• Timothy-Greenfield-Sanders
  • A portrait of Karen Finley in her golden years

Karen Finley became notorious in the early 1990s, when (a) archconservative senator Jesse Helms used her work to help make his argument that the National Endowment for the Arts was one of the handbaskets that America was going to hell in; (b) NEA chair John Frohnmayer responded by rescinding her grant, along with those of three other artists, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes; and (c) the so-called NEA Four sued, initiating proceedings that ended—badly for the Four—in the U.S. Supreme Court. Until then Finley was known to a much smaller audience as the fiercest and messiest member of her generation of performance artists, creating works that had her applying substances like chocolate syrup and peanut butter to her nearly naked body while making profane speeches.