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Karen Finley Talks About Eliot Spitzer & the Cult of Apology

Who's Sorry Now?

It must be at least a bit satisfying for Karen Finley to have so many politicians apologizing. About sex. At the very least, it has provided her with a treasure trove of source material.

Her current work-in-progress, which she will present at Hallwalls next week, looks at then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s fall from grace, and in particular at his apology. Even in an environment rife with sexually misbehaving politicians, his transgression stood out, as did the tortured apologia he offered while standing next to First Lady Silda Spitzer.

Finley is probably most famous for her role in an early 1990s National Endowment for the Arts lawsuit. Her grant from the NEA, along with those of three others, was denied, a judgment that stemmed from claims about the obscenity of her work. Senator Jesse Helms served as ringleader of the accusers, objecting in particular to a piece in which a nude Finley smeared herself in chocolate as a commentary on women’s degradation, as highlighted in the Tawana Brawley case, in which a 15-year-old African-American girl was found naked, smeared with feces.

Though Finley had to fight for restoration of her NEA grant, other awards have been showered on her over the years. These include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Obie Awards, and Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year. Finley teaches at the Hudson Valley Writer’s Center and also art and public policy at New York University, and performs internationally.

Perhaps in honor of Eliot and Silda Spitzer, Finley aims to pull off an Empire State Tour: She’ll be in Buffalo at Hallwalls, 341 Delaware Avenue (854-1694/ on June 25 and 26, at 8pm.

Karen Finley

Artvoice: So, what can you tell us about your upcoming show, “Impulse to Suck”?

Karen Finley: I’ll give a little bit of the background first about selecting this narrative to create from a political narrative. I went to Albany to attend a family advocacy conference, an annual conference where different sexual health, reproductive health, women’s health, and also teen health and family planning groups meet. On this particular day there was going to be lobbying for the Healthy Teens Act [which provides for sex education in the schools]. I was going to lobby people. So we’re waiting for Spitzer to address us, and he did not show up, because it was on the day, March 10th, that the scandal broke. [Then-Lieutenant Governor] Paterson was on the bill as well, so he spoke in place of Spitzer.

AV: Were the politicians there just astonished?

KF: Well, I could tell that there was something a little wrong…and the reason why is because many of the publicity people were not there. And some of the legislators who were in the audience were all of a sudden getting called away. I just thought it was curious, and I remember I thought, “This isn’t fair; you’d think that this would be more attended.” And some people were complaining, “Why does Spitzer now have another arrangement? This was supposed to be such a big deal.” They seemed to be filling time.

And Paterson gave such a moving speech, that seemed to be beyond the stretch—it was a stretch beyond family planning. I was so moved I cried at the speech. At the table we were just looking at each other because it was very powerful. It felt like an acceptance speech, or something of that magnitude—you know at a convention, that kind of a feeling? I actually did say to the table, “I hope he’s our next governor.”

AV: Oh, really?

KF: It was just so strange: seeing it on television, going and trying to meet with the lobbyists…and I also was angry because our bill couldn’t pass. All that energy. It seemed [like] a collective unconscious connection, that it would break on that day. Then watching it on television, just watching the apology. I started looking at the performance of the apology.

AV: We’ve had a lot of them lately.

KF: Yes. Looking at the dramatic narrative that we were all participating in, that’s when I started looking at the newspapers, the media-selected outtake of his apology. I was just staring at the frown. At least in New York, the New York Post, the New York Times all selected this grimace, this very peculiar frown where he’s sucking in, almost, his mouth. And so as an artist, being visual, I just started drawing his face and concentrating: What was that speaking to me, since so much of our media now is visual? What is that expressing? What are the media selecting collectively for us to look at?

Part of my art researcher practice is I look at images. Think of Andy Warhol: We look at the study of the portrait, and that image of the portrait that we’re given, the face. And so I started doing drawings, because I was so fascinated that all the papers were selecting certain angles or fixated on certain areas of the story, or the visual story. I was fascinated by the selected itemization, or recall…one item that was repeatedly identified was the fact that Eliot kept his socks on. The New York Times reported that detail. I started drawing the black socks.

