but she also has used ‘consumption’ to link the question of socially acceptable ideals of feminine beauty. Finley uses food to distort and manipulate her own image into forms of representation that are not typically considered ‘beautiful’ by mainstream media. Through Finley’s extreme (ab)use of food, she forces the viewer to confront her messages surrounding society’s consumption of gender stereotypes.

One of the main forms of distribution that has impacted Karen Finley’s work is not self-generated, but rather the result of media hype from newspapers. Her main form of distribution has been through the countless articles and reviews written about her controversial performances:

The caption read, in bold headline print, ‘Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts: The Taboo Art of Karen Finley.’ This combination of images and text inspired sufficient curiosity to sell at least one newspaper. The article itself proved compelling, and critic C. Carr convinced me that Karen Finley was someone I wanted to experience.[16]

As an artist, Finley’s work, albeit explicit in content, has done a large portion of the marketing for her. With numerous interviews and her boundless commitment to her projects, the media attention that has been created around her work has left people and critics like Barry Kapke curious enough to want to see what all the hype is about. For a controversial artist like Finley, there is no such thing as ‘bad publicity.’ Finley’s free publicity began with the cover story mentioned above by C. Carr in the Village Voice on June 24th, 1986.[17] This form of distribution was significant to Finley’s work because of its ability to reach audiences outside the art world.

Finley’s work was first recognized in the queer community in New York City. This was not only where she made her home, but also where she was working and most of her friends lived. Finley’s work questioned everything from the patriarchy to compulsory heterosexuality[18] to the government’s response to the AIDS crisis.[19] The AIDS pandemic has used Finley as a voice for the dying and dead. Finley, who is heterosexual, uses her marketability and willingness to force people to hear truths and relate to the victims that she portrays in her performances. She creates a kind of social accountability, not only among artists, but also with her audiences. Through Finley’s performance works she has the ability to use her body as the principal vessel of communication, as well as the ability to verbalize her message.

Karen Finley has chosen to embark on a number of different traditional art practices (public sculpture, intervention, performance) as forms of distributing her message. She has worked in the medium of drawing, painting, sculpture, directing, and script writing but is best known as a performance artist who incorporates many of the abovementioned practices into her work. With a focus on performance, Finley is able to more accurately convey the shocking messages of reality.[20] With performance art having a centralized and limited audience (for physical limits the space presents), one might ask why Finley has not chosen another form of art practice.

The artist is always blamed for not marketing the art, which is a really yuppie notion. It isn’t my problem that my work won’t get on television, or that if it did it would be censored. It’s enough for the artist to be doing the art.[21]

What influence does the art world have on the artist’s chosen means of distribution? How is performance art to be documented and remembered? Today for Finley, responsibility as an artist in the distribution and preservation of her work has not become an issue. Over the course of her career, Finley has written five books,[22] recorded CD’s with performances on them, released a DVD in 2004 of recent performances,[23] and has her own website. Without the distribution of Finley’s work through her various media, it would be very hard to discuss and learn from her performances for individuals both in and outside the art world.

As an artist, there are many ways that one can be censored. Since the beginning of Karen Finley’s career in the art world, she has been the target of varying types of censorship from both governments and various organizations. Finley’s fight with censorship in the United States began in 1990 when the National Endowment Fund for the Arts (NEA) vetoed Finley and three other artists grants, resulting in a lawsuit put forth by the artists to the NEA.[24] The NEA’s decision was based on information that was printed in various newspaper articles across America by conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. These articles were written on the performance Finley did of We Keep Our Victims Ready (1989), although neither of the journalists actually saw the performance.[25] The grant was vetoed because Finley’s work was seen as not only obscene, but also as “nothing the American taxpayers should have to support financially”.[26] This is an interesting idea since governments make decisions that taxpayers do not necessarily agree with on a number of occasions.[27] This action taken by the American government shows yet another way that the patriarchal government is trying to control the means by which artists are choosing to express themselves:

