Thursday, May 13, 2010

Conversation: Offending

Don Hall tackles the question "What's actually offensive?" in a definite RTWT way. The aspect he is exploring is whether things are actually offensive, or whether people "take offense" because it pushes their boundaries too hard. There's a lot of permutations of exploring that, some of which are interesting (like his post) and others which are just stupid, an excuse for saying "I can piss in your face and you should take it because it's my expression."

I sympathize a lot with Don Hall's personal story of being sent to the Principal's office over drawing some angry pooping gestures. One thing I'd point out is that whether or not the teacher was offended, the teacher's immediate response was to punish the child.

But children are often confused about what offends and what does not -- what would have been helpful is if the teacher had investigated the cause, and found out about child Don's anger over the Candyland game. In fact, the teacher could have suggested some other way to express that anger other than drawing pooping butts, which I think Don will agree with me he wound up learning at some point. After all, anger is apparently part of his identity ("An Angry White Guy in Chicago" is the blog's title, after all). The teacher had an opportunity to look into how anger should get expressed, and instead the teacher focused on punishing the transgression.

Anyways, Don's reflection on what he finds offensive led me to spend this morning thinking about what offends me. For instance, when he talked about that first grade misogyny in his comment section, it reminded me of how nonplussed I was by the attacks on my blog after I blogged about Kalpen Modi. One would think that personal attacks would set me off, but I just shrugged. And yet, I have a rarely seen but deeply felt capacity to feel absolute rage over certain subjects.

And one of them is Karen Finley.

In my freshman year of NYU, I sat through a lecture-performance of Finley's Passion of Terry Schaivo and a following Question and Answer session which was, in fact, one of very few actually, deeply offensive theatrical experiences.

I was angry for twenty four hours, until a teacher of mine told me to make something productive out of it, and I did. So without further comment, I present to you the result: The Passion of Karen Finley, which I wrote in ten minutes and then emailed to Karen Finley. She no longer hosts the Question and Answer session. A rare glimpse of what I look like angry.


The Passion Of Karen Finley

We, the weary disciples of the family Tisch, arrive at the Cantor Center—not of our own volition, but because our teachers have told us that we will learn something about art. I, a fish in this school, have a decently open mind. Somewhere in my sympathetic heart I feel nothing more deeply than the awkward exhibitionist pains of an artist falling flat on their face; I also dislike having my evening wasted. It is in everyone's interest that I enjoy the show.


With an array of good friends, and in a decently good mood, we await outside the door. Suddenly, she appears—black velvet draped off her Imperial shoulders with a queen's grace but a look of disgrace displayed across her face.


Words issue, loud and declarative: I DON'T WANT YOU TO DO ANYTHING BUT WATCH ME, SO I AM TAKING THE LAST LITTLE LIBERTY YOU HAVE AS STUDENTS – THE FREEDOM OF CHOICE (of where to sit) AND THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH (to your neighbor)


notice that I am not using quotation marks: That's because I'm not quoting what this

decree said, but rather what it communicated; unlike some, I still feel that communication

is superior to speech.


In we go, organized in little Soviet blocs, goosestepping our way to our seats. Down we sit, and she takes the “stage” and we retire into the “audience.”


Like Moses berating the crowd of the Golden Calf, she apologizes for the fact that she has prejudged us harshly, and then prejudges us harshly again (after all, we forgave her—doesn't that give her permission to continue faulting?). We are, after all, only fresh out of High School and thus only freshly significant; six months ago we could be safely ignored, but now we have earned Karen Finley's forced concern for our opinions. Our empty minds are about to be filled with the gift of Karen Finley's passion; it is time for us to switch into reception mode, and turn off any automatic responses. The audience hushes like the Dark Ages, quieting their language and personal innovation.


Now the Sermon begins. She brings out several “Rorshach ink-blots” (of course, not being versed in the unimportant 'craft' of Psychology, how could she know that “Rorshach” refers to a specific set of solid-tone ink blots which have been specifically designed in respect to form to stimulate specific responses which are measured in an empirical scale which is objective except for the degree to which the psychologist is, himself, biased) and proceeds to show them, without explanation. Then she creates one which was, at first, supposed to be a Turkey. But the form escapes from her (good thing form is unimportant) and she sits down behind a desk. Even as a performer, she can't escape “the persona of the professor” which she qualified as a bitch.


A pair of big yellow flashlights light her face, like the cheesy story told over a campfire, replete with the same strange faces and funny voices (of course, not being versed in the unimportant 'craft' of acting which nobody ever really needs to be trained in, how could she know that in acting people respond much more positively to simplicity and genuine speech than to lights and hokey magic tricks? Her own history with performance, to my knowledge, involves writhing naked in honey... apparently she is using insanity as her defense). I, in the audience, lean forward—as interested in the performance as I was when I read the words on the page. Because of the lack of form, it is as though clods of dirt are being thrown in my face, and I am trying as hard as I can to separate the charcoal from the diamond (of course, not being versed in the unimportant 'craft' of chemistry, how could she know that form is the only difference that separates the carbon of ash from the carbon in diamond?). Every now and then, there is a beautiful idea—a pity that she is trying so incredibly hard to hide the good ideas among the shit of her hate-filled speech.


