No stranger to media storms herself, Karen Finley has come to examine the subconscious lives of public figures such as George Bush, Martha Stewart, Eliot Spitzer, and Liza Minnelli. It’s a reversal of her early work, where invisibility is given voice. Catch her point-blank rage in a 1988 Mondo New York clip seen on YouTube. There, a character’s tormenting screech recalls a life where “nothing happened.” In a sometimes devilish interview during the same period called Pranks!—also on YouTube—Finley explains that like everyone else in the lower and lower-middle classes, she is left with only language to defend herself. She’s pissed off at “people, who because of political class, control me.”
It was a prophetic pronouncement. C. Carr, in a June 24, 1986 Village Voice cover story, put Finley on the cultural map, tossing her the keys to the avant-garde. Four years later, Senator Jesse Helms, intent on her walk of shame (shared with three other miscreant artists, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller–collectively known as the NEA Four), gave her the nation’s front pages, finding her merely obscene. What a surprise to all the silly East Villagers, still waking up from punk-rock stupors, Club ODs, or AIDS, who had come to believe she was an artist.
Conservatives, of course, had every right to want to light Karen Finley on fire. Her work was subversive—not to America’s underlying principles, but to its domestic life; she was exactly the wrong person to have common workers and corporate elites identifying with (if they didn’t know better–and if they ever saw her in the small venues she played). To take the Constitution at its word–and say what you felt compelled to say, not only what the country’s power structures would approve–what temerity! She spoke, in your face, of rapes, incest, prostitution, elder abuse, and, famously, replaced chocolate for feces in a performance piece inspired by Tawana Brawley (a young girl who had accused police of brutality). To this day, Finley will still break the fourth wall to rip, most recently, Sarah Palin, for advocating the helicopter slaughter of polar bears in Alaska. In a new show on Eliot Spitzer, Impulse to Suck, Finley suggests sex work be taught in the Ivy League. Helms, in his grave, is rolling over and over.
Make Love, Finley’s 9/11 tribute given a 2008 touch-up (it was originally performed in 2003), has Liza Minnelli tramping around among a slob taxi driver and homogenous art committee, dragging the booze with her. Wearing a beaded cabaret dress and a bad wig, she’s irked that her Bob Mackie must be shared by a doppelgänger: All New York artists are the Oscar-winning actress in the play, and the stage is littered with all aspects of Liza—most in drag. It’s true that on 9/11 New Yorkers were celebrities in need of a very big comeback, again. Liza notes, though–ever wardrobe-conscious–that the real fashion incongruities around her are the camouflage pants worn by soldiers in Grand Central.
Liza travels upstate to throw back a few drinks with friends, worn down enough to tell bin Laden jokes all night. She takes an airline flight where she’s felt up by airport staff, trying to get through check-in; tourists go home Mchappy after scoring a trove of Twin Tower salt-and-pepper shakers. At her destination, in a flyover state–where the arts for the city are housed on a single floor– she finally lets loose on her hosts, "No, I don’t want to get to know you; no, I don’t want to meet you."
Finley is angry at the emotionally thoughtless and the fake–not at authentic feeling. She recalls how nice everyone in New York tried to be to one another right after 9/11, but wants things to be all “fucked up” again, just like normal. When she detects an absence of humanity, get ready. That’s when Finley will gross you out: chocolate and yams, bean sprouts and broken eggs, baked beans and glitter.
As she recites poetry about the rubble and hell-stink of the day, we can hardly be reminded of it. Our greatest wish has come true, we have moved beyond the horror and are past the numbness. Too impatient to listen, the Lizas dance to and play “Optimistic Voices” from The Wizard of Oz. Later, however, insisting on going further, Finley tries to re-feel those hours, not as part of a commercial enterprise, night’s entertainment, or even as Liza Minnelli. Coming to herself, she rejects the notion of making the night sadder or more dramatic. Even for herself, the art of Karen Finley is about going down on getting human.
(Make Love is available at http://karenfinley.com/ on a 2004 DVD called Karen Finley Live.)