Women learn to negotiate their anger about subordination by depoliticizing its expression or internalizing it in the form of guilt, and the guilty women then blames herself for the unfeminine emotion of anger, for having failed as a woman.[28]

As an artist, Finley is consistently challenging what it means to ‘be a woman’.[29] She refutes all that women have been taught over the years as ‘acceptable’ behavior through her unwillingness to conform or be silenced. With the NEA’s decision to revoke funding Finley is, in effect, being penalized for her choice of subject matter. By the government revoking the funding that artists receive, they are indirectly trying to censor them. The objective of the American government appears to be to challenge the artist to actually continue their artistic practice. Within a patriarchal American government, it’s understandable why the work of Karen Finley would be censored. Ironically, the government has created more awareness and controversy around Finley’s work, and elevated her to being an ‘Art Star’. The NEA’s attempt at censorship created a kind of media attention around Finley’s work that she could normally never have afforded.

Finley has examined the censorship that women are faced with in the process of bearing children. In 1993 Finley gave birth to her daughter Violet and decided she wanted to integrate the experience into her art (Finley, 2000, 187).[30] She created the vignette entitled American Chestnut, which consisted of more video and instillation pieces than in her previous works. In this work, Finley questions the general ideas that are put forth to women in the process of labor.

…pregnant women today are given extensive instructions and coaching geared toward allowing them to give birth without expressing pain… The idea of being serene and relaxed during childbirth is absurd to me. Labor was the most excruciating, painful experience my body has ever gone through. I had a natural childbirth and I broke my tailbone pushing my nine-pound daughter out of the birth canal. The idea that pain should not be expressed during childbirth is a cultural misogyny, a way of trying to control women’s emotions.[31]

Finley reinforces this as form of censorship through her displays of the work entitled Relaxation Room. For this piece Finley blew up three graphic images of a baby’s head crowning and emerging from the mother’s vagina.[32] She then used post-it notes and stuck them all over the photos with ‘relaxing’ instructions written on them, (“Stay relaxed. This is for your baby”) similar to the ones often told to a mother during labor.[33] Finley criticizes the way in which women are often seen as an incubator in the birthing process. Finley succeeds in addressing the lack of societal validation and the censorship that women receive for their feelings in the childbearing process.

In 1994, at an opening of Finley’s instillation-based work, at American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, a death threat was issued to Finley.[34] Challenging an artist to choose between their art and their life is the ultimate form of censorship. While personally intrusive and mentally stressful, Finley continued to pursue her art focusing on the right to be heard without fear. She showed that, even in the face of death, people must be heard. “It is not the threat of an individual that causes death, it is silence”.[35] Although Finley has fought her way through the many forms of censorship that have surrounded her work, the fight is not over. Finley’s own life is a good example of how women are censored daily through social norms and expectations. It is ironic that Finley’s work has been the subject of such censorship laws and criticism, considering that violence and giving a voice to the pain of her character are the underlining issues in her performances.

The art world has created a remarkable environment for Karen Finley to work in. Although she has had her struggles, it has benefited her career more than harmed it. Ever since Finley’s attendance at The San Francisco Art Institute, she has gained the ability to take her understanding of the art world and use it to turn her struggles into successes. Finley may not have planned on gaining notoriety within the art world this way, but with the publicity that the NEA trials gave her, it allowed her to seize the attention of some of the system’s major players.[36] In 1991 with the spotlight on Finley, she took hold of the situation, and used it as an opportunity to do several interviews and market books and various collections of works. Through the publicity of the NEA trials, Finley received criticism from art critics. She also encountered both positive and negative reactions to her work from people that were both knowledgeable on her work and those that had never seen a single work in the flesh. Given the subject matter of her performances, it seemed as though everyone had an opinion on her work.

