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People in need of shrewd, sane guidance take their troubles to shrinks—not, for god’s sake, to performance artists. Thought provoking as such performers may be, their personality-crisis behavior onstage doesn’t tend to make them ideal role models. But Karen Finley would like to change that perception. “I hope I am going to be considered an expert [on self help],” she says, deadpan. “My book has been in the self-help [section at bookstores], which I’m delighted with.”
Enough Is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally, Finley’s second book, mimics traditional self-help texts and operates on the creditable premise that an eccentric personality gets attention—and results—much faster than an ordinary one does. Enough suggests “dysfunctional” mantras (“everyone hates a slow driver”); tips (“for guaranteed whining, it’s tone first, volume second, and content last”); and retorts (“you are lucky this is my bad habit. I could be a crack addict. I could be a compulsive gambler”). If the book doesn’t take violence into account when it recommends such strong feelings as “hate,” well, the audience—provided they’re not suffering actual mental disorders—should realize that homicidal rage is not in the spirit of self-help.
“In our country, we love dysfunctional people,” says Finley. “I think the more you act your problems successfully, the more successful you’re going to be…I think that this is good advice.”
“For example, Clinton,” she continues. “What was his big trip when he accepted the Democratic nomination? He had a film strip about how he had stood up to his drunken stepfather….I just feel now that he is so ACOA, he has to please everyone, and he is a successful guy. He’s the president. And I think that’s what we all should try to do.”
Our quirks, Finley believes, should be accentuated, not repressed. And, as she writes in Enough, “guilt is the most important emotion of all.” “A lot of people feel that they’re not supposed to feel guilty, but in my book I think that we can’t get enough guilt,” Finley says. “If you don’t have guilt, you’re a sociopath.”
Surprisingly—especially for a person featured in Re/Search’s high-decibel Angry Women—Finley is pro-self-help. She avoids addressing the notion that women, self-help books’ primary targets, often lack self-esteem and are conditioned to feel that they need to adjust their personalities. Enough‘s approach and Finley’s own discussion of it is almost completely non-gender-specific (save for one page suggesting that one should “be a bitch whenever possible”); the author takes a different tack when describing Americans’ hunger for counseling. “Economically, for people that can’t necessarily afford therapy or real help, [self-help books and programs are] less expensive,” she says. “It’s sort of like self-serve gasoline. But for me, I always go to full-service. I just like paying that extra quarter.”
Some proponents of self-help “have just gone too far, they just take advantage of people,” she adds almost as an afterthought. She won’t be putting on the angry woman persona today.
And that’s exactly what’s missing. Readers of Finley’s debut text, a 1990 collection of performance pieces called Shock Treatment, got a dose of poetic but visceral images of violence, sex, and tormented personalities. The audiences that attend her latest performance, “A Certain Level of Denial,” find, by Finley’s own definition, “not so much stand-up comedy as stand-up tragedy” on such topics as homophobia, straight white guys, and back-alley abortions; her vocal intonations communicate grief, pain, and vicious sarcasm. Conversely, the only startling thing about her undeniably hilarious and, yes, practical new book is how much it fails to disturb. After passionately lobbying for recognition of her cathartic and sometimes brutal art—performances, music pieces, and gallery exhibits—Finley seems to have taken the too-easy route to status quo success.
In one of her “Denial” monologues, she passionately cries, “Sell out, sell out, sell out…get on HBO!” provoking ironic laughter among audience members, but she’s less ambivalent about “selling out” than most would probably guess. “I would love to have my work go more mainstream,” she asserts. “I’d love to have my performances on HBO, I’d love to have my own TV show—but those mediums just aren’t ready for me.”
Then again, maybe they are. The publisher of Enough Is Enough, Poseidon Press, is an imprint of mega-publishing house Simon & Schuster (in turn part of Paramount Communications). That’s a far cry from City Lights, the indie San Francisco house that published Shock Treatment. “It wasn’t like City Lights was interested in this book,” Finley maintains. “I don’t think this would be good for their image. They need to have things that are more Beat, this isn’t very Beat.”
Nor was the self-consciously arty City Lights her best bet for introducing subversive ideas to unwary consumers who’ve become, perhaps, slightly hazy on the details of her battle with Jesse Helms and the National Endowment for the Arts. Enough, with its short-attention-span format and intentionally amateurish cartoons, restates many of Finley’s complex themes in a way that’s accessible to folks who’d otherwise never sample her challenging prose-poems or contemplate her crude illustrations (“a lot of people think that they look so infantile—I do have a master’s in fine arts, and I kind of look at them as primitive line drawings”). She’s not having any of people who draw boundaries for the “fringe” and then tell her to stay there.
“I look at myself as just kind of this conceptual artist who’s been taking over different mediums and inverting them,” she explains. “With the self-help book, I still feel like I’m a conceptual artist, I’m doing something conceptually with it.”
“I think this is new, I think that, yeah, it is more mainstream, and I hope that it does reach suburbia,” she admits. “My big thing is, I would like to see this in the malls.”