I AM KAREN FINLEY, AND I BELIEVE IN THE RIGHT TO DIE. “Everyone who is smart, who thinks for themselves” AGREES WITH ME. “Everyone who is stupid” DISAGREES. AMERICANS (LIKE MY AUDIENCE PERHAPS, FRESH OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL AS THEY ARE) ARE USUALLY STUPID, AND USUALLY DISAGREE WITH ME. THAT'S OKAY – I'M ONE OF THE CHOSEN FEW WHO UNDERSTANDS.


Horrible details are played with in her speech as though they are the facts printed on the inside of a snapple cap. LOOK AT ME MIME EATING TERRY SCHAIVO. ISN'T THAT PROVOKATIVE? A REALITY TELEVISION JOKE – ISN'T THAT TOPICAL? Some of the audience laugh—probably because they aren't used to joking about the brain-dead. They're used to zoning out through the brain-dead's lecture.


A joke passes, and we miss the laugh. EVERYBODY LAUGH. YOUR RESPONSE WAS WRONG – YOU GOT THE ANSWER WRONG. DON'T FORGET THAT THIS IS YOUR CLASS. We laugh, dutifully.


Suddenly she changes. She is the mother, reliving the experience of watching her daughter die. The hate, the judgment, leaves the piece—she is entirely in tune with the true emotion of the mother. We are even willing to forgive the poor characterization (after all, form doesn't matter if the content lands true) just to hear those words. It reminds me of the enjoyment I felt during this passage when I read it on the page. I can almost ignore the grating qualities of her nasally affected voice.


But oh, isn't the best part always the shortest—now she is done. She stands up and, lo and behold, there is some kindness, some connection to the audience. She discusses the national narrative, and we nod along, entranced by the idea of our media culture connected to the ancient Greek model of mythology. We can suddenly understand why our media icons are the way they are, and why the discussions continue.


Now the questions and the answers; they begin tastily, like the Last Supper. A few students ask about the process, and dutily, happily even, Karen Finley answers. She wants to tell you how she did it, because she wants us as artists to become like her. And it sounds like we do want to become like her.


Now a bump in the road—a young man from Puerto Rico who, admittedly, may not have entirely followed all of the cultural references, stands to ask a question. He asks how this work can be linked into an International Narrative, and how complex references like Terry Schaivo are communicated to other nations.


WELL, I HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL OUTSIDE OF THIS COUNTRY, BECAUSE THIS PIECE IS PRETTY AMAZING. I JUST HAD TO TRANSLATE IT TO ENGLISH.


The young man is confused. Surely just translating the words didn't work? There is cultural baggage to be translated, there is—


I'm sorry it didn't work for you,” she says.


Oh Karen! What a brave artist—here comes this young man who offers you a moment to avoid the crucifixion which is to come! Perhaps he does not fully agree here or there, but he is still filled with courtesy and kindness: he offers you the chance to explain further, to link yourself to the world, to embrace people outside yourself. And you, in your wisdom, know better than to give in to temptation! Because if an artist compromises her work even a little for the understanding of people as stupid as the audience, then she will have lost something from her work forever—the moral high ground of not having let anyone alter your work in any way, in having kept the influences of others outside of your work.


Oh Karen! They want to share your work—but you know better! That work is yours, and if anyone doesn't like it they can take their book on ART IN THE WORLD and shove it up their ass! If you even bend a little, the attack on your art will begin and it will be the Supreme Court all over again! It's a good thing you defended yourself this rudely and adamantly in Court—they liberated you from the influence of the National Endowment of the Arts, which always wants to pay for art to share with the world. How misguided.


But lo—Karen's passion has only begun; the passions of the audience (they have suffered too, and will suffer more) have been sparked. A young man named Nick rises from the audience, like a Pharisee confronting Jesus. For some reason he didn't like having his family called stupid! What a backwards, ignorant, narrow-minded young man. What is he even doing at this production? This production (as Karen quickly told us all) had its entire purpose to alienate people like Nick.


I WANTED TO TEST YOUR BOUNDARIES AND PISS YOU OFF. I'M LIKE AN ARTISTIC VERSION OF GEORGE CARLIN, EXCEPT GEORGE CARLIN IS LIKED BY HIS AUDIENCE.


A teacher stands up and says, “By being this aggressive and, to use your own words, bitchy, aren't you making people harden their boundaries?”


No, I want to tell her, that isn't Karen's point at all. See, in saying that her entire purpose was to alienate backwater ignorant people who disagree with her—like Nick's family—she is alienating Nick. And Nick—who probably agreed with her that Terry Schaivo had the right to die—is now on the other side. So Nick's boundaries have actually detracted: Karen has alienated from his own allies. Karen wants conservatism, doesn't she?


