Karen Finley life and biography

Karen Finley picture, image, poster

Karen Finley biography

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Chicago, Illinois, USA
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-07-27
Credited as : Artist and painter, one of the NEA Four artists, writer

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Karen Finley, born 1956, Evanston, Illinois is an American performance artist, painter, installation artist whose theatrical pieces and recordings have often been labelled "obscene" due to their graphic depictions of sexuality, abuse, and disenfranchisement. She was notably one of the NEA Four, four performance artists whose grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were vetoed in 1990 by John Frohnmayer after the process was condemned by Senator Jesse Helms under "decency" issues.


Karen Finley is a painter, sculptor, performance artist, and writer who is best known as one of the "N.E.A. Four", a group of theatrical artists who were denied funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 after their works were criticized as pornographic by influential conservative media commentators. Finley herself was singled out by critics Rowland Evans and Robert Novak; reviewing her 1990 performance of We Keep Our Victims Ready in the Washington Post, Evans and Novak dubbed her "a nude, chocolate-smeared young woman." In the second act of her show, Finley did indeed coat her naked body with chocolate and cover herself with alfalfa sprouts and other items while delivering an emotionally charged diatribe on such topics as rape, poverty, suicide, incest, female exploitation, and homophobia. Finley and the other artists brought a lawsuit against the government, but after a courtroom battle lasting several years, the decision against them was upheld.

Reaction to Finley's stage presentations has run the gamut between defending the artist's feminist stance and condemning her radical posturing as "obscene." Marcelle Clements, who interviewed Finley for the New York Times shortly after the artist's N.E.A. funding was denied, declared that "Finley does on stage and in public what many of the bravest performers practice only as exercises in the relative safety and privacy of acting classes. Her work is nearly always shocking and invariably . . . political. It is also sometimes humorous and often fearsome. Her beat is the intolerable." However, Laura Jacobs took exception to Finley's performance in the New Leader, noting the actress's "sledgehammer polemics" and stating that Finley "never moves beyond confrontational complaint. . . . Victims is not obscene. It is simply loud and dogmatic, with a striking, inflammatory gimmick."

In late 1990 Finley published Shock Treatment, which includes the texts of two of her performance pieces along with writings not intended for the stage. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly noted that the book "boldly crosses the border between the political and the profane at a time when that region is in hot dispute." Tom Hall, assessing Shock Treatment for the San Francisco Review of Books, declared, "There is a great ugly humor here that must be uplifting and life-affirming for victims of our male-oriented society."

In 1998, Finley launched another unusual venture: a telephone service called 1-900-ALL-KAREN. For six months, those who were willing to pay the small charge for the phone call could hear a new message every day from the artist. While many reviews of the project found it less than compelling, it was yet another manifestation of Finley's willingness to try unusual venues.

In her show titled The American Chestnut, Finley presented a series of monologues, videos, and other images, including a film of herself squeezing her breast milk onto black paper; during the projection of this, she talked about Jackson Pollock, famous for his technique of spattering canvases with paint. "The escapade is consummate Finley: perverse, rhetorical, eye-catching and dissonant," reported Laurie Stone in Nation. Another video showed her proceeding naked through an art gallery, comparing her post-pregnancy figure with sculptures by Degas and other masters. Commenting on Finley's use of her body, Stone wrote, "Part of her power to disrupt and frustrate comes from the fact that she's beautiful yet doesn't use her allure to comfort, please or reassure. . . . She doesn't beg for love or acceptance, and in some circles that is like asking to be shot." Stone acknowledged that some of Finley's material seemed routine and tiresome, but noted that even these sections "still scratch against doors shut in every mind against memories of threat and defeat." Finley's art lets "unspoken and difficult-to-articulate secrets out of closets," concluded Stone, and in American Chestnut, she "dismantles borders separating grieving and celebrating. She welcomes life with as much brio as she registers loss, accommodating the nearness of pleasure and pain, and finding it both sad and hilarious that so much can't be controlled."

Finley reprised some of her groundbreaking work in the 1998 performance "The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman." John Leo, a reviewer for U.S. News & World Report, found the show "badly dated" and tiresome. "If new material has been added since her first chocolate-smeared headlines, it's not really apparent. Complaining about male perfidy may have been the frontier in 1990, but women have moved on and upward," he asserted. Yet a contributor to Revolutionary Worker praised the show for presenting "suffering and defiance" that is "at once painful, life-affirming, and funny." Commenting on Finley's body of work in a review of A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley, a Publishers Weekly writer claimed: "Her direct imagery has forced her audience to look at the hopelessness of the disenfranchised, . . . and the heartbreaking self-betrayal in a victim's own sense of shame."

In an interview for Revolutionary Worker, Finley mused: "When there's something to speak up and do something about, when you have that opportunity, you have to do it. It's a soul thing. It's something that's spiritual actually. For me, it's like god or nature, it's in that kind of sense, making the best of your talents for other human beings, doing the best you can provide for them. It's actually a spiritual journey, when you realize that you've been given that opportunity, you have that thing, you do that, you have to make that effort."


Family: Born 1956, in Evanston, IL; daughter of an appliance salesman and a civil rights activist; married Brian Routh (a performance artist; divorced); married Michael Overn (a theatrical manager); children: Violet Marie. Education: San Francisco Art Institute. Religion: Roman Catholic. Addresses: Home: Nyack, NY. Agent: c/o Author Mail, Thunder's Mouth Press, 161 Williams, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10038.


New York Dance and Performance Award, 1987, for The Constant State of Desire; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1991; Guggenheim fellowship, 1993.


Performance artist in New York, NY and elsewhere since the 1980s. Visual artist; has exhibited paintings, sculptures, and other installations. Sound recordings have included Jump in the River and Never Get Old (with Sinead O'Connor), Chrysalis, 1988.


* (And illustrator) Shock Treatment, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1990.
* (And illustrator) Enough Is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally (aphorisms), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1993.
* A Certain Level of Denial, illustrated by husband, Michael Overn, Rykodisc (Salem, MA), 1994.
* Living It Up: Adventures in Hyperdomesticity, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
* A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2000.
* (Editor) Aroused: A Collection of Erotic Writing, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2001.
* (And director) George and Martha, Collective:Unconscious Performance Space (New York, NY), 2004.

Also author of performance pieces The Constant State of Desire, 1987; We Keep Our Victims Ready, 1990; A Certain Level of Denial, 1992; The American Chestnut, 1997; and The Return of the Chocolate-smeared Woman, 1998.

A book of "X-rated drawings of Winnie-the-Pooh"; a feminist pulp fiction story; performances on the Irish famine.

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