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Are you decent? – An Interview with Karen Finley
By Karin Meisel and Manfred Keller

April, 2009

Are there any Austrian artists that have influenced your work?
There are many Austrian artists that have influenced my work. As a child artist I attended the School of the Chicago Art Institute and was fortunate to see the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The sexuality, the intimacy of the drawings had a profound influence on my work with the body. Later during college I became familiar with the artists, Gunter Brus, Herman Nietzche, the Austrian Actionists. I was deeply and profoundly influenced by their aesthetic, philosophical and political approach to action as art, the body as a placement for art.
Your name keeps appearing in connection with the Austrian Cultural Forum New York - what makes the ACFNY an interesting partner for you to work with?
Intellectually, I find the theories and principles of the exhibits further the ideas that I am considering in my own art making, writing and teaching. I find the Forum presents many artists that go beyond the New York comfort zone and offer a space to reflect and consider the questions the exhibit poses. I also find the exhibits provide a rich and meaningful educational opportunity for my students.  I have been fortunate to meet artists, curators,and peoplefrom across the globe at the Forum, who is interested in the discourse of culture internationally.
The arts offer a unique position to create a meeting place to consider the creative problem solving and dialogue through culture.
Last Year the ACFNY presented an exhibition called "Cutting Realities" with gender politics and activism as main topics. What did you like about the show?
On a personal note, it was a privilege to be able to be on a panel with the artist Valie Export. I valued seeing her artwork and to speak about her artistic process. This will be a memorable experience for me. The exhibit was especially important for it made the relationship of the political events in Austria, Europe in the sixties and the breaking of traditional gender roles.  I was exposed to artists and artworks I had only read about and so I enjoyed seeing the work firsthand.

 As an artist and curator, how would you describe the contemporary exhibitions at the ACFNY and how important do you think are they?
The art exhibits are contemporary, current but add an additional element: community. As an artist, my goal is to participate in the public sphere. And as an American artist I have chosen to live and work in this particular metropolitan city that has it’s own public resources. These resources are New York’s many immigrants, the United Nations and the closeness to Europe.  What is joyful is the community of culture, the generosity of neighbors like the Austrian Cultural Forum, and to participate in the spirit of the international cultural community to attend the ACFNY.
Should contemporary art be "decent"?
Decency is not the only factor in defining or valuing contemporary art.  Not all political or challenging concepts can be outright or direct. Not every society has the ability to sustain or maintain outright explosive content or imagery. Yet, artists find codes to filter for their historical recording. Sometimes the decency will be surrounding the artwork, the handling, the public, or the society is indecent.
I remember once I was performing and was changing in my dressing after the performance. The director of the theater knocked on my dressing room door asking “are you decent?”
Decency is in the eye of the beholder. Some work can be art and still be considered indecent. Some work cannot be considered art yet still be considered decent.  So it is this taste? Decency has a mixed and loaded history. This is an important question that I have thought very much about lately with the twenty-year anniversary of the Mapplethorpe exhibit.
Perhaps this could be a panel discussion at the ACFNY.

Karen Finley (b. 1956, Evanston, Illinois) is a controversial American performance artist, whose theatrical pieces and recordings have often been labelled "obscene" due to their graphic depictions of sexuality, abuse, and disenfranchisement.

Photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

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