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Artist Karen Finley reflects on sexism, 25th anniversary of 'Shock Treatment'

Author Karen Finley.
Author Karen Finley.(Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

The always provocative performance artist Karen Finley comes to Baltimore on Jan. 27 to read from the 25th anniversary edition of her best-known book, "Shock Treatment." Finley was notorious for smearing her nude body with chocolate during performances.

She became one of "The NEA Four" whose federal grants were rescinded in 1990 after former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms attacked their artwork as obscene. The artists fought the National Endowment of the Arts' decency clause all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost.

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Can you describe your presentation?

I'll do dramatic readings from the book, including a new poem that I wrote for the 25th edition. I'll talk about why these writings from a quarter-century ago are still relevant today. And, I'll take questions from the audience.

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No nudity, no chocolate, no honey and no yams?

I'm not doing any of that in Baltimore. After 9/11 and after NEA controversy, I found that I couldn't perform anymore as Karen Finley. People felt they knew me. In their minds, I became the chocolate-smeared woman, the heathen, the sexually uncensored woman or the victim.

I was a woman who was speaking from a place of authority, and that triggered a lot of hostility in the audience. I started performing through the voices of famous characters: Liza Minnelli, Martha Stewart, Laura Bush and Jackie Kennedy.

What are your feelings now about the NEA denying you the grant and the uproar that followed?

It was a privilege to be able to speak out. I was given a space to speak, and I was listened to. My whiteness, my education, the way I present myself, my background growing up in Evanston [an upper-middle-class Chicago suburb], gave me status. Many people aren't even given the visibility that would allow them to be censored. I was aware of that then, and I'm even more aware of it now.

One of the things about America that I respect and honor is the First Amendment. I had censorship problems in England, which doesn't have a First Amendment. When I was censored there, I didn't even have legal standing to fight.

How have things changed since "Shock Treatment" was published in 1990?

I see progress in women's rights and gay rights, especially with gay marriage. Some people of color have gotten more power. In terms of ending war, we just had the Iran deal, and that was achieved through diplomacy. But you still see so much corruption and destruction and police violence. I have family members who have issues with mental illness. When you're white and college-educated and mentally ill and the police are called, they'll subdue you and bring you to the hospital. If my family members been black, they might not be here anymore. That's the world we live in.

What's your response to the death of Freddie Gray and subsequent unrest?

I've been struck by all the individual private citizens who have been speaking out via social media. Ordinary people have been taking on artistic citizenship. There's a shift from the individual voice to the collective voice that's gone on during this public uprising that's been very powerful and very moving to me.

What are you working on now?

I'm interested in the privileged spaces visited by people who own yoga mats and listen to NPR, places like Whole Foods and Yogi Dairy. I'm also ridiculing myself. One feels that these places are so sacred and good and spiritual, but really they're places of masked aggression. There's also an underlying misogyny, because they are places you go to be submissive and to work on yourself. You're never good enough the way you are.

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I'm also interested in looking at the current pope. If you're a woman or gay, the Catholic Church is an oppressive place. Everyone loves Pope Francis so much and thinks he's so wonderful, but I just don't buy it.

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