AV: And there was that duo, him and Silda, standing there…

KF: Yes…Silda and the apology. The costume that she selects, all the women select for apologies. They always wear this certain kind of like a cornflower blue. Or a dark blue; it’s always a blue. And I just started to think it’s almost like the Virgin Mary; it’s a very curious choice.

AV: A pure color.

KF: I started writing the imagined longing or the imagined story of us. That becomes erotic or becomes a participation in it, too, when we’re all thinking about the woman, the prostitute, actually.

I realized that there was a performative element in this, you know, that there was a story in this. And I decided to call up Hallwalls, because I have a history of doing work in Buffalo. But another reason is because it’s like the Empire Tour. And one reason I’m going there is research: Spitzer was in Buffalo on February 13th before he went to the Mayflower Hotel, before Washington.

AV: Really.

KF: That’s what I said: “Really?” So I want to go to Buffalo, to be looking at Buffalo and thinking about Buffalo—that Buffalo kind of was his foreplay to Washington.

AV: That’s great. Buffalo is seldom in a position of being foreplay.

KF: Yes! Like being in Buffalo, then he had to have the edge taken off afterwards. You know, what was that stress? He came to Buffalo to speak and I just find how he includes Buffalo in this transgression …I’m not thinking of this so much in a moral way, but just in terms of the publicness of the fall.

AV: What is the relationship between his apology and the way that the media and the public reacted to and understood that, and apologies by people like Mel Gibson or Paris Hilton? It seems like everybody’s apologizing these days: politicians like David Vitter or Larry Craig, but also people out in Hollywood.

KF: Well, that’s actually one of my points: There is no difference. I mean, why does the politician have to be looked at, in terms of the father, the god, as different from Mel Gibson? They are a human being. Politicians are human too; I think it’s across the board. Yes, there have been these incredible apologies, which I’m actually going to be alluding to. There was Mel Gibson, Paris Hilton, and who’s that you were talking about?

AV: David Vitter? He’s that Louisiana politician.

KF: Oh, right, right, with his situation there was a madam who then committed suicide, which was just horrible. But then I was thinking about Nixon not apologizing…

AV: Or George Bush not apologizing…

KF: Or Clinton. I’m kind of taking a different angle in terms of my dramatic text. I will be referring to those other apologies, but for the dramatic text I’m going to have Eliot researching the other apologies, and actually asking Silda to make the selection. So she’s in the starring role; she becomes the strong one. He becomes feminized in apologizing, in a way, whereas she’s standing, she stands up behind her man.

AV: You’re using a lot of psychoanalysis. I’m interested in your analytical background; what ideas do you lean on?

KF: The first position that I took was looking at this as being healthy as opposed to unhealthy, as it being his soul-searching…that this is something positive, a point of individuation, a part of him connecting with the shadow part of himself. So what I’m doing is using the public narrative and considering other classical texts that use historical figures in terms of collectively knowing them. You use those archetypes to have the dialogue. I don’t know them; I don’t know their personal life. But it is a public narrative, and there is an intimacy that is created that we are living through, and I think there’s an ancientness to it, so I’m trying to go beyond the obvious. I’m reversing Silda to the idea of being a place of power, using a lot of feminist theory, Jungian principles, some classical situations. I am also looking at comparing, thinking about, other politicians, in terms of Eliot Spitzer, his father, his Jewishness, he being of an immigrant background, his grandfather’s family being from Austria, and the need to succeed, to have access to power. In his father’s time, he would not have been allowed to go to certain law firms, and that isn’t spoken to—the promise to be the first Jewish governor, the promise to possibly be the first Jewish president. I have a very, very moving dialogue where he is talking to the father, where he’s saying it’s going to be his life now. I’m trying to give a depth and a richness of the human experience in this story.

AV: You know, of course, lots of my questions are about sex. Trying to describe your history of doing politicized and often sexualized performances, I found that I was really unable to categorize what it is that you do, other than just broadly saying you were an artist, or an interpreter of things. It’s really nice to talk to you about psychoanalysis, actually.

