by Steve Desroches
Karen Finley captures rage and grace with a resonance that registers on the Richter scale. The artist and writer is perhaps best known as one of the NEA Four and from the free speech debates of the early 1990s. But as time has passed Finley’s work once again has risen to prominence over the headlines and sound bytes of the times, most notably her landmark book Shock Treatment, which Finley will be reading from this week at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
First published in 1990, Shock Treatment came out in the middle of the most ferocious battle of the larger Culture Wars. In the expanded 25th anniversary edition Finley’s new introduction provides reflection on the time since those days of anger, fear, and hurt during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the government’s indifference, and the conservative crack down on a variety of those they considered undesirable, or even dangerous. She is the namesake of the Supreme Court case National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, which she filed along with Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck, after their grants were rescinded and their work labeled indecent, in particular by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.
“It is such an intimate process and at the same time provides distance,” says Finley on reflecting on Shock Treatment 25 years later. “You are that person, but you’re not that person anymore because of time. There’s that disconnect. What was riveting for me is that the work felt very prophetic, but also its strength. It’s so strong, and much more so considering where we are today.”
When living history in real time each event seems earth-shattering, but as time passes, we see that historic periods of change in thought, politics, and art tend to be much longer than the average human life span. Finley’s extraordinary experiences in an equally thrilling body of work provide her with an observational perch not reached by many artists and thinkers in our culture. Whether it be through her writing or performance art, Finley dissects American culture with a visceral intensity that slices through the fascia of our collective experiences presenting one of the most important roles of the artist in society—creating and providing meaning.
While her work may be provocative, the political often enters through the reactions to it rather than from within. As an observer and thoughtful participant, Finley creates work that resonates with academia, the art world, within the Beltway, a controversy-hungry media, and with a variety of social movements. But to have the experience of defending the most fundamental ingredient of art —free thought and expression—and to have those thoughts called dangerous or obscene by people with enormous power is a life changing experience. It’s a thrilling and frightening thing to be a cultural touchstone representing millions of people’s hopes, and in some cases fears.
“I think what was cool about the event was the opportunity and the privilege to participate in the system, and that’s important,” says Finley. “ Looking back it was traumatic. There were difficulties. We were dedicated to using our citizenship to participate in the system. We won by losing. The reflection is I’m glad we went there and in other ways, we sacrificed a lot.”
However, Finley also says that as a white, straight female she held a certain amount of privilege, something she didn’t then and still doesn’t take for granted. Many artists and writers aren’t given such a platform for a variety of reasons. Censorship comes in a variety of social forms, often beginning with who is granted a platform to speak, or create, something she says often goes to white, straight people, usually men. A free society allows free expression not just under the law, but in social customs and culture.
As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Significant changes have come to America and some of the battles of the culture wars seem to have shifted, with marriage equality and a trajectory toward the legalization of marijuana. But of course much remains to be done, and with any amount of progress can come a backlash. It feels as if a cultural Ouija board resurrected the hateful demons of the days of Jesse Helms, even though the truth is they’re always floating around finding a home whenever fear and hysteria replace compassion and reason.
“American policy and politics now is shock treatment,” says Finley. “Trump’s rhetoric is the same as when they said people with AIDS should be put in camps, that they should be isolated. Those are the same kind of ideas we are getting now with his talk about walls, deportations, and a ban on Muslims. It’s hate-mongering.”
It has been at least a decade since Finley has been to Provincetown, a place she, as an artist, has many connections to, including a significant performance piece at Town Hall in 1996. Her impact and work in general and in town landed her on the cover of Provincetown Arts, the town’s artistic yearbook and record, in 1997. Whenever Finley comes to Provincetown she leaves a distinct impression on the life of the art colony, which is why her upcoming reading at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum carries so much anticipation.
“Provincetown; I carry it with me,” says Finley. “You’re on this small strip of land. The light. The water. Just even the shape of the small strip of land. The journey driving along the Cape getting there. It is psychologically fascinating. It’s an experience that shows the possibilities.”
Karen Finley reads from Shock Treatment at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St. on Tuesday, September 6 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are available at the door and online at paam.org. For more information call 508.487.1750.