By Julia Halperin
Reporting from Miami Beach.
Dec. 6, 2023, 1:24 p.m. ET
Very few visual artists have been the subject of a Supreme Court case. Karen Finley, 67, is one of them. A member of the so-called N.E.A. Four, Finley — along with Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes — sued the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 after the organization withdrew their fellowships.
The federal agency was under scrutiny for financing art — including Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine — that the religious right deemed indecent. A performance in which Finley covered her body with chocolate frosting, red candies and alfalfa sprouts to make a statement about society’s treatment of women was another attractive target. On the Senate floor, the Republican Jesse Helms called Finley’s work “pornographic” and “obscene.” A nationally syndicated newspaper column dismissed her as nothing more than “a nude, chocolate-smeared woman.”