But Helms had to go and make a martyr of Finley right as victim chic was at its peak, and, oh, how she adored her martyrdom, suffering for her fans as only a supreme egotist can, hamming up the pain and grim defiance like a silent film diva defending her life and honor from a mustache-twiddling villain. She played to her close-minded knothead constituency as brilliantly as he to his?and both of them to each other's. If you actually listened to the message Finley was delivering in that grating metallic whine of hers, it was all bumpersticker politics and pep rally sloganeering, equally designed to push the applause buttons of an adoring Kitchen audience and outrage the dinocon peckerwoods who voted for Helms, but not exactly raising the level of discourse on any of the issues she purported to address?no, not address, to personify and represent, like a tit-exposing Liberty at the head of ragged republican troops in a painting from the 1800s.
It says a lot more about the political imbecility of late-20th-century American artists than about the moral bankruptcy of the repressive powers-that-be that such an incredible nitwit and dipshit became such a well-known standard-bearer for free expression. With defenders like Finley, the poor dumb arts community doesn't need enemies like Rudy. Artists should stay the fuck out of politics if "Give Karen Finley some money and a regular spot on Politically Incorrect... and oh yeah, stop rape and free Mumia" is the most sophisticated political argument they can come up with.
The great p.r. that accrued to all concerned from the Helms vs. the NEA and Mapplethorpe-Serrano-Finley-et al. show was the undisguised model and inspiration for Rudy vs. the Brooklyn Museum. This has also been great p.r. for both sides?great for Rudy in his move to develop an image with the national peckerhead audience he ultimately seeks (understand that Rudy is looking beyond New York and this gambit is meant to play well in the funding-drenched Sun Belt) and great for the museum. I remember Arnold Lehman when he ran the Baltimore Museum of Art and he was never at a loss for canny publicity maneuvers there either. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that he and Rudy have been in constant telephone communication through this whole thing, orchestrating each step as they've gone along. What, did Rudy seriously believe fewer people would go see this art show if he made it a national cause celebre? Did Helms really think fewer Americans would be offended by the image of Piss Christ when it was reproduced in every magazine and newspaper across the land than when it could only be seen on page 100-whatever of Artforum? Please.
Given all that, it's an amazing stroke of timing that Karen Finley should be returning to New York this month to promote a new book. That this new book shows Karen Finley to be an even bigger asshole than she's ever shown herself to be before will undoubtedly go unnoticed by her cult members, whom we can expect to receive her triumphant return to New York like Hindus welcoming Gandhi to Delhi. Brace yourselves for a month of smug, self-righteous Finley worship on a scale of say-amen fervor we've not seen since her original martyrdom a decade ago. The only hope is that there's something so 1990 about her shtick, that she's so mainstream now after all that Politically Incorrect exposure, that even her cultists will be embarrassed by this new and hopelessly lame gesture.
It's called Pooh Unplugged: A Parody (Smart Art Press, 64 pages, $19.95). Yes, Karen Finley has now turned the blazing spotlight of her righteousness and withering satirical fury on that paragon of corruption and hegemony, Winnie the Pooh.
If ever a book was meaner in spirit, stupider, more vulgar or loathsomely smirking, I don't know it. Karen Finley's social commentary was always a feeble one-celled organism, but I don't believe she's ever stooped so low before in her choice of a satirical target as to draw Winnie the Pooh sticking his dick in a pot of honey. Even from a masochistic exhibitionist there's a great stench of the has-been's desperate foolishness to this thing.
The operant joke in Pooh Unplugged is that the bear and his pals are all as psychologically disturbed as, I guess, Finley herself. Pooh has an eating disorder and a perpetual hard-on; he sticks it in the honey to get the bees to sting it because he's also a masochist. "I have to confess I like to expose myself," he tells Piglet. "Your shrink's right, Pooh," Christopher Robin tells him, "your name does mean DUNG HEAD, FECES FACE, or PIECE OF SHIT." As in much of Finley's most insulting work, one gets the strongest feeling she's speaking to and of herself here.
One page actually bears only the words poo poo pee pee?a clear signal that Finley's such a dope she hasn't the faintest idea she's only parodying herself and her own emotional retardation. All of the humor in the book is on that grade-school level of "bad." The drawings, crudely aping the original Pooh ones, only heighten the sense that you're looking at something a nine-year-old should have carved into a schoolroom desktop; coming from an adult, there's something absolutely mental about it. There are jokes about Pooh blowing Rabbit, Pooh's pubic hair getting in the honey, Piglet as a hooker, Christopher Robin in fetish gear driving a nail up Eeyore's butt. A typical caption: "Please spank me first, Pooh," quipped Piglet "and Rabbit and Tigger can pee on me."
