The World According to Karen Finley

The World According to Karen Finley

Performance artist Karen Finley answers questions about politics, satire and her new book, a fantasy affair between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart.


Be it her longstanding court battle with the National Endowment for the Arts or her fondness for melted chocolate as a medium of artistic expression, performance artist and writer Karen Finley has always found a way to be transgressive. So it may come as no surprise that Finley believes the war in Iraq can be reduced to a psychosexual disorder of Oedipal proportions.

In her new book George & Martha Finley couples George Bush with Martha Stewart in an imaginary love affair between an infantile President and a domineering homemaker. Throw in the parallel to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and you begin to understand Finley’s preoccupation with sexuality, psychology and gender roles.

What inspired you to create a satire that couples George W. Bush with Martha Stewart?

I was interested at first in doing a musical on the Bush Administration, but when I was working on the musical, Martha Stewart was so much in the news and I became fascinated by America’s preoccupation with her. And I couldn’t understand how Bush was going to be re-elected. So I put those two together in a relationship, and that was my interest, to really show America’s engagement with these people.

Now that George is midway through his second term and Martha is perhaps more popular than ever, how do you look back on the outcome?

I look at it as tragic. What I’m trying to do here is take an analytic approach and look at his pathology as the reason for our fascination. I think that I try to explore his reasons for going to war and his failures as a human being. I also think that his pathology is based on his desires of patricide. I feel that he wants to get rid of his own father. Bush’s sister died of leukemia when he was very young and his father was not around…When children came to the door and asked him to play, he would tell them, “I’m sorry, but my sister died. I have to take care of my mother.” I feel that he resents his father to a degree that’s Oedipal and that he has disguised his own desire of getting rid of his father with his desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein. I could never understand why he was so fixed on tying Saddam to 9/11. I think he is replacing his wish to get rid of his father with Saddam’s wish to get rid of his father. He’s not protecting this country. He’s actually destroying America with his death wish for his father. He’s the evildoer. He’s the man with the weapons of mass destruction. His psychology is so simple.

What is Martha’s psychology?

Martha is hyper-domestic. Her interest in hyper-domesticity is to be a hyper-mother, to be a better mother than her own…. I think all of us somehow identify with that, but she feels she should be punished for that wish, so it’s Oedipal as well… Our fascination with George is more with his pathology, that he isn’t as good as his father. He’s a mirror image, but just not as capable. That’s what people relate to. They’ve been writing about it since the ancients. Greek dramas have been written about it.

George & Martha had a brief theatrical run in 2004, in which you played the Martha character. Was it difficult to perform such an intense yet insidious psychosexual relationship? Did audiences react the way you expected?

Well, I did perform it nude. And I did diaper Bush. That was a lot of fun…. There was a reaction because I created it right after the Republican convention, and I think New Yorkers were so disgusted to have our city taken over by the Republicans and have them use the backdrop of Ground Zero as their platform for George Bush. This happened two weeks afterward, and that feeling was still in the air.

I think we also have to look at our national narratives. We have to be seeing that with Reagan, who was the child of an alcoholic. And when Clinton had his acceptance speech, he was talking about standing up to his father. We vote in a national narrative that we relate to. That’s why I was wondering–and I wrote the book after Bush was re-elected–how did this guy get in? What is it that he’s reaching? Even if the vote was stolen, there’s a national narrative that goes on that people are relating to, and people are relating to his character flaws, his trajectory, his dynamic.

I started to wonder, Why is he so simple? Why does he act so stupid? I think it’s to make himself stay like a child…. Even Laura is like his mom. She’s a librarian. It’s like marrying the teacher. His relationship with God is also very grotesque. I think the people of this generation–and I’m a professor, so I have a lot of students–are not doing as well as their parents. People feel like they can’t match up to their parents’ desires. The expectations we have on our kids are ridiculous. No child left behind? He’s no child left behind…. I think everyone likes the fact that he’s the black sheep…. Everyone thought he was the dumb kid. And he showed them. That’s one reason I’m against inherited wealth. The playing field would have been even, so he could have just started on his own resources and self-generated what he was doing rather than what he was afforded by the family dynasty. I think he could have had a great bar in Houston.

I was watching American Idol last night and 35 million people voted. I think that’s the way we should do the presidential election. It could be called American Presidency. We’ll have the judges up there, and they [the candidates] can talk about Semitism, minimum wage, immigration.

Who can play the Simon role, of being harsh on our politicians?

I think it’d be good to have someone like Ralph Nader. We’d need someone who is really tough and mean. I guess it could be someone from the media or something. Michael Moore would be good.

We could get Judge Judy.

She would be great. And Oprah in the middle, playing the Paula role…. It should be a reality show, because it is already now…. I think they should just put all the people there together, Democrats and Republicans…. They can also go across the country and have people wait in line [to try out].

Like an open call for President. It would be great to see all the idiots who don’t make the first cut.

Maybe there should be an American Idol candidate. It could be the third-party candidate…. How many people voted in the last election? There were so many problems with the voting machines that I think the best method would be using our phones, and sending a text message [as our vote]…. And then what they had last night, this is really funny–in fact, I am going to have to write about this–they had Barry Manilow or Stevie Wonder coaching the idols. I think it would be hysterical if they had a past President come out and coach the candidates. They would have the stylists and talk about their outfits and everything. It would be great…. And Ryan Seacrest–

He can be like the press secretary. He has about as much charisma as Scott McClellan.

It wouldn’t cost the taxpayers anything. And that’s what everyone would like. You know for your taxes, where it says point here a dollar? I think that dollar should just go to your text message for American Idol.

Esquire published a pretty harsh satire of you a few years back. How does it feel to be on the receiving end?

I think it’s interesting, the imagined public self. I like to think that I’m a public figure and that my identity is suffering from who I am.

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