The notorious performance artist talks about censorship, where Bush will go after he dies, and her new work "George and Martha," in which Martha Stewart has a tryst with W. and finds Osama hiding in his colon.
When I was a younger man, I once remarked to Barnard professor of philosophy Mary Mothersill that a girl I was dating was “sublime.”
“Flesh-and-blood women can never be sublime,” I remember her scolding. “Not even girls you meet at CBGBs. To find a sublime woman, we must go to the classic tragedies of Racine such as Phaedra and Iphigenia.” Ah, those old tropes about hysterical women, incest and slaughter. Mothersill was probably right in theory, but then she had never seen Karen Finley perform.
Finley is sublime. Finley is terrifying the way Rainer Maria Rilke writes “every angel is terrifying.” For 25 years, she has been performing — usually beginning or ending up naked onstage, hollering a self-penned blue tirade dotted with scatological grunts, a verbal eruption given while Finley smears her naked self with chocolate syrup or other foodstuffs, such as the mashed yams she once stuffed in the cleft of her buttocks while mooning the audience (“Yams Up My Granny’s Ass”). (For the brave, other foods smeared on, in or across her naked body include ice cream sandwiches/kidney beans (“Mr. Hirsh”); chocolate syrup (“A Different Kind of Intimacy” and “Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman”); and honey (“Shut Up & Love Me”). She has also painted invisible black velvet paintings using her breast milk as the artistic medium.)
The narrative premise behind her tantrums is usually political. (The chocolate represents the feces that white cops were accused — falsely — of smearing on Tawana Brawley.) As a writer, she modulates between brilliance and simple insipidity. The vignettes in her Obie Award-winning “The American Chestnut” are incisive and biting, but also sometimes beautiful in their simplicity:
“When Nicky got to the party, her grandmother was blowing out the candles. Then Lilly stood up to make a speech. We have something else to celebrate tonight. The American chestnut has bloomed for the first time in over 75 years! You see, the American chestnut was once the most common tree in America. But a blight wiped out nearly every tree … The disease caused the tree to never mature, but to continually send up new shoots, trying to survive … Later at the party, Mr. Dove, Beatrice, and Lilly and other people stood around the tree … Nicky could hear the conversation. ‘Sometimes if you keep trying you just might bloom, even at our age.’ Beatrice, Mr. Dove, and Lilly laughed. A warm wind swept through the tree and made beautiful sound.”
Then there is Finley’s newest piece, “George and Martha” — first a play, now a novelette from Verso. During an illicit tryst with President Bush during the 2004 Republican Convention, lover Martha Stewart discovers that Osama bin Laden is literally hiding inside the president’s … rectum: “Martha, why don’t you stop using my colon for comparison shopping?” Bush says. “The problem with you liberal types is that I have bin Laden up my ass and you’re asking why. Honey, my ass is Central Intelligence so let’s keep the whys out of it.”
Try as I may, I cannot find chestnuts in Finley’s dialogue about Bush’s asshole. I can, however, imagine being Finley, performing on the brink of rationality, never forgetting my family history — my bipolar Illinois dad who blew his brains out in the family garage (laying his head on a piece of cardboard to minimize the mess). The clinical depression and schizophrenia on mom’s side of the tree. Finley is a woman who puts her entirety at risk with each dab of yam or squirt of chocolate.
Unfortunately, back in the early 1990s, Jesse Helms (now officially afflicted with dementia and living in a convalescent facility near his Raleigh, N.C., home) didn’t see it that way. He led the charge against the National Endowment for the Arts and its funding of “indecent” artists, such as Karen “Yams” Finley. She became the poster girl for the First Amendment. The eventual trial went all the way to the Supreme Court. Finley lost. Uncle Sam would no longer pay for her grocery list of yams, ice cream sandwiches, kidney beans, chocolate syrup and honey.
You might ask, “And why should he?”
After talking with Finley you realize that the money isn’t the point. The point is the legal endorsement that government money gave. Museums and theaters that receive grants or other public or corporate funding could show “dangerous” art like Finley’s plays without worrying about being harassed by the police for indecency — after all, public decency crusader Anthony Comstock had been dead since 1915. Now everything was different. In Finley’s case, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco even returned one of her sculptures from its permanent collection. Before the Supreme Court ruling, the piece was art. Now, it was just potential trouble.
