On Saturday, April 8, I descended a flight of steel stairs in a building on the Far West side of Manhattan and found myself a table in a small theater. The atmosphere was cheerful and anticipatory. People could order food and drink. One man at my table was carrying flowers to give to a friend later. We were there to see one of America’s most fearless and enduring multi-media artists, a complex warrior for art, raw truths, and the freedom to express both: Karen Finley. She had called her solo performance “COVID VORTEX ANXIETY OPERA KITTY KALEIDOSCOPE DISCO.” The stage setting was simple: a rack of clothes, into which she might change, mostly simple items; a podium; a screen. Then Finley emerged, like Venus from the ocean, but a Venus dressed in a hazmat suit and decorated plastic shield. Away we all went with her, on a journey through the COVID years that was angry, hilarious, heart-breaking, and hopeful.

On Thursday, April 13, Karen Finley will be our guest on the “Skirball Tapes.” Reviews this week of her show call her a “veteran” and “fabled.” She is both. We will talk about her art, which feminism has influenced, but her significance also lies in her role as a American prophet, doing the historic work of prophets, calling out the sins and hidden traumas of a society, then offering a vision of a better society, which acts on faith, love, charity. As a prophet, she can be very funny, using irony and comedy in her truth-telling. I also wonder how she has endured, how she has kept going despite defeats (her loss with others in 1998 of a case about the arts before the Supreme Court), doubts, arrests, and vilification. Her strengths, and honesty, offer lessons for a time of turmoil.

To learn more about Finley in her own words, I recommend Shock Treatment, the 2015 expanded 25th anniversary edition, from City Lights Books.


Born in Chicago, Karen Finley received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Working in a variety of mediums such as installation, video, performance, public art, visual art, entertainment, television and film, memorials, music, and literature, she has presented her work worldwide in various venues such as the Bobino in Paris, the ICA in London and Lincoln Center in NYC. Finley lectures and gives workshop at universities and museums internationally. Her work is in collections such as the Museum of Contemporary art and the Pompidou. She is the author of eight books, including a 25th anniversary edition of Shock Treatment (City Lights 2015), Reality Shows (Feminist Press 2011), and George and Martha (Verso 2008). Her recent work includes Artist Anonymous – a social practice self help open meeting for those addicted to art presented at Museum of Art and Design (2014), and Written in Sand, a performance of music and her writings on AIDS; Open Heart, a Holocaust memorial at Camp Gusen, Austria; Broken Negative, where Finley reconsiders her infamous chocolate performance that brought her to the Supreme Court, in Finley vs. NEA; and at the New Museum, NYC Sext ME if You Can, where Finley creates commissioned portraits inspired by “sexts” received from the public. Finley creates interactive walks such as Mandala: Reimaging Columbus Circle and Elastic City. A recipient of many awards and grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship, NYSCA and NEA fellowships. In 2015 she was awarded the Richard J. Massey Foundation Arts and Humanities Award.

Catharine Stimpson is a University Professor at New York University and Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She was the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Her many other publications include a novel, Class Notes; a reprinted selection of essays, Where the Meanings Are: Feminism and Cultural Spaces; and extensive work on Gertrude Stein. In addition, more than 150 of her monographs, essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in Transatlantic Review, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Critical Inquiry, boundary 2, and other publications. Her extensive public service includes serving as the Chair of the National Advisory Committee of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and past president of the Association of Graduate Schools. She is former chair of the New York State Humanities Council, the Ms. Magazine Board of Scholars, and the National Council for Research on Women, as well as past president of the Modern Language Association. She serves on the boards of other educational and cultural organizations, and is on the board of Scholars at Risk and New York Live Arts. She has been awarded both Fulbright and Rockefeller Humanities Fellowships, as well as grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


NYU Skirball’s presenting programs are made possible with support from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature; and by Howard Gilman Foundation; FACE Contemporary Theater and FUSED (French U.S. Exchange in Dance), programs of FACE Foundation in partnership with Villa Albertine with support from the Florence Gould Foundation, The Ford Foundation, Institut français (Paris), the French Ministry of Culture, and private donors; General Delegation of the Government of Flanders to the USA; Collins Building Services; Marta Heflin Foundation; Mertz Gilmore Foundation; as well as our valued donors through memberships, commissioning, and Stage Pass Fund support.