August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

Karen Finley and North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms share many concerns: Both are horrified by pornography and violence against women, and by the ravages of alcohol, child abuse and drugs on the American family. But while Helms believes such scourges can simply be proscribed, Finley insists they must be exposed and understood. A performance artist who uses her voice and body as props, she sometimes stands onstage and re-creates the emotional realities of sexual abuse—snarling vulgarities, smearing goo on her body, howling in pain. It is not pretty, but it is art—at least in the view of the National Endowment for the Arts, which has awarded Finley two grants totaling $10,000 over the last decade.

To Helms, however, Finley’s work is just more smut. She and three other performance artists who deal with sexual themes have now become the focal point of his campaign to restrict federal arts funding. In a sense, Helms has already succeeded. Even though Congress may not vote until October on whether or not to include prohibitions against “obscenity” in future funding for the NEA, Karen Finley and gay performance artists Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck—all of them former NEA beneficiaries—have already had their 1990 grants denied. Overturning the recommendations of the NEA’s theater review panel, NEA chief John Frohnmayer took that action last month, some say in an attempt to pacify Helms and his congressional allies. In fact, Frohnmayer’s preemptive censorship has served as a call to arms in the arts community and is introducing four obscure avant-garde performers to a far wider audience.

Finley, 34, reacted to Frohnmayer’s edict first with tears, then with anger. “My show may be the opposite of what some people see as entertainment.” she admits, sitting in the Rockland County, N.Y., apartment she shares with her husband and manager, Michael Overn, 34. “Instead of escaping, people are confronted with their problems. I wish I lived in a world where I could paint bouquets of petunias and rainbows, but that’s not our experience in 1990.”

Finley’s new show, which caused the NEA furor, is called We Keep Our Victims Ready. In its first segment she sits in a rocking chair and delivers a monologue partly in the voice of an alcoholic mother. Then she strips to the waist and smears chocolate on her breasts as she describes, in foul language, a sexual assault. (“If I talk about a woman being raped, I have to use the language of the perpetrators,” she says.) Finally, she wraps herself in a sheet and recites a poem about social isolation and AIDS victims. “At my opening,” she recalls, “a man came up to me and cried. He said, ‘That was my story.’ ”

Reviewing the show last January, a Minneapolis Star Tribune critic wrote, “Instead of banning Karen Finley, governments might be well-advised to hire her in the name of community health. She’s a release valve for the alienated, an exorcist of sexual demons…a primal scream arising from the eerie quiet of denial.”

Finley first began “performing” as a teenager. The eldest of six children born to a jazz drummer and businessman and his wife, now an executive for a financial firm, she was raised in Evanston, Ill. “I’m very Middle America in terms of my values,” she says. But her parents encouraged creativity, and in high school Finley began dreaming up “happenings,” like “going to school dressed as Artemis when we studied the Greek myths.”

She was home on vacation from the San Francisco Art Institute when her father committed suicide in 1977. His death had a profound effect on her. “[I] thought of how unhappy he must have been in order to take his life,” she once explained. “His invisible emotions are what I wanted to start working with.” After a brief marriage to Chicago performance artist Brian Routh, she moved to New York City and began appearing in East Village clubs. Her performances, including one in which she smeared yams across her buttocks to protest the way men sometimes defile women, earned her a reputation for outrageousness—and a respect from her peers that has grown with the years. “Karen Finley is one of the best artists in America,” says Martha Wilson, director of Manhattan’s Franklin Furnace performance space. “She’s an extremely moral person who is against the degradation of women. That’s the opposite of pornography.”

A delegation of celebrities including Kathleen Turner, Morgan Freeman and producer Joseph Papp took a similar message to Capitol Hill last week, where they discussed the NEA reauthorization bill over lunch with members of Congress. “All artists are interconnected,” says Papp. “The most outspoken people help other artists take chances. Once you start to cut at the fringe, you start to cut at the entire body, and then you’ll get second-class stuff—art that is afraid.”

Already, Finley, who makes only a meager living from her performances and paintings, can feel the effects of that fear. “I’ve had three spaces already very concerned about allowing me to perform.” she says. “They’re afraid they’ll have problems with their future funding.” She and Michael would like to start a family, but worry they can’t afford it.

Finley plans to appeal the NEA action and continue her work, with or without the $5,000 grant. “We have a national plague, a health-care crisis, a world where people still believe a woman dresses for rape. That’s what my work is about,” she says. “Once they stop, I’ll stop.”

Holly Hughes

“My work is not pornography,” says Holly Hughes, 35. “Pornography focuses on arousal. I talk about sex, but my intent is to provoke an emotional and intellectual response—to explore how we think about sex.”

For a while, the NEA seemed to appreciate that distinction. Last March, after sending observers to see her monologue World Without End, a sometimes graphic reminiscence about the sexuality of her mother and Hughes’s own awakening as a lesbian, the endowment awarded Hughes a $15,000 playwriting grant. But last month, when Hughes was recommended for a second grant by the NEA review panel, Chairman Frohnmayer rejected it. “If I made movies, they would get a PG rating,” says Hughes, who believes she has been singled out for the homosexual content of her work.

Hughes, who grew up in Saginaw, Mich., in “a very Republican, upper-middle-class family,” became a New York City club phenomenon in the early ’80s and was hailed by the New York Times as a “brash new comic playwright.” She lives in a cramped East Village walk-up. “If any of us were producing pornography,” Hughes points out, “we wouldn’t bother to apply to the NEA—we’d be raking in the big bucks.”

John Fleck

John Fleck is upset. He has just returned from an appearance on Oprah that was “awful, just horrible,” he says. “People in the audience were calling me a pervert, hissing at me, trying to paint me as some obscene decadent who’s trying to destroy the country. I love this country. But I’m very frightened about the future of intellectual and artistic expression here.”

Fleck, 39, who grew up in Cleveland and once planned to be a priest, works as a TV actor to support his performance art. His most famous stage piece, Blessed Are All the Little Fishes, is his attempt to grapple with the two biggest factors in his childhood: alcoholism and Catholicism. “It’s the story of this man’s binge, which is also society’s binge—man at his lowest point of alienation,” says Fleck, who in the course of the show dresses as a mermaid, urinates onstage, hacks up a dead goldfish, talks about bisexuality and makes a toilet bowl into an altar, pasting a photo of Christ into the lid. For his drunken character, Fleck says, the toilet is “the center of the universe, a place of miraculous visitation.” The piece has been well reviewed around L.A.

Tim Miller

“Performance artists are tackling the blood and bone of the society,” says Tim Miller, 31, a clean-cut, churchgoing resident of Venice, Calif., and the recipient of four previous NEA grants. “A lot of it is not pretty, but our culture is not about Swan Lake.” Miller’s recent performance, Some Golden States, draws on material from his childhood in Whittier, Calif., and his life as a gay man whose friends have been beaten by thugs or felled by AIDS. “It may sound grim,” wrote the reviewer in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “but thanks to Mr. Miller’s…precise, funny writing, it’s not.” (Fond of using vegetables as sexual symbols, Miller stands under “the zucchini of Damocles” to dramatize the AIDS threat.) There is very little nudity in the piece and less profanity than in your average summer movie. “My work is sort of ail-American queer,” says Miller, “with a Jimmy Stewart-esque quality.” But even that has proved too much for the NEA, notes the artist, who admits that “when I wrote my grant application, I said, ‘Jesse Helms, keep your Porky Pig face out of the NEA.’ I don’t know how much that mattered.”

Kim Hubbard, Michael Small in New York City, Robin Micheli in Los Angeles, Margie Bonnett Sellinger in Washington, D.C.