Back in 1998, Finley responded to the Supreme Court ruling by posing nude in the July issue of Playboy. Feminist supporters saw Finley’s cheesecake as a travesty, but her centerfold dabbling emphasized an important point — not about the First Amendment but about theatrical aesthetics. If you’ve ever seen Finley naked, you know that the woman sure has nice tits. Her butt isn’t bad either. I don’t believe anyone has expressed those obvious sentiments in print before. I do so now because I can imagine male performance artists like Britain’s Kipper Kids standing onstage in their jock straps and beer bellies smearing yams upon their privates. That would be grotesque and possibly comic, but certainly not sublime. Although Finley uses her performance art to attack bad politics while exploring the perimeters of sanity, her own physical beauty allows these acts to be either entertainment or questionable art.
On a mythological level, the post-Supreme Court Karen Finley has transformed from a sublime Rilke angel to a prototype of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History — Finley is the angel being blown backward to the future by a wind from heaven. Where we perceive a chain of events, she just sees one single theatrical catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage at her feet. She would like to stop moving and awaken the dead. Make whole what has been smashed. But there is that storm blowing her backward from paradise. Benjamin says this storm is what we call “progress.” For Finley, her storm is what we call the Republican Party.
I interviewed this spent angel at her publisher’s office. She was dressed tastefully, but she was dressed in all black.
Let’s begin with your book “George and Martha.” I’ve only seen Martha Stewart once on TV and she was demonstrating flower arrangement. I’ve worked as a florist — what she was suggesting was complete nonsense. Did you spend any time watching her show?
Maybe it was on for a fleeting moment or two. What I am aware of is this nation’s captive attention to her — people putting her on a pedestal, making her a national personality. That’s what intrigued me — what motivates her to put so much involvement with the domestic arena in the public arena.
Do you know the writer Erica Jong slept with Martha’s husband? She tells all in her new book.
No, really? I think why I spent so much time on Martha is examining why the nation has selected her. She is so drawn to be the best mother in the world, to outdo all mothers. To treat the domestic world as if it affects physics. As if she is working on the Manhattan Project. Her urgency is so off balance. Cooking is not a military exercise. There is a joy that goes with it. I consider Martha’s need to be a better mother as Oedipal. She wants to be a better mother than her own mother and to replace her, yet she feels guilty about that and believes that she should be punished. That is why she went to jail. She volunteered. She had two different occasions when she could have plea bargained and just paid a fine. So what fascinates me is her need to suffer. I think the reason we are all involved with Martha is because many of us has that same Oedipal desire to become our mothers.
I was born in Chicago and grew up in Evanston [Illinois]. I’m the eldest of six. Having a large family, there definitely was a lot of people in the house, lots going on. My home was different in that my family was very involved intellectually. They didn’t put as much emphasis on ‘doing things.’ Everything wasn’t invested in the home. I think of Martha coming from an immigrant background — Polish; her last name is Kostyra. Traditionally, the immigrant female is more controlled. The power within the home is with the father. This is why Martha approached traditional feminine attributes like a military zone.
I personalize Martha as if she were my mother. I grew up in a spic-and-span home. Every Saturday I had to vacuum the house and clean the bathroom. Our digs were decorated top to bottom with doilies and napkin holders. It was a house that was cleaner and more decorated than any of the homes of my friends. I grew up believing that my mother had great taste. It wasn’t until I hitchhiked to New York City that I realized our house was wall-to-wall kitsch. My mother had terrible taste. I see Martha in that context.
That’s so beautiful. I was listening to what you’re saying and I hear you saying how children growing up participate in chores. I did the dishes for eight people every night. I didn’t even think twice about it. If you have children, would you have them doing chores?
That’s one of the reasons that I’ve never wanted to sire children. How much of your mother is in Martha?
