Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, "By the time a man is forty, he's responsible for his own face." I first read that long before I was forty, and it seemed to me packed with wisdom. Then I passed forty with the top down, and the more the milestone receded into the past, the more intrigued I was by Lincoln's choice of that particular age. Mostly we think of the thirties as the time when we make our uninfluenced life decisions, take our journeys, have our adventures. Gatsby was 31, as I remember; Dante, 35. I think of Odysseus as thirty at any point during his twenty-year becoming. (Though that would make him 50 when he metes out justice to the suitors.) But forty is right, I think, because it's wisdom Lincoln is talking about, what our face makes of its dialogue with our experience.
So I'm walking to the auditorium on campus where Karen Finley will perform her new show, The Jackie Look, straight from New York's Laurie Beechman Theatre, in the West Bank Cafe on W. 42nd Street. Finley is the performance artist who sued the NEA in 1990, after a Jesse Helms-led attack forced the NEA to withdraw grant offers from Finley and three other performance artists--the "NEA Four"--on the charge of "indecency." I hear a poet-colleague call my name, and I turn to her and see in her face extraordinary tension, and have a sense, having taken many a visitor to dinner myself, that she's escorting the guest of honor. Then I complete my turn and face Karen Finley's idea of what Jackie Kennedy Onassis looked like: a blend of Laura Petrie and Dame Edna Everage. Now I know what the difference is between one's "normal" appearance and one's face made up for the stage. But it's still a shock; I feel as if I'm staring, for a few seconds, into complete madness.
I've always wondered what the motive is behind expropriating someone else's face or voice or life for the purposes of one's own art. I read The Master by Colm Toibin when it came out a few years ago, and thought as a novel it was a rich and satisfying read. But reviews of it, and statements by the author, seemed to indicate that he and other readers actually felt it had something to do with Henry James. I'd bet no one reading this post right now would disagree with me that the novel is solely about Colm Toibin, that Toibin's notion of "Henry James" might be the "inspiration" that unlocks Toibin's creative processes, allowing him to write 400 pages on what Toibin believes is Henry James's "problem." But, sophisticated readers that we are, no one in his or her right mind would even begin to assert this is anything other than Toibin's ruminations, however rich and insightful, displaced onto The Master. And yet ... We let ourselves accept that Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief," a formulation to be used regarding the fantastic and non-realistic, can now be expected to be exercised in the realm of the real: history, real lives and real people, made fantastical and non-realistic by their deaths and the passage of time.
Karen Finley began her career doing rants at disco clubs; her "Tales of Taboo" (1986) was an angry-voiced listing of sexual possibilities, directed at some unidentified "you," which included stuffing yams and Belgian waffles up her grannie's ass, which (and whom) she evidently loved. (Her grannie's "snatch," which she loved even more, she refused to violate with the waffles.) It was hard for me to believe back then--but remember, I was getting ready to blow by my fortieth birthday in 1988--that cultural "protests" like Finley's, or Andrew Serrano's "Piss Christ," passed for real art. They were cultural statements that real art would either develop out of, or wouldn't. Finley's nine-stanza poem, "The Black Sheep," was "cast in bronze and installed on a concrete monolith at the intersection of First and Houston streets" in 1991. Here's a ... snatch:
We always speak our mind/ appreciate differences in culture/ believe in sexual preferences/ believe in no racism/ no sexism/ no religionism/ and we fight for what we believe ...
I think poetry like this attracts some academic critics to defend it for a funny reason. Could it be that academics, who very often are not in touch with their own emotional and psychological landscapes, apply to protest art the old idea of art as a "mirror held up to nature"--because the work seemingly addresses conditions that obtain in the world? These critics have no ear: they miss the first premise here that they should attend, which is that this voice exists in the world before its speech, that it contains its speech; and it is (like most voices doing protest art) self-aggrandizing. I mean that in the most elemental way: this voice wants to continue to exist, in economic and "identity" terms.
Most protest art is just too thin to carry an admission of its own complicity--whether in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, or in the politics of a country--and so becomes too unsubtle, flat, and boring to sustain interest. It's not simply that a reader or watcher or listener gets annoyed at someone portraying herself as always right--as hard as that is to forgive--it's that there just aren't any other levels to hold our interest. There's no complexity. When Finley covered her nude body in chocolate sauce, she sought to expose the watcher's interest as prurient, thus create a gotcha! moment for herself, the triumph of which justified her endeavor. The watcher was a rapist, his (or even her) gaze ravenous and rapacious, betraying the watcher's true bestiality. But this "truth" is a one-trick pony, finally; and Finley's inability to make the leap to complexity--that she was using her own very attractive body in a rapacious, colonial way, to establish and continue an identity, a career, an existence; in short, to benefit in a way that far exceeded the watcher's relatively minimal gratification--set her up for what would inevitably happen twenty or thirty years down the line.
So I continue into the auditorium where there are two huge screens above the audience playing a loop of about 40-50 pictures of Jackie Kennedy Onassis that repeats maybe four or five times before the show gets under way. The pictures have absolutely nothing to do with Karen Finley, in the sense of personal identity, anymore than they have to do with me, who lived through that era, too. (I'm eight years older than Finley; I was twelve when Kennedy was elected, Finley five.) After a while, a 53-year-old woman comes out onstage, as I said, a garish combination of Laura Petrie and Barry Humphries, and proceeds to make use of Jackie Kennedy Onassis--in a way similar to the use she made of her own body two decades ago; in a way she didn't own up to then, and doesn't own up to now; in a way (but much worse) that she implicitly accuses everyone in the audience of doing; and in a way meant to garner for herself many thousands of dollars from a complicit university--in order that she, Karen Finley, may continue to exist in front of us, continue to have an identity as an artist. That's the sadness I saw and the voice I heard. She'd become the victim, not of the viciousness she inveighed against, but of the dishonesty inherent in the process of that inveighing.