KF: I’ve always been involved and interested in that, and I had to always have an understanding that was in the work and what I was doing. In that type of work I was inverting the gaze—I mean that particular work of using my body was exchanging, in terms of feminist theory, the gaze, or the male gaze, and so that’s what a lot of my work was doing. That’s the reason I got so much anger towards me, because I think I was successful in what I was doing.

AV: Is that what you were doing when you posed for Playboy?

KF: In that particular decision I actually was consciously wanting to be in Playboy, which was curious, and then it [the magazine] came to me two months later. I had been asked before—I had been asked to do many different situations for commercial or public success, but I had turned it down, while I had the lawsuit going on.

AV: This is the NEA lawsuit?

KF: The NEA lawsuit. Hugh Heffner has been a strong supporter of the ACLU, which supported my case. I think that it has been Playboy and magazines like that that have fought for the First Amendment. That’s important to me. Two, I felt that the attacks I was receiving constantly—in terms of me having to constantly explain, define my work—I felt that a man wouldn’t necessarily have to be doing. I think for the female, being talented and having the sexuality still has to be so separated; it’s not able to come in one package. It’s very confusing. It’s confusing for Eliot Spitzer! So I decided that I would go be in Playboy, just acknowledge, “Yes, I am this,” and then there’s no more. I no longer have to have an enemy; I would just say, “Yes, I am. Next. Yes, I did this.” And actually that’s what happened.

AV: Did the attacks change?

KF: Because I would just agree with it. “Yes, there is sexuality; so what?” And I actually had to analyze that because I realize I was very young at this time, kind of like a maiden. I have more wisdom, I’m a mature woman now. I had a lot of idealism then and so I was very, very hurt in the same way as when you’re young, just 14 years old, 15, and you start getting the honks, or you’re just budding with your sexuality, and you start getting that look, and how you are taken aback. I felt that as a young woman going into the professional world—you can hear by my telling how dedicated I am to the educational process of art making—that I would be doubted for my sincerity. And it was really just understanding that Jesse Helms and others really were projecting onto me their own sexual anxieties, and that actually they were carrying on a public relationship of sexual abuse with me.

AV: Which you’ve talked about publicly.

KF: That’s one reason I think I went to Playboy. And you know, I did receive money, too, because, after I lost, basically I was broke. So that’s what I did. And I worked in a strip club to get into school, too, so maybe that’s a part why I can do the Eliot Spitzer piece, too. I understand: I use the shadow in my work; the artist is part of the shadow; I’m part of the shadow that everyone’s fearful of. Perhaps maybe if Eliot or individuals could incorporate in their life the shadow, the artistry, the sexuality, they wouldn’t have to fall so hard.

AV: Do you feel like the environment’s getting easier for expressions like this, or harder? In the mid 1980s there was, it seemed to me, this whole world of people doing interesting stuff: Annie Sprinkle, Susie Bright, a lot of feminist writers coming out with very sex-positive work. In a way I’ve seen a closing down of possibilities, or of open venues for genuine discussion about sexuality and art.

KF: I think you’re right. I think you’re absolutely right.

AV: Oh, that’s bad news.

KF: At the same time, on the internet, there’s this other type of overt sexuality, but I think that what happens is that the more you see individuals like Paris Hilton, the overexposure of the body actually equates with the burqa. When you have such an overexposure, it also goes full circle; it becomes an underexposure. It becomes this compulsion, the overinterest or the overidentification with the female body, whether exposed or underexposed—they’re more connected than we like to think. I thought it was interesting that one of the reasons to go to Afghanistan was to free the women from their cloak covering their body. I mean, that’s an incredible impulse, to go that far.

AV: Well, I was astonished by that justification, coming from where it did.

KF: Well, in this particular work, or at least in this piece as I’m doing it in Buffalo, I’m not going to be nude. I’m talking about the body, I’m going to be having images…It is in development; it’s a work in progress. I mean, this just happened three months ago.

AV: It seems longer ago than that.

KF: Doesn’t it? It’s crazy when you think about what’s happening in the state, with our budget deficit, and everything that’s going on with the economy, it’s just crazy.

