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Karen Finley (b. 1956, Evanston, Illinois) is a controversial American performance 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 after the process was condemned by Senator Jesse Helms under "decency" issues.
Having received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, Finley procured her first NEA grant and moved to New York City. She quickly became part of the city's art scene, collaborating with artists such as the Kipper Kids (Brian Routh — whom she married/divorced — and Martin von Haselberg) and David Wojnarowicz.
Finley's early recordings featured her ranting crass monologues over disco beats (and she would often perform her songs late night at the famed club Danceteria, where she worked). These recordings include the singles "Tales of Taboo" from 1986 and "Lick It" from 1988 (both produced by Madonna collaborator Mark Kamins) plus the 1988 album, The Truth Is Hard To Swallow (re-released on CD, with a slightly different track listing, as Fear Of Living in 1994; in conjunction with the re-release, both "Tales Of Taboo" and "Lick It" appeared on 12-inch again with new remixes by Super DJ Dmitry, Junior Vasquez, and other DJs of note). She also made a guest appearance on a remix of Sinéad O'Connor's "Jump in the River," and was prominently sampled by S'Express on the classic dance floor cut-up, "Theme from S'Express" (her "Drop that ghetto blaster/suck me off" vocal - sampled from "Tales of Taboo" - formed something of a chorus in the song).
In 1994, she released a double-disc set on the Rykodisc label, A Certain Level of Denial, a studio version of the performance piece. Following that piece came The Return of the Chocolate-smeared Woman, her performance rebuttal to Helms and the NEA controversy. Around 1998, Finley was delighted by the fact that she appeared in Playboy and received a Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year award within months of each other. She was also featured in TIME during this period, though she felt that the magazine misrepresented her by "eroticizing" works (such as one that addressed rape) based on her nudity alone; in other words, that they couldn't absorb any information beyond her naked body.
Among Finley's books are Shock Treatment, Enough is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally, the Martha Stewart satire Living it Up: Humorous Adventures in Hyperdomesticity, Pooh Unplugged (detailing the eating and psychological disorders of Winnie the Pooh and his friends), and A Different Kind of Intimacy - the latter a collection of her works. Her poem "The Black Sheep" is among her best-known works, and has been immortalized on a sculpture in New York City.
She has also created gallery installations that include together decorated walls, inscriptions, manufactured libraries of imaginary books, mock documents and objects associated with real and imagined persons. Her visual art is represented by Alexander Gray Associates, a contemporary art gallery in New York.
The Karen Finley Live DVD (2004) compiles performances of Shut Up and Love Me and Make Love. Finley also played a doctor in the movie Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks. Finley will revive a slightly updated version of "Make Love" in September 2006 at the Cutting Room in New York to commemorate the fifth anniversary of 9/11.
Finley's father committed suicide in 1979, a subject that frequently came up in her work.
Finley is the recipient of both an Obie Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship for The American Chestnut, and was chosen as Coagula Magazine's Artist of the Decade as the 90's came to a close. She currently teaches writing workshops for both teens and adults at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and has been a frequent guest on Politically Incorrect.
 References and Footnotes
- ^ The title refers to a small section of We Keep Our Victims Ready.
- ^ Pooh also informed her decision to use large amounts of honey in Shut Up and Love Me.