Karen reminds me of another great hero, Mr. Colbert, who on his show pretends that he is Conservative, so that people wind up being more liberal because of the absurd and offensive way in which he agrees with conservatives. The only difference is that Colbert is actually a liberal who wants liberals, whereas Karen is only making more of her mortal enemies. Oh Karen, sacrificing yourself for your virulent beliefs!


You have even alienated some of the teachers which, before your piece began, you described as your only friends in the audience! By stating that we high school students couldn't possibly be interested and would have to be forced to pay attention, you had already alienated us; but the teachers were the Stazi which you used to keep us Juden goose-stepping to the beat of your drum. What happens when they revolt?


I'll tell you—jubilation! As the teacher speaks, she is greeted by applause—the only genuine applause of the evening (didn't Karen notice that you had to say “Thank You” twice at the end of your piece before we applauded? Why does Karen think that was?). Like Pontus Pilate watching the first nail go in, we feel as though order has finally returned to the land.


Spurred on, another teacher raises an unrelated but equally valid concern. This is a nail driven into Karen's other hand. Doesn't form matter, Miss Finley? Isn't there a craft to it all?


NO. ANYONE CAN BE AN ARTIST. JOKE'S ON YOU, TISCH STUDENTS! IT TAKES NO TRAINING OR EFFORT TO BECOME AN ARTIST—IT JUST HAPPENS, LIKE MARCEL DUCHAMP WITH THE URINAL!


(can I just say for a moment that Marcel Duchamp was actually attempting to de-deify

the artist by insulting the art community; a friend of his said “You threw a bottle-rack

and a urinal in their face as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic

beauty.” Duchamp submitted it to an allegedly 'unjuried' art contest held by his

organization which allegedly would show “all art” in order to provoke them into not

accepting it as a work of art. Every time an artist invokes Marcel Duchamp's name

in order to excuse themselves from the responsibility of competence, I feel like throwing

my hands up. Why do we need anything to create art? What separates Shakespeare from

a good porn magazine if anything and everything can be part? If that's true, than an “artist”

really is just someone who has nothing else to contribute to the world than everything

that is already there. Plato was right: artists are merely three steps removed from the

actual art; if they could be craftsmen, they would be.)


At this point, I raise my own hand, on a related subject. My arm, in fact, is tired from how long I've been holding it up. I'm not incensed yet about Duchamp; right now I have picked up on another bit of Karen's subtext.


Didn't she say to Texan Nick “Let me speak to you as a person for a moment”? She keeps using the phrase “as an artist.” Does she see herself as the artist fundamentally different from being a human being? Perhaps as an artist she sees herself as God's own child, as a creature of that mythology she wants to create for the nation; perhaps she thinks she has transcended society (when in truth she is only alienating it) on her way to ascend to some Heaven of artistic nirvana. Perhaps she, like the Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, thinks that “Actors are the exact opposite of people.” perhaps that is why she is so willing to alienate herself from people. Perhaps that is why she is willing to mock anything that anyone might have any sort of reverence about. Perhaps that is why currently she is being crucified!


Jesus died for the sins of Christians; Karen's art is a sin which, hopefully, will die for my art's sins one day. But any comparison between Karen Finley and Jesus ends. Let us skip for the moment the all-too-compelling argument that Jesus preached Love and Turning-Your-Cheek whereas Karen preached Hate and Spitting-In-Their-Eyes-If-They-Disagree. Truly, the difference between Karen and Jesus is that Karen couldn't stand to face the consequences of her ideas.


At 8:45, she turns to the audience and says, WELL WE'RE PRETTY MUCH OUT OF TIME. Never mind that my teacher calls out eagerly that she still has a whole fifteen minutes left—fifteen more minutes of impassioned and systematic attacks against Miss Finley's blasphemy against our current order. No, Karen Finley would prefer to pretend that it is already nine o'clock so that she can escape with her pride. My hand still dangles in the air, along with increasing numbers of my classmates.


She didn't believe we could have our own opinions when she began; her only concern was to have us shut up so that she could give us her opinions and ridicule anyone who didn't have them. (You know who else speaks like that? Bill O'Reilly does! Al Franken does! Ann Coulter does! Sean Hannity and Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and George Bush and all the mud-slinging politicians of the world who find other people's ideas to be impenetrable but finds their skin to be thin enough to stab!). Now we have opinions—how can she possibly discuss opinions with us! It is as though we are attempting to engage her in debate—but she wanted to alienate people with other opinions!


That is the suffering of Karen Finley—she is not the center of our dogmatic faith but rather the subject of impassioned but reasoned debate!



I have written this open letter to Karen Finley because she invited people who disagreed with her strongly to use that anger as a starting point for a response piece. Had I written this for anyone else, I would have organized their ideas coherently, and then coherently compared my ideas to theirs and presented evidence for my side. Had I written this for anyone else, I would have kept an even tone and refrained from insulting a woman who, for God knows what reason, holds some stature in our school. But if Karen Finley doesn't have to, neither do I. Hell, I don't even have to edit this, because the form isn't important—just the content.


Thank God I don't actually agree with Karen's ideas on art, or I would be a much bigger jackass.

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