March is Women’s History Month, the perfect time to highlight the work of Karen Finley, a world-renowned performance artist, author, and playwright whose work has addressed issues such as sexuality, abuse, and American politics from an uncompromising feminist perspective.
Finley came to national attention when her 1990 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was vetoed, along those of three other artists, because the content of her work was considered inappropriate. The artists sued and ultimately lost a Supreme Court appeal, but Finley was not deterred. As her struggles with the NEA were already in full swing in 1990, Franklin Furnace—in a bold move, as the organization itself was partly funded by the NEA—presented her installation, A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much.
“With drawings and stories painted directly on the walls, Finley creates a straight-from-the-gut reaction to the current repressive political climate and the latest attempts to curtail women’s rights,” read the press release. “Straight from the gut” indeed. The installation includes wall drawings listing (and illustrating) which qualities men don’t like in women and which they do; the inner thoughts of violated women; the unappreciated careers of women; and a display case of sexist books, some with real covers annotated by the artist, and others entirely of her own invention.
While much of A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much is shocking, its aim requires it. It would be difficult to better Michael Berenson’s description of Finley’s work in his review of the show in the New York Times:
Ms. Finley’s work is angry and direct, and it can be loud. Since its purpose is to get at unspoken assumptions and desires that control to some degree the way people act and feel, it has to be beyond inhibition. There is rage in it, but no nihilism or hate.
Despite Ms. Finley’s nudity in performances and her graphic language, her work is vehemently opposed to obscenity and pornography. Everything in this show is directed toward insuring that women will be perceived as real flesh and blood rather than merely objects of male desire.
All her work carries within it the knowledge of an adult and the hope of a child. The tone is not ”let’s get even and rip the system to pieces,” but rather ”why on earth in a world that sanctions racism, sexism and homophobia can’t we be better and more human than we are?”
Search the ARTstor Digital Library for A Woman’s Life Isn’t Worth Much to find dozens of images from the exhibition, or for Karen Finley to see more of her controversial work from the Franklin Furnace Archives.
You may also be interested in 35 Years of Ephemeral Art: Martha Wilson on Franklin Furnace and Ten Questions for Judy Chicago.