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Karen Finley: Still radical 25 years on


On the occasion of the publication of an expanded twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Karen Findley’s Shock Treatment, Nathan Smith evaluates the artist’s legacy and influence for the LA Review of Books. Check out an excerpt below and the full essay here.

THE SHOCK WE EXPERIENCE reading Karen Finley’s Shock Treatment is, ironically enough, less than the shock its narrator is forced to endure. Finley’s landmark 1990 collection of percussive performance monologues, fractured prose, and gnarly cartoonish sketches — reprinted in an expanded edition for the 25th anniversary — is all about the shock of living. It relays the horror of learning that, as a woman, your body will simultaneously be read as a site of pleasure and abjectness, your reproductive rights dictated by the straight white men in government. It is about the pain of seeing your friends and lovers deteriorate and die, ravaged by the modern-day big plague with the small name while those in power stand idle. It is about the shock of “nothing happening,” even after, as Finley tells us, you “dieted,” took “prescription pills,” and “voted for Jesse Jackson.” With Shock Treatment, Finley engages an apt irony: with its stories of failed abortions, images of rotting corpses, and leaking bodily fluids, her book is an attempt to “shock” readers but instead only confirms the grim reality of living in America today.

In the introduction to 25th anniversary edition of Shock Treatment, Finley writes about life as a female artist in the 1980s, “While men were finding artistic triumph on the road, those spaces were impossible for most women, whose fears of violence and attacks of all kinds were real.” Finley felt angry and alienated at being disenfranchised by an art community (as well as a society at large) that privileged the narratives and stories of white (straight) men. Finley put her experience as a woman disempowered by this cultural and political time to words and the end result was Shock Treatment.