My mother was able to do all of the things that Martha talks about. I know how to do all those things that Martha talks about. I know how to sew. I know crochet and knitting. I worked as a cake decorator. I can understand these things. But I don’t understand the overabundance at the expense of joy. When you see Martha doing her work, I don’t see any joy. She promotes a world of constantly doing, doing, doing. I think the mania of the approach of doing, doing, doing is a way for us not to have space. What’s the emotion that is being kept at bay? I think that is one of the reasons we’re in Iraq today — just to keep busy.
Do remember the “perfect mother” shows we grew up on, like “Leave It to Beaver” and even “Lost in Space”?
I never cared for those shows at all. I was more interested in “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched” — ones where women weren’t allowed to use their powers. That always fascinated me. I think that the two most powerful women in the country are Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Like Martha, Oprah deals mainly with the home. In some way she is still the ultimate domestic. And we are her children. Oprah is the mammy who will come and take care of all of our problems.
The iconic image of your performance work is the naked woman smearing foodstuffs on her body — the antithesis of housecleaning and being proper.
That’s really great because on a Freudian level that is a way of making a mess and cleaning it up.
In a perfect performance, you would strip down and smear chocolate sauce on yourself, and Martha Stewart would come out and clean you up.
That’s a nice image.
Did you start out transgressive in the theater?
From the beginning I was able to make a creative connection translating the transgressive that I would see in the outside world, and politically and personally in my social and family life, and make that into art. I had an arts background. I was a nerd growing up. I spent my evenings going to the library. I didn’t go to prom. I didn’t graduate from high school; I graduated from night school because I had to work. My first performances were when I would be sitting next to someone on the train going into Chicago and write them notes. Or I would stage seizures on the street outside of restaurant windows. Then I would do things at school — work with people doing social experiments. I came to New York in December of 1983. I wasn’t established. [Pause.] I’m still trying to establish myself.
I remember hearing about you in ’77.
I performed at the Kitchen that year [an avant-garde theater then in SoHo]. I had been performing in San Francisco. I had made an underground name for myself. I had performed in Europe. I did England and Germany. I was 25 years old. I performed with the Kipper Kids. I had performed at Franklin Furnace [another Manhattan performance piece venue] in the fall of ’83. I got a review in the Village Voice and that was impressive.
What’s the farthest uptown you’ve performed?
Lincoln Center. And the 92nd Street Y. Or Symphony Space.
Were you attacked during the Bush senior years?
I started having problems very early in my career — censorship problems. That escalated to my Supreme Court case that I lost in ’98.
Did you ever meet Hustler publisher Larry Flynt? He once told me about going to the Supreme Court and telling the justices to “fuck themselves.”
I don’t know if that was true. The Supreme Court has numerous monitors who make sure no one in the audience says anything at all. You are not allowed to speak in the Supreme Court. You can’t write. You can’t move. You’re not allowed to stare at the judge to attract attention. They have your attorneys speak and give oral arguments for your case. And then the Supreme Court asks questions just of the attorney. This all happens in a room that is like something from Mount Olympus. You have to climb all these stairs to get there — quite theatrical. Everyone is in robes.
Did you think about packing it up after you lost the case?
I wasn’t prepared that I would have a show at the Whitney and have it be canceled. And I could no longer be produced. I had plenty of publicity, a lot of great reviews. That is not the point. It’s that there is a precedent that my work does not have to be funded. Major institutions work on corporate or public support. I now work in academia. I still have my visual work going on, I still perform outside of America. There are many people who had been in situations like mine and they never recovered. They don’t have an afterlife in their work. Like Lenny Bruce. He suffered badly.
Speaking as your constituency, I never knew the Whitney canceled you after the lawsuit.
The Whitney is run by Leonard A. Lauder. Corporations aren’t going to be affiliated with me. It’s just too risky. I even had work returned from museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco returned one of my sculptures. I had death threats. Since the case, I’ve been really trying to keep a body of work going on that is more political than ever. Intellectually I’m more pointed and more mature, and can see things with more exactness than I did 15 years ago. I think my reflections are now much more exacting and much more analytical and more pivotal. I have to say that is the one thing I got out of that experience. I found out I can use that skill.
I suppose you have also found out who your friends were.
Oh yeah! [Long pause.] I was interested in those who wanted to use me as a cause. Who would get upset when I did something out of the party platform, especially when I posed for Playboy. I was just the cause du jour for some feminists. I was just one of Jerry’s kids. At least I can say there was a process in this country. And that’s why I can take my citizenship seriously. I care about the First Amendment very seriously.
