An Interview with Karen Finley
Karen Finley is an American genius. This is not just opinion, thanks to Coagula art magazine which, as the 1990s closed, voted Ms. Finley “Artist of the Decade.” Since then Finley has more than earned her title. A prolific artist, she has written and performed in a handful of plays, edited a book on erotic writing, and released a collection of her previous plays and books, all while teaching art and public policy at NYU. Her sixth book, George and Martha, was recently released by Verso Press. And, as with all geniuses, controversy follows her. It is to her credit that there has already been an occurrence of impolite reception surrounding George and Martha, a parody on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that hypothesizes a sexual encounter between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart during the Republican convention. Ms. Finley was asked to discuss the issues surrounding her newest book in a March 30 interview conducted by phone from Washington DC, where she was just embarking on her book’s tour.
George and Martha was originally a play you had conceived of while working on another play in Minneapolis, and now the book is coming out. What was the reception to the play like and how has the reception been to the book?
The play had a great reception and had a lot of interest. At the time I was thinking about writing it there was so much going on politically… a national fervor about the election and the Republican convention had just taken place and there was a Democratic upheaval… and Martha was being indicted, so that was the impetus for the play. The book…well it’s just come out but I’ve gotten very favorable reviews. I received good reviews in Publishers Weekly the other week. And several other critics have said some really good things about it. I think overall it’s been accepted pretty well.
I read that there was some disagreement from one of the journalists from The Nation, who refused to interview you because he or she found the book offensive, naming in particular their offense with a supposed anal intercourse scene. Your publisher, Amy Scholder, defended the book with a very passionate media statement Verso released. Why do you think the Nation journalist found your book offensive and do you have any thoughts you’d like to add to Verso’s statement?
I just thought that it was curious. I just think it’s something very odd. I think that that particular journalist perceived it to be something it’s not. I don’t think that The Nation feels this way. But I think that, particularly in journalism, if you don’t like something or you’re offended, you still continue to do the interview. I’ve done many interviews with people who don’t like my work or don’t particularly get into it. But the thing is that you still do them. I think the problem is when you don’t do interviews because you’re worried of what someone might say. I did wind up doing an interview with them last week, though.
That’s surprising. Really?
Well, it’s just very big of them, I think, to admit that they made a mistake. It’s refreshing.
Well, it was all blown out of proportion. If people read the book, they can decide for themselves what to think.
You’ve previously written a parody based on Martha Stewart-style homemaking in Living It Up: Adventures in Hyperdomesticity and about the power dynamics of abusive relationships with political figures in Shut Up and Love Me. What propelled you to want to revisit Martha Stewart as a character?
At the time I was thinking of this there was a lot of attention in regards to Martha’s legal case. And in that sense she had become a national forefront figure of motherhood, a doomed motherhood in the classical sense, but a female forefront persona. And at the time George was the male forefront person. The two are essentially one: Martha represents this feminine energy and George represents this masculine energy, yet they both have masculine and feminine traits. When I was writing this, I was thinking about George, really, as a dual persona. He is seen as both feminine and masculine, George and Martha as a split of George, where Martha is his female aspect. But the two are essentially linked in a corrupt power dynamic; the idea of overpowering each other in the way of a Greek tragedy plays a role in that as well.
It occurred to me from the opening moments of George and Martha that this is a great opposites pairing because we associate Martha with a sort of clipped New England speaking style, and George with a more rambling Southern style. When you were writing this what characteristics drew you to pairing these two?
I was thinking about just that when I was looking at George and Martha because Martha has a sort of closed, masculine speaking presence in the public. You know, her conversation is very direct. She doesn’t waste a lot of words. There’s this perception, in that sense, that she has a masculine way of communicating, whereas George is the opposite. He has what is seen as a female way of speaking, he goes off subject, he pauses and forgets things, repeats things. I specifically wanted to highlight that aspect. And I paid very close attention to the dialogue in doing so.
At the beginning of the book, Martha and George’s relationship is that of mother and father. And then the dynamics seem to shift to that of mother and child, and by the end of the book, Martha says that she feels like “one of George’s daughters.” Did you anticipate these familial changes or did they come about as you were writing?
Well, I was thinking of the way in which George reacts. He has an infantile rage to his reactions. And the way that Martha has of cooing her audience into submission. She calms George. He understands her kind of rage. It’s very motherly. In every power dynamic relationship you have this fight. It’s no different between George and Martha, who are seen as two very powerful individuals, but who both react in infantile ways.