AV: Susan Sontag said that real art has a capacity to make us nervous, something that your work has in abundance—it’s been extraordinary in its capacity to make people think and to make people nervous. But I see a lack of that in what would be transgressive art today. Is that something that’s part of an artist’s job? Do you see that as part of your job?

KF: I think that’s probably left to the critic to see if that happens, or left to the audience. I like looking at the artist as a historical recorder, interpreting what is not being said directly and then taking that time of reflecting to show the underlying meanings of what is happening in the world. I think that’s what I do. I try to make a narrative, and to reveal, sometimes to physically become what is happening, as a medium—to speak what wouldn’t be necessarily be said in polite company. I prefer my audience to be disturbed. I am interested that the audience would be talking about the work, maybe not even necessarily like it, but it would become provocative, rather than doing work that would be just an image, a still life. I’m not interested in doing work that’s representational, or it just being a document. I’m interested in providing for my consumers, or my audience—and they are consumers—I’m doing that reflection for them, where I’m looking and seeing and articulating and giving them something to consider.

AV: Something extra in their toolkit.

KF: I have been interested in national narratives—I think that it brings us closer together, in the same way that we have fast foods, there are so many things that are so much the same here in the culture. And what is bringing us together now are all these incredible public apologies. It’s really weird. This strange, we might say transgressive kind of sexual public life that you would never hear happening 20 years ago. Is that advancement? I don’t know.

AV: I think of all the conversations that I was involved in about Silda Spitzer, and about their daughters. I’m not sure that they aren’t the same discussions that we would have had 20 and 50 years ago.

KF: I think one reason why I just couldn’t get behind Hillary is how she publicly handled herself in that situation. I was actually kind of furious [in Albany], where it was supposed to be a day for female reproductive health, and we had to see all these men on stage, who are the ones who get to vote, who get to set the stage…it just seemed criminal to me. I wonder, would it be the other way? Would you ever see Hillary, if she was to be in the Oval Office, decide that she wants to have someone eating her out under the desk while she’s on the phone with an ambassador? And Bill’s just next to her, thinking that’s okay? Would you see that with Silda, that reversal? To me, I find it more of a crime with the female standing there, being the mom. There’s this ancient division between mother and whore that still has to be on the platform.

AV: Maybe this goes back to this idea of what kind of environment we’re in. People are saying, “Oh, it’s so hyper-sexualized now.” I’m astonished at how few things have changed.

KF: Yes, yes. You know, I’m an Obama supporter, but I was a little taken aback when he accepted that he had the delegates and Michelle was up on stage with him. When he walked away from her, he gave her a little loving pat, just below her waist, just patted her a little bit. I couldn’t imagine that Hillary would be allowed to pat Bill’s ass, you know. I felt that that was a code, or signaling.

AV: Are you doing anything around the election? Any pieces?

KF: You know, the last piece I did before this, I created Laura Bush’s dream journal. I also did a performance which was a relationship between George Bush and Martha Stewart…Hillary, Obama, McCain…nothing has come to me yet, and I don’t know if I will.

AV: In a way you’ve become an eminent commentator.

KF: You mean being like a cultural critic?

AV: It seems like it’s official. I saw you recently on an HBO documentary on Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who was taking photographs of porn stars. I was thinking about you in this sort of academic position. But you’ve been in Playboy yourself, so you could actually have been in his pictures. You’re sort of straddling these worlds, between commentating on the porn stars and having worked in these venues yourself.

KF: I think that my ability to be there and speak is because I made a conscious decision. I was suffering dreadfully when I was having my NEA ordeal. My livelihood was severely damaged, the political repercussions, living with the threats, everything that was involved. I had to take a step away from the personal narrative and look at the public narrative, analyze that. Once I started seeing the unique vantage point that I was in, and the wisdom that I gained, taking the time and energy—yes, I had to go through analysis, and spend a lot of time looking at what was being projected on me. I mean, that doesn’t happen to many people, as an artist. I’ve been able to articulate that. That’s why I’m very interested in education. I think the artist—when I say the artist, it could be the writer, anyone who’s really involved in culture—they don’t have clear evidence that can be put on a spreadsheet; they need to take the time to be able to articulate what they’re doing. And how we participate in it together. That’s what I’m looking forward to.

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