A year ago, I’m embarrassed to admit, I had no idea who Karen Finley was; last March, I was in this room when I found out. I haven’t been the same since. Really. Karen read “The Passion of Terri Schaivo.” Her performance broke down the walls between fiction and reality, poetry and performance, political conviction, and personal desire. As soon as Karen finished, I ran to the back of the arts café and bought her book The Reality Shows. Milling about the reception I tried to think of something intelligent to say to Karen Finley…and couldn’t. What could I say to her? How could I possibly respond to what I had just seen? Her performance left me thinking about the political implications of the body, female victimhood, and how contemporary culture exploits that victimization. Now, I get the rare opportunity for a second chance.
I now know that all of Karen’s work asks the questions that I had been personally trying to articulate for years. To say that my feminism has now been inspired, shaped, molded by Karen would be an understatement. Her performances about gender, power, and violence remind me why it is necessary to stay angry. Why it is necessary to check your privilege. Why it is necessary to understand the ways intersecting hierarchies of power affect every aspect of American Life.
It is in this regard that I think Karen is truly remarkable. She does not simply include Feminist critiques in her performances; that would be too easy. Karen embodies the oppressor, she embodies the oppressed, she embodies the political structures that that cause these types of relationships to occur. By inhabiting these structures she eviscerates them.
When I first saw Karen perform I was uncomfortable. I’m glad I was, and I hope that tonight, you will be too. It is in our discomfort that we find its meaning. Karen gets inside of us and finds our taboos only to expose them. She seeks to liberate all of us from our own cultural repression. In the words of Karen herself, “Art as transgression, or any transgressive act, becomes a Rorschach test for the culture it comes out of. …It looks head-on at unresolved hostilities, humiliations, traumas. It offers catharsis – and you could say that it’s only in the aftermath of catharsis that healing is possible.”
Karen provides her audiences and herself this type of catharsis again and again. Whether it was the devastation of her own father’s suicide, the trauma of sexual violence, the national shock of 9/11, or the collective mourning of the AIDS Epidemic, she has provided has provided us with an outlet for our emotions. She uses her own body, sometimes left literally bare for us, to project our pain and our suffering. When her body could no longer hold that trauma, when her persona got in the way of this healing mission, as it did after 9/11, she turned to figures of our national imagination to do the work.
After spending the last month reading and arguing about and really inhabiting the works of Ms. Finley, we in the Writers House Fellows Seminar have come to realize how truly complex and essential her work is. Whether discussing Finley’s brilliant treatment of national trauma present in The Reality Shows, or arguing about the role of performativity in her career and life, we have experienced studying Karen’s work as an absolute intellectual pleasure. As a young queer man with a passion for the arts, I am reminded by Karen that social change never comes easy, that the power to shock can be an eloquent expression of agency, and that performance has the radical potential to implode oppressive dynamics of power. Karen Finley has been called “pornographer,” “activist”, “woman of the year”, and “chocolate-smeared woman.” Perhaps she is all of them. Perhaps she is none of them. Karen’s life and career has shown me the necessity of self-definition, of not letting anyone tell you what your life is or how it should be performed.
This is a lesson I hope all of us will take to heart tonight. It is a great honor for me to introduce the first 2012 Kelly Writers House Fellow, Karen Finley.