Finley’s work not only questions social and political structures, but also in a more oblique way she also criticizes the institutionalization of art and the censorship that exists within its ‘white walls’.[37] Finley comments on the numerous cancellations that surrounded her new Art Star fame: “In order to book me, any venue or institution would have to be prepared to deal with the controversy that always seemed to follow in my wake. That was a lot to ask any anyone”.[38] By various venues canceling on Finley, they were conforming to their conservative government’s demands. Or is there more to it? One cannot help but ask themselves where the current funding/sponsorship was coming from for these galleries at that specific time. The idea that ‘money talks’ is also an important concept in Finley’s work: she raises the question of women being bought-off/silenced through bribes or by financially crippling them to the point of them being unable to produce their artwork. Either method produces the same result. Finley’s art continues to reflect her critical awareness of both the art world and the society in which it exists.

Finley’s work has provoked heated conversations on both the medium she creates and the message that she conveys. She has raised the social consciousness of those who have experienced her performances. Her work continues to elevate the controversy of artistic censorship while providing a venue of publicity and distribution. Karen Finley’s controversial performances serve as medium for greater social awareness, impacting both the artworld and the greater society, with a progressive consciousness and new perspectives.

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Beavis, Lynn. Performance Art, Censorship and Psychoanalysis: Theorizing the Outrageous Acts of Karen Finley. Montreal, QC: Concordia University Thesis (MA). 2003.
Champagne, Lenora. Out from Under: Text by Women Performance Artists. New York: Theatre Communications Group. 1990.
Diner, Robyn. Bodies of Irony : Irony, the Unruly Body, Feminist Performance. Montreal, QC: Concordia University Thesis (PhD). 2004.
Ede, Lisa. Work In Progress. 4th ed., New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1998
Finley, Karen. A Different kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley. A Memoir. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press. 2000.
Fineman, Mia. “Karen Finley as Fotouhi Cramer.” Art Net 27 June 1997. (accessed October 25, 2006).
Harris, Geraldine. Staging Femininities: Performance and Performativity. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 1999.
Hart, Linda, “Karen Finley’s Dirty Work: Censorship, Homophobia, and the NEA,” Genders, no. 14 (Fall 1992):1-15
Juno, Andrea. “Karen Finley” in Angry Women. Ed. Andrea Juno and V. Vale San Francisco, Calif.: Re/Search Publication. 1991.
Kapke, Barry. “Karen Finley ‘Unspeakable practice & Unnatural Acts’ ” in High Performance no. 36 (Fall 1986): 66-67
Meyer, Richard. “This is to Engrage You: Gran Fury and the Graphics of AIDS Activism,” in But is it Art? The Spirit of Art Activism, ed. Nina Felshin. Seattle: Bay Press 1995.
Mifflin, Margot. “Shock of the Real: An Interview with Karen Finley.” Community arts Network: Reading Room September 2002.
_the_re. php (accessed October 27, 2006).
Morgan, Robin. Sisterhood is Powerful; an Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York: Random House. 1970.
Potier, Beth. “Karen Finley provokes, reveals in lecture.” Harvard University Gazette 14 Febuary 2002.
02.14/06-finley.html (accessed October 25, 2006).
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in The Woman Identified Woman, ed. Trudy Darty and Sandee Potter. Palo Alto: Mayfield. (1984):119-148.

