Performer benefits from being refused an NEA grant

September 20, 1990|By Don Nelsen | Don Nelsen,New York Daily News

NEW YORK — An artist who has been refused a National Endowment for the Arts grant accrues one great boon. Refusal catapults that artist to more public attention than she or he had before. This, in turn, could mean more bucks at more showings or more box offices. Economic poetic justice, as it were.

Karen Finley, for example, was denied her request for a grant last June. Partial nudity, accompanied by chocolate and morsels of food smeared or sprinkled on her body was, it seems, too much for the NEA to stomach. Since then, Ms. Finley has played New York with her one-woman show, "We Keep Our Victims Ready." She just returned from a successful week in Boston. Tuesday night she began a three-performance engagement of "Victims" at the Joyce Theater. Does this mean she's financially solvent? Not yet.

"I'm making a living," she said in a recent phone conversation. "I'm going to try to see if I can perform [more] in bigger places, like the Joyce. I have to figure out a way tomake up the money now that I'm not funded."

Ms. Finley's performance is characterized by a kind of hysterical but charismatic rage against power groups composed mostly of white males. It is they who victimize what she calls "black sheep" -- homosexuals, the homeless, people with AIDS, women and, in general, the abused of society. Once liberated, the rage runs on automatic pilot, building in intensity.

"I think I'm an angry person," she said. "I think what you see onstage is really what I am on the inside. When I see tapes [of my performances], I'm sort of terrified of that person."

Recently, Ms. Finley was scheduled to co-host the Bessie Awards, given annually by the Dance TheaterWorkshop to celebrate the performing arts. She pulled out at the last minute after learning one of theawards sponsors, Philip Morris Co., was, in her words, "one of the leading funders of Jesse Helms."

Mr. Helms is the North Carolina senator whom Ms. Finley and other artists hold directly responsible for NEA's refusal to award Ms. Finley a grant. According to her, Mr. Helms is the villain because he has fought tenaciously to stop the NEA from giving public money to performers he deems obscene.

Ms. Finley puts her money where her mouth is. Though she did not co-host, she won a Bessie Award worth $1,500. She is donating the money to the senatorial campaign of Harvey Gantt, Mr. Helms' opponent.

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