Art: Free speech back in the dock

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Karen Finley, the American performance artist best known for her naked chocolate smear-fests in the early 1990s, is at the centre of a row over arts funding in the US.

In 1990, Finley's work (along with Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs and Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ") sparked a national uproar after right-wing members of Congress attacked it as obscene. The government denied Finley an arts grant, and Finley, along with three other artists, sued the govemment. This week, the US Supreme Court is going to hear that case, and decide whether America's decency law is legal.

In Britain, the Crown Prosecution Service is now studying police papers after a complaint under the Obscene Publications Act against a Midlands university over a Mapplethorpe book containing sexually explicit photographs. The university has refused to censor the book.

Marjorie Heins, of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the Finley case is an effort to defend the free speech rights of artists and arts organisations. It challenges a 1990 law that requires government- funded art to comply with "standards of decency." "This law is a signal to administrators that if they don't want to incur the wrath of Congress they not only have to steer clear of Mapplethorpe and Serrano and Karen Finley, but of anything that might be offensive to a religious majority or that addresses issues of sexuality in an unconventional way," says Heins. "It carves a huge chunk out of important subject matters for art. Moreover, it sets a precedent for the government to control activities in all kinds of government-funded areas. There's no reason the same restrictions can't be applied to libraries, public universities, or science grants, all of which receive government funding."

Speaking from her home in Rockland County, near New York City, Finley talks about her current performance piece, a series of short daily messages recorded on a public phone line.

North American residents can hear the messages by dialling 1-900-ALL KAREN (1-900 exchanges are usually phone sex lines in the US) and paying $1.75 for the first minute and $1.25 for each minute thereafter. Creative Time, the project's sponsor, describes the phone line medium as "a venue to explore free expression". Recent messages include a tipsy greeting recorded on Finley's 42nd birthday, and a series about Ireland during the week of St. Patrick's day.

Finley's next performance is about the Irish famine. "I look at it as a national anorexia nervosa. The famine was like a holocaust. I talk about starvation as a way of disappearing." Another project in the works is a parody of Winnie The Pooh, titled Pooh Unplugged. Finley has redrawn A A Milne's pictures, adding new text and picture titles such as "Pooh please spank me first". Half-way through describing the book she interrupts herself, squealing, "My daughter just did a drawing of Winnie the Pooh! Oh God, that is so good! Can you do Eyore now?"

It's this kind of tactic - juxtaposing her daughter's response to Pooh with her own obscene parody, or exposing her own body in an effort to counteract misogynist representations of female bodies - that has led critics to call Finley grating and sensationalistic. But other critics say Finley's performances keep audiences alert to her political messages, brilliantly mixing Brecht with postmodern feminist theory.

Certainly Finley makes sure her political messages get heard. Though she won't talk specifically about the lawsuit, she is vehement about society's treatment of artists. "The artist is looked upon as heretic, as someone who's crazy, a prostitute or charlatan," she says. "In this case, it's especially significant that I'm a woman and other artists involved are gay or lesbian. It's easy to stone them. We're looked at as basically deviant."

Her lawyer is more forthcoming about the lawsuit. "It's very hard to predict," says Heins. "We have compelling arguments that ought to strike a sympathetic chord in justices across the political spectrum. Free speech is important to both liberals and conservatives. So we're hoping that conservative justices who value the importance of the arts and intellect will see the dangers of this law."

Tamsin Todd