1 Andrea Juno. “Karen Finley” in Angry Women. Ed. Andrea Juno and V. Vale (San Francisco, Calif.: Re/Search Publication. 1991.): 41.
2 Karen Finley. A Different kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley. A Memoir. (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press. 2000.): 23.
3 Lisa Ede. Work In Progress. 4th ed., (New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1998).
4 Robin Morgan. Sisterhood is Powerful; an Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York: Random House. 1970.
5 Finley, 103
6 Richard Meyer. “This is to Engrage You: Gran Fury and the Graphics of AIDS Activism,” in But is it Art? The Spirit of Art Activism, ed. Nina Felshin. (Seattle: Bay Press 1995.)
7 Finley, 156
8 Ibid. 160
9 Ibid.
10 Karen Finley looked up to artists such as Chris Burden who had someone shoot him in the arm in the 1971 piece Shoot. In his 1973 piece entitled Through the Night Softly Burden crawled on broken glass and bought 10 seconds of air time on a California television station for one month (Rachel Lauzon)
11 Finley, 23
12 This vignette is about a drug addict who abuses his grandmother on Thanksgiving:
…So when things get real bad-real bad- I take a can of yams and I stick it up my granny’s ass. She’s such a fine granny to humiliate, she’s such a fine granny to torture, because she’s a mute granny. Doesn’t make a sound. Her eyes stick out like blue raisins on a rabbit, some furry little animal. I’m smearing her all over with candied syrup sugar yam juice runs down her back, along her spine.
Then I put her under a heat lamp and I let the yam syrup sizzle on her spine-it boils real nice. She’s so fine to do it to. Then I put a tab of ecstasy in her cup of Nescafe every morning, and she just looks out and hallucinates all over me… (excerpt from Finley, Yam’s Up My Granny’s Ass. ( 2000): 23)
13 Finley, 24.
14 This vignette was inspired by the story of Tawana Brawley, a sixteen-year old African American girl who was found “dazed and semi-conscious in a trash bag in an apartment complex in upstate New York. When she was found she was covered in human excrement. She said she was raped by a group of white police officers. Brawley was accused of faking the whole thing” (Finley, (2000): 84)
15 ‘Attractive women’ is referring to the type of women usually marketed in today’s society (tall, slim, white, and with symmetrical features). Those women who are usually seen as attractive to white, middle-to upper class men, the people with the most purchasing power.
16 Barry Kapke. “Karen Finley ‘Unspeakable practice & Unnatural Acts’ ” in High Performance no. 36 (Fall 1986): 66
17 Finley, 24.
18 Compulsory heterosexuality was a term first coined by feminist theorist Adrienne Rich in her 1984 article entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”
19 Ibid. 189
20 Margot Mifflin. “Shock of the Real: An Interview with Karen Finley.” Community arts Network: Reading Room September 2002.
shock_of_the_re.php (accessed October 27, 2006).
21 Ibid.
22 These are: Shock Treatment (New York: City Lights Publisher, 1991), Enough is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally (Georgia: Poseidon Press1993), Living it Up, Pooh Unplugged (Santa Monica: Smart Art Press, 1999), and A different Kind of Intimacy (New York: Thunder Mouth Press, 2000).
23 The two recent performances are Shut up and Love Me (2001) and Make Love (2004). Neither of which will be discussed in this paper.
24 The four artists whose grants were vetoed were: Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck and Tim Miller –“case settled in ’93 with artists receiving original grants [Finley: $8,000; Fleck: $5,000; Hughes: $8,000; Miller: $5,000] plus $6,000 each, in compensatory damages, and court costs to the amount of $202,000 ” (Beavis, (2003): 54).
25 Ibid.
26 Lynn Beavis. Performance Art, Censorship and Psychoanalysis: Theorizing the Outrageous Acts of Karen Finley. (Montreal, QC: Concordia University Thesis (MA). (2003): 86)
27 Around this time protests surrounding the governments decisions on the Gulf war were especially contested.
28 Beavis.
29 Simone de Beauvoir was the first to critically question “what is a woman?” in 1949 (Beauvoir, (1989): xviiii).
30 Finley, 187
31 Ibid. 132
32 Ibid. 188
33 Ibid. 189
34 Ibid. 195
35 One can see the connection between what Finley is saying and the popular slogan created by artistic group Gran Fury, Silence= Death (Meyer, 1995).
36 In Finley’s case this included: galleries, publishing companies, media, and in 1993 she received a Guggenhim fellowship for her project American Chestnut (Finley, (2000): 192).
37 The ‘white walls’ representing both the white often associated with the gallery space and with those who often run it.
38 Finley, 150