But George, he has always had issues with this. He is very protective and, like you mentioned, he’ll immediately shift into a baby persona. I think he honestly believes that he’s protecting people. He’s obsessed with the mother figure. He really is. His mother is very much like Martha. His wife, too, is very much a mother figure. Laura the librarian: I think there’s a reason why he married a librarian; he craves that kind of attention.
Now that you mention it, there is also a sort of dialogue duet happening between George and Martha that is punctuated with a refrain of “baby, baby, baby.” What is it about this refrain that made you connect it to George and Martha as a couple?
Well… if you listen to the way we talk to each other…we’re always calling each other “baby” in this country. It’s “baby this,” and “baby that.” I mean it seems bizarre that every time you turn on the TV there’s “baby, baby, baby,” or listen to music it’s “baby, baby, baby.” All the songs out there have this in it. It’s just constant. I expect soon there’ll just be “baby, baby” when referring to anyone. Particularly when it comes to women, they are always referred to as “baby.” And I wonder where this is coming from. Why we see ourselves as babies and what is the psychological reasoning behind it?
I think people are responding to a general anxiety. I mean we are in a war. We are in a war! I think in some ways people want to forget that. They just want to avoid it altogether. They have their iPods and their cell phones and their TVs and their cars and they live within this technical bubble to escape the very real fact that we’re in war. I think people want to be coddled into thinking that we’re not. But you can’t forget that sort of thing, so they are perpetually somewhere between comfort and crises. They want to be babies.
Martha addresses this. At one point she says: “George, Iraq is the mother that you control and destroy. You greedily devour her milk, her oil, and you kill all of her children. You occupy and invade your mother. Your preoccupation with Iraq is maternal stalking madness.” To me, it seemed that Martha was the more political of the two, at least in her dialogue. What other ideas came to you that were surprising in writing from Martha’s point of view?
When I was writing this I was thinking more in terms of the relationship between George and Martha and why George is so into possessing Saddam Hussein. And I had to watch out because I didn’t think that Martha would be so analytical in a way but I wanted to bring out something similar to jealousy between them. I think what I was trying to get at was that George has been so obsessed with Iraq, you know when it turned out that there are no weapons of mass destruction… but I think in terms of Iraq… I think there’s a lot of feminist theory in the idea of bombing the land -- mother earth treated like a woman, that the earth is like the body, the landscape, the physical. And that in bombing it, there’s so much sexual language used in describing this: penetrating, invading… it’s a rape. And I was thinking this in writing their relationship, this and the idea of the taking over, and in the domination between George and Martha and how both react to it.
How are Martha and George similar or different to each other?
I think that they have similarities, but I think George is the one who seems most Oedipal-oriented, in terms of the Oedipal baby. He actually invokes Oedipal relationships, which everybody has. But I think that George is in some ways still a baby. His father wasn’t that involved in his early life. And George… it was assumed that he wasn’t supposed to go to the White House. Jeb was going to the White House. Neil was going to the White house, but not George.
George had a sister who died of leukemia as a child. So he had to become his father in a way, meaning that he had to take his father’s place emotionally for his mother. And…well there’s this story that I read that when he was child and right after his sister died, some children asked if George could go out and play. And he said, “I’m sorry, I have to stay in and take care of my mother.” And I thought that must have been really hard on a child. That must have been devastating. I mean can you imagine a child having to take on that kind of burden? In reading that I felt for the emotional burden that must have been placed on George, a child having to take care of his mother, to step in for his father, to essentially become his father.
And, even though I hate this political administration’s policies, I felt sad for that, for George. So there is a part of him, I think, that may have wanted to kill his father. And I don’t mean kill in the literal sense but in the Greek sense of patricide, wanting to replace your absent father. There’s some identification there with his father. And I think that continues to bother him emotionally; he’s always carried that emotion with him in the way he seeks patricide through Hussein.
Now then, I kept asking myself, why is George so intent on Saddam? It just didn’t make sense. I mean the amount of money and the amount of time and energy to get Saddam… but when I put it in psychological terms I realized that he wanted to destroy his father, to kill his own father. You see, we despise our weakest emotions.
