Very few visual artists have been the subject of a Supreme Court case. Karen Finley, 67, is one of them. A member of the so-called N.E.A. Four, Finley — along with Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes — sued the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 after the organization withdrew their fellowships.
The federal agency was under scrutiny for financing art — including Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine — that the religious right deemed indecent. A performance in which Finley covered her body with chocolate frosting, red candies and alfalfa sprouts to make a statement about society’s treatment of women was another attractive target. On the Senate floor, the Republican Jesse Helms called Finley’s work “pornographic” and “obscene.” A nationally syndicated newspaper column dismissed her as nothing more than “a nude, chocolate-smeared woman.”
During an eight-year legal battle, Finley and her fellow artists were awarded the value of their vetoed grants but lost their broader challenge to N.E.A. policy. In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld a law amended in 1989 to state that the agency should not only base its funding decisions on artistic merit, but also consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” The decision transformed Finley’s career and the shape of public arts funding in the United States.
In this 25th anniversary year of the National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley decision, the artist is revisiting “Go Figure,” a work she created in the wake of the lawsuit. It is being presented at Art Basel Miami Beach, in a booth at the Convention Center, through Sunday. “I felt that we as the N.E.A. Four were stand-ins for many artists, and the artist was being dismissed,” Finley recalled recently during an interview from her studio in Rockland County, N.Y.
“Go Figure” involved inviting the public to participate in a life drawing class with a nude model. (At the fair, nude models will pose for two hours each afternoon, safely tucked behind a privacy wall; Finley and other artists represented by the gallery will be on hand to sketch alongside fairgoers. Other works by Finley, including figure drawings, protest banners and footage of the notorious chocolate performance — “We Keep Our Victims Ready” (1990) — are also on view.) Helms and other critics had “eroticized my career, my work, my livelihood,” Finley said. With this installation, she seeks to reframe art-making as a highly technical craft — and the body as a neutral teaching tool.
“Go Figure” may take on new resonance in Florida, where, in March, a high school principal was fired for including Michelangelo’s “David” in a Renaissance art class without proper permission. One parent called the sculpture “pornographic,” the same term Helms used to describe Finley’s work.
Florida has been a hotbed for what the lawyer David Cole, who represented the N.E.A. Four and now serves as national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls “culture wars 2.0.” While explicitly sexual material is less provocative in the era of internet pornography than it was during the first culture war, gender transgression and race remain hot-button issues. Under Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida passed bills prohibiting public schoolteachers from discussing critical race theory, sexual orientation and gender identity. “It’s déjà vu,” Cole said.
Since the passage of what critics refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, more than 40 similar policies have gone into effect in 22 states, according to the free-speech advocacy group PEN America. The American Library Association reported that attempts to ban books are up 20 percent this year nationwide, the highest level since the organization started collecting data more than 20 years ago.
When “Go Figure” was first staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1997, it included a reflecting pool on which Finley projected the audience’s responses to the question, “What is offensive to you?” Although the pool will not appear when the New York gallery Freight+Volume presents the work in Miami, the question remains a potent one. Tom Healy, Finley’s former art dealer and a trustee of PEN America, said he would have been “shocked” to learn 25 years ago that today’s left-leaning activists believe free speech should be balanced carefully against concerns about the care and safety of students before speakers with provocative ideas are invited to campus. “There is a different sense of decency operative today in deciding what kind of speech should be free,” Healy said.
And in the last months, a new front in the culture war has also opened up, on campuses with demonstrations over the Israel-Hamas war, and at some art institutions as they remove artworks or postpone shows of artists who have been critical of Israel.
The 1998 ruling did not go so far as to restrict the National Endowment for the Arts’ ability to fund “indecent” art, noted Amy Adler, a professor specializing in art law at New York University. In the end, the language was vague enough that it “didn’t mean much.” But the firestorm nevertheless had an effect. In the years after Finley filed her lawsuit, the endowment stopped awarding fellowships to individual artists in all genres except literature. It shifted more money to state arts agencies, which critics said diminished its influence in Washington, and focused attention on community-based initiatives in lieu of avant-garde art.
Before the controversy, “the N.E.A. was actually very progressive, supporting all kinds of edgy stuff,” said David Joselit, a professor of art, film, and visual studies at Harvard University. Even modest grants “were a seal of legitimation that made it easier to fund-raise.” The agency’s political opponents “managed to more or less end all that,” Joselit said, ushering in an era of privatized arts funding.
The case also had a major effect on Finley, who became a somewhat reluctant poster child for free speech. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gave away one of her works. A Chicago concert venue canceled her appearance because management worried the establishment might lose its liquor license. The Whitney Museum of American Art called off a planned show that would have prominently featured “Go Figure,” citing budget constraints.
“I posed for Playboy because I had no money,” Finley recalled. “I had to reinvent myself.” Although she went on to have a robust career as a performer, educator, author and filmmaker, she veered off her trajectory toward the epicenter of the art world.
“I always wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t had to spend so much of her time and energy fighting to make art about what she wanted to make art about,” said David Ross, the former Whitney Museum director who put “Go Figure” on the schedule.
Today, Finley teaches art and public policy at New York University and continues to perform; she recently staged a one-woman show about the pandemic (a New York Times critic’s pick). Artists call her a few times a year, she said, for help navigating a censorship issue. (Harris Kornstein, a drag performer, said Finley was a key sounding board after PBS took down a video of him reading a children’s book amid conservative backlash.)
“I think a lot about the fact that I’ve had the privilege of censorship — that my body would be considered worthy of censoring,” Finley said. “There are many people whose voices are not even listened to in the first place.”
There is irony in Finley restaging a performance from one of the most contested moments of her career at Art Basel Miami Beach, a playground for the rich, powerful and politically connected. Since she originated “Go Figure” a quarter-century ago, the political fallout from the culture war has shifted to the library and the classroom. “Back then, the art world was tarred as being emblematic of a repugnant, sexually perverse, impenetrable cultural elite,” Adler said. “Now, art is often perceived as a luxury commodity marketed to the very rich.”
Finley said the project’s original intentions remain intact, including the desire to democratize an exclusive space (participants in Miami will have the chance to hang their drawings on the wall of the booth). She also hopes to push viewers to slow down and appreciate the virtuosity of artists in an environment where their work might otherwise be reduced to mere product. Above all, the installation marks Finley’s return to “a space that seems to have been denied her,” Healy said. “On the other hand, I know she’s going to subvert it. That’s Karen being Karen.”
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