In the second half of the book Finley shifts from this cutting-edge porn humor to an equally with-it topic that similarly hasn't already been beaten into the ground by countless legions of dot-brained hipsters: Disneyfication. "Oh God help us?we've just been sold to Disney," Christopher Robin exclaims in a prelude to 20-odd pages of jokes about that tired subject.
Karen Finley is one mess of infantile needs. She craves both revulsion and adulation and will make the ugliest display to get either. Other satirists, social commentators and humorists have been as screwy as she is, but the good ones work out that fucked-upness with humor or insight or smarts, none of which are evident in this repulsive and agonizingly unfunny book. She says she got the inspiration for it reading the real Pooh stories to her kid. Poor kid.
Finley will be in town in a few weeks for a book signing and a few weeks later to perform (at PS 122, of course), but if you want details consult the calendar page in a little salmon-colored Upper East Side high society gossip sheet called the Observer, where the suits like to pretend they're liberals by patronizing just the sort of dopey white haute-bourgeois self-deluding go-girl 80s feministas whose buttons Finley's made a career pushing.
Afterwords And speaking of dopey self-deluding liberals, let's turn now to The Nation, where Johnny Temple, bassist for the band Girls Against Boys and founder of Akashic Books, has an extremely misleading article in the current (Oct. 18) issue. Everybody tells me Temple's a good guy, and I like what he's doing with Akashic, but "Noise From Underground: Punk Rock's Anarchic Rhythms Spur a New Generation to Political Activism" is a pure case of pandering to The Nation's Citarella liberals who don't know punk rock from triphop and thus can be told exactly and only what they want to hear about it.
The bill of goods Temple sells them is that punk rock is a leftist/liberal/liberationist political movement that's hard at work organizing the kids into progressivist cultural associations around the land. I'm not kidding, he makes punk rock sound like the Cultural Revolution. As I've written before, this notion of punk as leftist movement is a hollow gong the cultural studies types in the UK started to bang in the 80s; to believe it you have to allow a view of history so narrow and carefully selective it's by definition bogus. To build his case, Temple has to reach all the way back to 80s DC hardcore bands Fugazi and Beefeater and the Positive Force organization, then pretend (a) that it was a much bigger scene at the time than it was and (b) that it's still relevant today. Fugazi "is revered not only for its distinctive sound but for being one of the few groups to resist the lure of corporate funding..." blah blah. Even funnier: "These days, much of the energy at Positive Force is channeled into the development of the Arthur S. Flemming Center, which will be owned and operated by DC's Emmaus Services for the Aging." Very punk rock, Johnny.
Who else gets mentioned? Well, Jello Biafra, of course. And all the good, punk rock work he's done to bring speakers like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky to San Francisco (like Zinn and Chomsky needed Biafra's help to be invited to San Francisco). And, yes, Mumia's here too. And Riot Grrrls, and Rage Against the Machine.
There's such a doe-eyed, earnest, straight-faced innocence to Temple's delivery?lines like "Unfortunately, punk rock has not enjoyed the same cachet among older progressives that artists like Country Joe and the Fish and Bob Dylan once did," and "Though women made inroads toward punk prominence in the early hardcore years, it was not until the nineties that the Riot Grrrl movement...ushered Third Wave feminism to the forefront of the punk political agenda"?that I'd feel really really bad about calling him a liar. But how else to describe his failing to mention how DC hardcore begat the far more dogmatic and repressive, not to mention just plain ridiculous, straight-edge movement? Or his not saying one word, not one word, about punk's other and arguably far more active political side, from the overtly skinhead, neo-Nazi, Oi! and jingoist bands to the more benignly conservative, patriotic, blue collar and still heartily Fugazi-hating ones? Or, for that matter, that the great mass of punk rock has demonstrated not one iota of political awareness of any sort whatsofuckingever?
If Temple's editors at The Nation had the slightest inkling about popular culture outside the Upper West Side mental bunker where they've barricaded themselves over the last 20 years they would've recognized the weaknesses in his argument and sent this draft back to him for revision and expansion.