Prof. Finley’s poetic take on Trump and #MeToo

Karen Finley. Photo by Dona Ann McAdam

BY STEPHANIE GLAVOCICH | At 62 years old, artistic provocateur Karen Finley has worn many outfits over her storied lifetime. Most recently she’s donned a red Make America Great Again baseball cap, as well as a frumpy, untailored blue suit, a billowy blue cotton dress with a headscarf, and a white power suit topped with a blond wig, variously impersonating Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.

As she sat down to speak about her latest literary foray, Finley wore only a fashionable black striped pantsuit and a relaxed air of confidence, indicative of a woman who has been in the public eye for decades.

“I make visual art,” she said, leaning back in a New York University conference room.

These notable outfits directly inspired her new book, “Grabbing Pussy” (OR Books, Oct. 23), as integral parts in her solo performance piece “The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery.”

Performed last year at the Village’s renowned theater club La MaMa, the show delved into the gender-biased atmosphere of the 2016 presidential election, as well as the sexually charged politics that surrounded Bill Clinton’s administration.

The idea for the show — and subsequently the book — began when Finley wrote down questions she hoped to answer.

“Many times my art projects have different entry points for different versions or divinations,” she said. “I wanted to do a response towards politics now, [and] I started with a list of all my questions that I wanted to look into.”

Finley has transitioned over the past decades from full-time performance artist to professor at N.Y.U. Tisch’s Art and Public Policy School, as well as a writer and musician, while continuing her work as a shock-inducing performer.

“Grabbing Pussy” is inspired by cultural trends induced by the Trump administration, including the rise of the #MeToo movement in response to the rash of sexual-harassment scandals, from Harvey Weinstein to the president’s self-confessed penchant to “grab ’em by the pussy.”

The book, which was first titled “Genital Election,” consists of three-dozen poems commenting on the American political landscape and its cast of characters, focusing on the actions of President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Among others who make appearances are Anthony Scaramucci, Ivanka Trump and Bill Clinton.

What began as Finley’s way of understanding the current political climate was also a form of protest. The “assault of language and communication,” as she put it, drove her to write this book.

“Poetry is an elevated language,” she said, “and it is using language in an elevated, heightened content and format in order to get you to look at things in a different way. To be contributing to writing, contributing to language — I consider those to be political acts.”

Finley’s long history of artistic and political activism goes back to her Chicago public school days, when she fomented an uprising against the “skirts only” dress code by wearing “the worst” thrifted, misshapen dresses to class. The school relented and girls were allowed to wear pants.

Growing up in the suburb of Evanston, Illinois, with her mother taking her to antiwar protests as a child also instilled in her the importance of dissent against political injustice.

“I lived near Northwestern, and I think that’s why I love being at the university,” she said, referring to N.Y.U. “I was really, really privileged to be around a cosmopolitan, urban area where people resisted and protested.”

Finley’s professional career was also built on defiance, most notably as one of four artists who joined a landmark lawsuit eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, the high court ruled that the N.E.A.’s “decency and respect” criteria did not violate the artists’ First Amendment rights by withholding project grants from them due to subject matter. Although it was a loss for the plaintiffs, the case brought awareness to how government funding limited freedom of expression in the arts.

The topic of sexual assault often mentioned in “Grabbing Pussy” — some poems cite the “Access Hollywood” tapes from which the book gets its name — hits particularly close to home for Finley. As a 21-year-old, she said she was assaulted on the streets of Chicago by two policemen.

“I didn’t tell my mother. I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “I just felt that I was so lucky I got out of that. You know, you have to understand that when things like this happen, all you feel like is ‘I’m out of it now.’ ”

Although she experienced her personal hardships through physical assault, Finley looks to workplace harassment and nonphysical contact, such as catcalling, as foundations for poems in “Grabbing Pussy.”

Among the instances she drew on for the book, she refers to the second 2016 presidential debate, when Trump, at points, paced around behind Clinton, calling it a form of intimidation and “stalking.”

In portraying abuse of women through poetry, Finley believes readers of both sexes can relate.

“We think about the poetic space of our campus, you know, what draws us,” she said. “It’s New York, but also even Washington Square Park, right? Isn’t there kind of this feeling that, within this urban life, they add that arch and it has some type of symbolism that reaches to us — that we have a humanity that’s bigger than us?” she said. “I think that any attempt of poetry can suggest, or remind people, of that potential.”

Finley performed excerpts from “Grabbing Pussy” at La MaMa at the end of last month as a “call to action” to the public.

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