Artists' court plea tests limits of decency

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THEY did not know it, but the nine justices of the US Supreme Court were spending part of yesterday sitting for their portraits. Nor did they know what the artist had in mind for them - sketches of each of them, not in their robes, but cross-dressed.

Clarence Thomas in a skirt. Interesting.

The doodler is the performance artist Karen Finley; provocation is her speciality, which is why she was at the Supreme Court yesterday. The case was Finley v Justice Department and it goes back to a 1990 show entitled We Keep Our Victims Ready.

The centrepiece involved Ms Finley, now 41, appearing naked and smearing her body with chocolate sauce. Satirising the need of women to make themselves attractive, she stuck red sweets on her nipples and sprinkled her body with bean shoots to denote sperm. That was when trouble began for Ms Finley and three other artists.

Victims coincided with a debate about government funding for art deemed by some to be obscene that was first sparked in 1989 by exhibits by the homo-erotic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andres Sarrano, the man behind Piss Christ, which featured urine and a crucifix. Ms Finley and her peers became known as the NEA Four, when the National Endowment of the Arts withheld promised funds. It was reluctantly obeying a law passed in the wake of the Mapplethorpe-Sarrano rumpus stipulating that it consider "general standards of decency" before awarding grants to artists.

The NEA Four filed suit, claiming abuse of freedom of speech by the government. They won - twice. Now the Clinton administration is appealing against the rulings at the Supreme Court. Yesterday's hearings lasted an hour; a decision is expected later this year.

The issue remains clear-cut and the debate surrounding it is as ferocious as in 1990: does the government have the constitutional right to withhold funding because some art may offend some people? "They are not saying they have a right to ... funding," David Coke, Ms Finley's lawyer, said. "But they are saying they have a right to be considered fairly for a federal grant and not disadvantaged because of the viewpoints they express with their art".

It is serious stuff but Ms Finley, who lives north of New York City, is having fun with it. We know this because of her current project, best described as 1-900-ALL-KAREN. Dial this number and, for $1.25 a minute, you will hear a phone "performance" by Ms Finley which she changes every day. Yesterday, it was about her court appearance. Performance seems a stretch. What she offered was a description of what she would wear in court - "blue faux-tiger Moschino pants" - and details of her plan to spend five minutes each on the cross-dressing portraits. She does give time though to assaulting Jesse Helms, the senator who has led the charge against funding for artists he considers obscene. "Yesterday I had a realisation. Jesse Helms sexually harassed me on my job. He eroticised my work, he harassed me and I realised I'm in a state of victimhood and I have been ashamed and humiliated". Mr Helms was not in court yesterday. So no dress and earrings for him.