In 1990, as the culture wars that had already maimed Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz (not, as recent events at the National Portrait Gallery made clear, for the last time) were hitting a fevered crescendo, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts vetoed four performance grants. One of the nixed awards was for Karen Finley, a New York–based performance artist whose works often involved nudity and foodstuffs in dynamic interaction. She and her fellow refuseniks sued, finally losing in the Supreme Court in 1998.
But before Finley was the face of "obscene" taxpayer-funded art, a righteous victim of state censorship or a purveyor of filth and scum, she was an arresting performer who took the stage at East Village clubs after midnight and regaled partiers with careening screeds that ski-slalomed through stomach-turning sexual abjection to explore and explode the abuse of women and the emotional sterility of the moneyed classes. Many of these works ventriloquized men relating sexual acts against—never with—women, acts that were sometimes cartoonish in their brutality (in one of her most notorious pieces, about an addict abusing his grandmother on Thanksgiving, Finley smeared canned yams on her own ass). Other works turned the tables of objectification, imagining, for instance, theme parties where instead of men watching a woman jump out of a birthday cake, women would humiliate men by making them take out the garbage while naked. She excelled at amplifying hateful dynamics until they crossed over from representing specific characters or scenarios to speaking of whole systems of power.
Once the right wing had her in its sights, Finley's counterattacks became more pointedly political, calling out her adversaries by name (Jesse Helms, George H. W. Bush) to mirror their zeroing in on her. The rage and revenge animating these Delphic rants, these performances of unhinged female excess in the face of patriarchal extremism, provided catharsis for audiences who often felt required to sublimate such emotions—at best channeling them into the regimented chants and rituals of activist groups like ACT UP and WHAM. Her texts of the late '80s, many of which are collected in the extraordinary 1990 volume Shock Treatment, remain intensely moving to this day: As any Medea knows, there's something timeless about pure anger.
In The Reality Shows, a new collection of Finley's works from 2001–10, a ticker tape of news headlines from the last decade runs unceasingly through the book, a hot-pink timeline at the bottom of each page suggesting that these pieces depend on their historical context in order to be properly read. Scholars of performance and die-hard Finley fans will immediately welcome this volume, which collects six performance texts along with a small book and a series of installations; but for the rest of us it may be arriving both too late—since a piece about Terri Schiavo, for instance, is no longer "timely"—and too soon. If trauma is as definitive as Finley and her psychoanalytic angels (Freud, Jung, indistinct pop-psych) suggest, it is likely that we—to borrow the national, communal "we" Finley favors—are not ready to revisit the fractious times that gave rise to these performances, which address such Bush II–era topics as 9/11, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the fall of Eliot Spitzer. (The book mistakenly places Spitzer's resignation during Obama's term rather than Bush's; perhaps Finley is reluctant to be neatly bound by the rule of George W. Bush, whose father's presidency gave rise to her ordeal.)
Being targeted in the culture wars took Finley, she has written, "from portraying [a victim] in my work to really becoming one." She most memorably encapsulated that period by describing it, in a 1998 piece titled "The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman," as an "eight-year, sexually abusive relationship with Jesse Helms." In boiling down a broad cultural struggle to a single interpersonal (and sexual) dynamic—perhaps in order to find some relief—this designation presaged much of the work collected in the present volume: renderings of political dramas and personalities through a lens of psychology and psychoanalysis.
This is quite a reversal from the 1970s, when the women's liberation movement worked to contextualize personal challenges as outgrowths of political forces, mistrusting the language of psychology as too liable to cast a woman's dissatisfaction as being all in her head. Yet psychology sets the terms of The Reality Shows: Laura Bush records her dreams in a journal; the Spitzers go to couples therapy (Eliot dreams of a naked mole rat); Martha Stewart, horny and out for blood, administers a hectoring psychobabble rant to a blubbering George W. Bush, and then finds Osama bin Laden hiding in the president's asshole. This love affair with the psyche can get sloppy—"Do I have to love your death instinct?" Martha screeches at George, incomprehensibly—but whereas the pure fury of the early works drew strength from their lack of a coherent case, here the vagueness often clouds the point.
And the point is compelling. What the psychoanalytic frame—and especially Finley's encounters with Jung—contributes to these works is that aforementioned we, her impassioned groping toward a national first-person plural. During the ferociously polarized Bush years, when jokes about coastal secession betrayed the sincere pain of the irreparably outcast, Finley's implication that the enemies of the cultural left were just other parts of a wounded national body was visionary in its broad-minded compassion. For an artist so battle-scarred by the culture wars, peace had to be given a chance, perhaps, if only because the alternatives had become too damaging.
Finley has insisted in interviews that exploring politicians' psychology is not the same thing as excusing or forgiving them for their actions, but the link between explication and empathy is a difficult one to sever, as these works bear out. And this is why The Reality Shows may not find its optimal reception for a few years yet. We—the Finleyan "we"—have lately seen the bitter fruits of a conciliatory attitude in politics, as efforts at appeasement (abortion excluded from the health care bill; public-sector union givebacks) slide into greater defeats (the defunding of Title X and Planned Parenthood; Wisconsin). When we have more distance from the current political situation, we may be more willing to entertain a curiosity about the frail humanity of controversial public figures. But for now, as usual, Finley is ahead of her time.
Sara Marcus is the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (Harper Perennial, 2010).