And I think with George he believes that he protects us from the enemy, he captures the enemy. And I think that the majority of his supporters, people who have similar things in their lives that aren’t working, that don’t have a relationship with their soul, they transfer those feelings into rage. They can relate to George in that sense.
For Martha, I feel a similar thing is going on, Martha as Electra. She had to take care of her father when she was young. And now, she’s become the mother figure of America. In a sense she becomes the mother of all mothers, replacing her mother. Doing what she does so well that she out-mothers her mother when she wasn’t supposed to do that. And she feels she should be punished for this. She feels she deserves to go to jail for it. So I see the two of them connected in that sense.
In Enough is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally you say “guilt is the most important emotion of all… People who don’t feel guilt are called sociopaths.”
I said that?
[Laughs] Yeah. Yeah, you did!
[Pause] Hmm. Well yeah, that’s true.
My point is that in George and Martha, Martha feels an incredible amount of guilt. At one point she inwardly accepts being imprisoned as a “rightful” punishment, as you mentioned. But George doesn’t seem to feel guilt for any of his actions, aside from the impudent rage he feels when speaking to his father. Would you consider George a sociopath?
I do think he is, in a sense. He obviously disassociates his feelings, taking all of that rage he feels and misplacing it in Iraq. The terms he uses in describing Iraq are very mother-centered. He is invading her. She will surrender. There’s something also to the image of Saddam coming out of a hole, the picture of this man emerging literally from this underground desert hole, I think, that does something to add to that idea because he’s portrayed as protecting us from that man. And there’s something to be said for Iraq as a perceived motherland, for a place that must be invaded. Yes, I think George has sociopathic tendencies, the tendency to be able to disassociate himself from what he’s doing.
With Martha, well… I think that Martha shouldn’t have gone to jail. What I mean by that is that I think that she is being punished for being creative outside of the home, punished for being powerful outside of domesticity. You see, she had positioned herself as a person of authority inside of the home, and then went outside of it. As long as she kept the nation comforted, everything was okay. But now she had to go to jail because she started making decisions on her own. And that’s not something that she was supposed to do, you know. She was supposed to decorate the table. And show us where green things go. She was supposed to be our cushion between comfort and crises, our mother forefront figure. And because she decided to do something outside of that, she’s being punished.
On a less serious note, with Shock Treatment (1990) you questioned what would happen if notorious public and political figures had become artists instead. What kind of artists do you think George and Martha would be?
I think Martha is an artist. She is an artist in the way that she has brought out the beauty in making a table, in making a home, in making a relationship with the home. I think the problem is that people don’t think about this as an art. But it is. There’s a lot of art in what Martha does.
With George, I think George, well you know, George would make a great club owner, a nightclub owner. He seems to be most comfortable when he’s around people. He’s good at door relations. You know, come in, he shakes your hand, seats you, asks your name. I think he would be really great at this type of thing.
[Laughs] Okay, Okay.
And Laura could wait for him at home, she could be home reading and when he gets home she could ask him how his day was. Oh, I think George would be a good dancer, too. He could get out on the dance floor and be very good at that. And just really make people feel comfortable because I think that’s something he would like, because he doesn’t seem to like politics. I think George can’t stand politics. You can see it in the way he carries himself. I think he just doesn’t want to be in it at all.
And, you know, he could still have Laura there at the club. She could wait on tables for him while he greets people. She could help him in the restaurant/nightclub with the organization of the place. She’d be good at that being a librarian. It could be like a great supper club with a dance floor. But it would have to be somewhere like Las Vegas. I really don’t think it could be Miami or New York, maybe Las Vegas or Houston.
People tend to think of your artwork as controversial because it often explores issues that are perceived as taboo. Is there any subject, either social or political, that you would consider taboo?
Well, there are things that I do find offensive. I can find lots of things offensive. Every time I turn on CNN or pick up a newspaper, I see things that offend me. For instance, that magazine that starts with an “m”...
Yes. That one. I can’t stand that magazine. I get offended when I have to constantly see women’s bodies used to sell things. Anytime I see a bunch of half-naked women draped over a product simply to sell something, that’s offensive!
And I think my work comments on these things, as well. I think my work addresses these issues of addiction and truth. And I think it’s a hypocrisy to be in a culture that accommodates things like using women’s bodies to sell products, but doesn’t necessarily accommodate this kind of art that addresses what’s going on in so many aspects of the culture. But that’s what my work does.