New York-based Karen Finley
is best known for her controversial performance art career, but she has exercised her talents in virtually every creative medium, publishing several books of prose and poetry, displaying collections of visual art, acting in several films, and recording albums of poetic musings with dance-based backing tracks. Born in 1956, Finley
grew up in Evanston, Illinois, near Northwestern University, and the political upheavals in Chicago in the late '60s provided the backdrop for her formative experiences. Always interested in performance, Finley
entered the medium seriously in 1979 to deal with the grief surrounding her father's suicide the previous year. After receiving her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1982, Finley
landed her first NEA grant the following year, which allowed her to move to New York.
Her performance work, all self-authored, was mainly centered around the oppression of women and resultant feelings of rage and self-loathing, but also addressed sexual repression, domestic abuse, homosexuality, and other taboo subjects. It was confrontational, provocative, often scatological, and left no room for neutrality.Finley
recorded her first album in 1988, setting her Beat-influenced poetry to a variety of dance backings on The Truth Is Hard to Swallow
. Soon afterwards, she became a highly visible symbol of Congress' efforts to deny NEA grants to potentially offensive material, as Senator Jesse Helms blasted Finley
in 1990 for a piece in which she smeared chocolate over her nude body. When the NEA refused her application for a grant because of the content of her work, she and three other similarly affected artists sued; a federal district court declared the so-called "standards of decency" provision unconstitutional in 1992, a decision upheld four years later by the Circuit Court of Appeals.
In the meantime, Finley
began to broaden her career, playing Tom Hanks' doctor in the film Philadelphia
and authoring several books, which include Shock Treatment
(1991), the self-help satire Enough Is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally (1993), the Martha Stewart satire Living It Up: Humorous Adventures in Hyperdomesticity (1996), and Shut Up and Love Me (1998). Finley
has also continued to record, with Rykodisc issuing a performance of her work A Certain Level of Denial
in 1994, as well as the live album Fear of Living
on the Pow Wow label later in the year.