“tales of taboo” – karen finley (1986)


Art is such a subjective concept, but I wonder about the process and it’s effect. Artists create in order to share a part of themselves with the rest of the world. Their experiences, personal feelings, or what their eyes perceive motivate them to put paint to canvas, ink to paper, or life to celluloid. Creating art becomes a cathartic form of communication for someone who cannot speak their truth any other way.

Someone I went to college with has become quite an accomplished poet. He has been published in several collections, both online and in print. He has even self-published some collections. I’m not an expert on poetry. I have some poets I enjoy. I do not know enough to know if his work can be considered good, but I’m happy for what he has achieved.

This poet came under fire lately within the poetry community. He drew inspiration from a famous work by Allen Ginsberg and adapted it to fit his vision of social media. He had a lot to say about social media and how it influences our society; his own unique viewpoint on how humans engage and react with each other. I read it. The stark language and imagery the poem evoked certainly wasn’t what you call family friendly, but this poem wasn’t meant for that kind of audience. I cannot say the poem particularly moved me, but I like to take an interest in the goings on of the people in my social media feed sometimes. It makes me feel good to see people express themselves on their own terms.

However, the poetry did more than move a few people. It made them seething with rage and demand that this rogue poet be banned from any and all publications and if anyone did publish his work, they should be shamed and face retribution for doing so. The comments on social media and blogging sites were shocking to read. Such ferociousness. Such anger. Such malice. The reactions his work evoked certainly disturbed me more than any poem.

Many of these vehement critics declared this poet’s work did not qualify as art. The reasoning behind this involved their own subjective construct of what art is and should be. Specifically, the criticism suggested that any work that made marginalized minorities feel threatened or uncomfortable should be considered hate speech and not art. While I did not get that kind of message from his work, I am admittedly not a part of a marginalized demographic.

All of this had me thinking about the concept of art and what defines it. Personally, I generally think anything created that does not physically harm another person is art. I also do not believe art can motivate a sane person to behave psychotically. So, I wonder why people are motivated to silence artists. Whether it be the PMRC silencing Prince or Twitter users silencing an amateur poet, why do people use their own subjectivity to silence the subjectivity of others? Whenever I see something I don’t like on television, I change the channel.

I mentioned earlier that art is subjective. That is an absolute truth. However, I believe that the general public’s reaction to art be objective in the sense that we must not do anything to silence one another. That doesn’t mean we have to like it, but we should tolerate it. These critics of the aforementioned poet have their own viewpoints on life and that’s fine. They have their own moral code and a framework for them to make judgments. But those judgments shouldn’t infringe on the rights and expression of another artist. I doubt many of these critics would enjoy a fanatical religious zealot silencing them for their way of life that they deem acceptable.

Thinking about this made me remember Karen Finley. Finley was a shocking performance artist from the Chicago area who notoriously was one of four artists to have their National Endowment for the Arts grant funding taken away. Finley produced music and performed stage acts that involved a lot of pervasive sexual imagery and language. Much of her prose contained violent and sexual themes including rape and incest. All of which is set to driving synth-pop music that sounds darkly melodic and exudes sexual conquest. “Tales of Taboo” is a prime example of this.

It is fair to say that Finley is an acquired taste. I personally enjoy some of her work, but I’m not necessarily the biggest fan. Her work suffered as a result of someone else’s definition of art and believed Finley’s work violated their moral compass. Artists need monetary compensation to thrive and continue their work. In Finley’s case, the gatekeepers were those with the authority to pull her funding because that is where their power comes from. For an amateur poet looking to make a small noise in the inky blackness that is the internet, that compensation comes in the forms of shares and likes. The gatekeepers in his community wield their power in 144 characters or less and website blackouts.

Finley would go on to have modest success throughout her career as a fringe artist. I admire her attitude and ability to stay true to herself despite her opposition. I don’t consider myself an artist, but if I had any advice for those who are then it would be to stay true to form. With technology being so cheap and readily available, people are creating more and more. We all have a voice we want to share. With so much competition for so few rewards, it takes a lot of time and effort to get the attention an artist needs. So, why waste time bringing others down when you can bring yourself up? You have the power to control your own destiny. Don’t waste it on others.