Did the Supreme Court seem like a real functioning body?
I think their decision was predetermined. [Pause.] I’m just speculating.
Well, the Supreme Court voted in Bush in 2000.
Yes. So there is something going on.
So, speaking of the second character in your newest work — George Bush was a boy who never grew up having to clean the house for his mother.
Don’t be so sure. His sister died of leukemia when he was about 8 years old. He had a father who was practically absent, while George Jr. was dealing with a grieving, mourning mother. Little George had to take his father’s place to comfort his mother. It’s been noted that when he was a boy, and other boys came to his house to ask him to go out, he told them, “I can’t. I have to comfort my mother.” Imagine being at that place, being a young boy at 8 or 9. It doesn’t go away. The resentment must be to his father as well, the absent parent not providing the emotional support to George’s mother. I think that George really hates his father. In order to disguise his feelings of patricide, George places it all on Saddam Hussein, who actually had a plot to assassinate his father. Yes, there is oil, and the landscape of Texas looks like Iraq. I think in a way George Bush is bombing himself. I think he’s out to destroy this country.
Do you think George would ever committee adultery (not necessarily with Martha Stewart)?
Emotional adultery, sure. That’s what happened with his mother — the emotional infidelity. When you’re taking on such a thing like that.
I marked a section in your book that I’d like you to read. It’s one of Martha’s monologues. I’d love to hear it in your voice.
[Looks at the section and is about to read it, but stops.] I just don’t think that I can do it. I’m not very good at being a trained seal. I just don’t think I can all of a sudden go in and start being Martha. I wish I didn’t have those limitations. Maybe that’s why I’m not such a good actress.
Have you backed off from theater performances?
No. I did this first as a play. And now I’m doing “The Passion of Terri Schiavo.” This is a passion like the temptations of Christ.
What is your religious background?
I was raised Catholic, but I’m probably four different religions.
Are you practicing any of them?
I think that I am doing spiritual work. How about yourself?
I saw God once when I was in a coma. (I wasn’t as bad off as Terri Schiavo.)
Are you being serious? This is so great.
I was run down by a truck on Jan. 3, 1989. In my coma I met Roy Orbison, who had just died. He was pissed off that he was dead. I told him, ‘Roy, you’re alive, you’re dead, it’s not a big deal.’ Then I met Jesus and he was even more jaded than me. Then I saw the feet of God. [Shudders.] I had nothing more to say about that. I finally woke up and my brain kicked as I was being wheeled through a hospital lobby, where there was a newsstand. It was just after the ’89 inauguration and the Daily News headline was something about “President Bush.” I remember thinking, “We have to take this guy seriously?”
Will you put this in the article? And George Bush is when your mind kicked in … I just want to go back to you with your coma: Did they know you were going to wake up? There are such mixed feelings about these comas. That’s what I have with my Terri Schiavo piece.
But she was brain-dead. They knew I was eventually gonna come around.
How did they get you back?
My wife finally made them stop giving me the drugs they were giving me and I woke up that night.
Sometimes they do it to protect you. I’m so glad you had someone to be your advocate. Terri Schiavo was brain-dead 15 years. In the autopsy they discovered that her brain actually atrophied. That’s what’s so sad.
Well this is where you get into spirituality. My wife says, “I’ve seen you in a coma, David, and you’re not your brain.” I was just reading about a tone-deaf guy who started singing opera after his heart transplant. It turned out the donor had been a singer.
So perhaps the brain is a greater thing than just in the head.
Do you believe in the soul?
I definitely do. I do believe in probably the unconscious being part of the conscious. And different realities going on at the same time.
Sometimes I think the ancients invented the soul because they didn’t know they had an unconscious. They mistook their dreams for something divine.
I think the soul is something that goes beyond our own understanding. I think the soul is meaning. It’s where being alive makes sense.
Will the soul be judged?
Let’s not forget that George Bush has a soul.
Yes, George Bush has a soul. I think … That’s for him — that he has to know. [Long pause.] I hope that he’s going to hell.